COMMENTARY: Why “That’s So Gay” Is Okay…Or Not

Via Shutterstock

Via Shutterstock

Language is powerful. There are a lot of factors as to what gives it power (love, lust, anger, hate), and we all interpret what we hear differently based on our own experiences, our own prejudices, or whatever mood we happen to be in at the time. In this day and age, or at least in my own little social atmosphere, people seem to be more sensitive to language than they’ve ever been.

Words, phrases, and expressions that have historically been PC are no longer acceptable, depending on whom you’re speaking to. Some people think we’re in a language revolution, aggressively ridding the world of hurtful words and phrases for the betterment of mankind. Others think people are hypersensitive, creating a tense environment by making others hesitant to speak their minds even if what they have to say is harmless.

Some words and phrases are definitely not okay to say, agreed upon by the general public living in modern society (e.g. several different ways to describe black people, not using the right pronouns when addressing a trans person, etc.). Others are in a bit of a grey area; phrases like “that’s so gay.”

The public is torn on the meaning of this phrase. Plenty find it offensive; others think it’s no big deal. Personally, I have no problems with the phrase. I use it frequently, much to my straight friends’ confusion (and some of my gay friends’ dismay).

On several occasions, people have called me out on the usage of “that’s so gay,” including my own family members. My frequent arguments have often been, “I mean gay as in lame, not gay as in gay,” or, “Whatever, that’s not what I meant and you know it,” or even, “Whatever, language evolves.”

Recently, I’ve wondered whether or not these are cop-out arguments. I wondered whether my language, casual and conversational as it may be, might be a little dated.

So, I did some research. I wanted to know the history of the word ‘gay’ and how it evolved to mean “homosexual” and, to some, “lame.” I wanted to see if the argument “language evolves” had any ground. I was actually surprised by what I found.

“Gay” derives from the 14th Century English-French word “gai” (I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce that, I took Spanish) meaning “cheery.” The primary meaning in England was “joyful” or “carefree.” For example, the “optimistic 1890s” are still referred to as the “Gay Nineties.”

By the end of the 17th Century, “gay” had acquired a new meaning: “addicted to pleasures and dissipations.” So, if you were the kind of person who liked having some wild uninhibited pleasures of the flesh, you were gay.

Yes, but what KIND of gay boy?

Yes, but what KIND of gay boy?

(Funny enough, at the time, a “gay man” was a man who frequented brothels or slept around with a lot of women. A “gay woman,” was a prostitute or simply promiscuous, and a “gay house” was what you’d call a brothel. Weird, right?)

By the 1950s or 60s, “gay” was well established in reference to “hedonistic and uninhibited” lifestyles. Around that same time, its antonym, “straight,” also took on the heterosexual meaning it has today. “Straight” always had long connotations of seriousness, respectability, and conventionality (i.e. boring). And since being “gay” was considered being a bit of a heathen, it’s only natural that if you had proper biological sex and wanted a wife, two kids, and all that nonsense, you’d be considered “straight.”

Gay also had connotations beyond a hedonistic lifestyle. It also meant “frivolous and showy” (You know, like, “don we now our GAY apparel”?). So, the association between all things fabulous and “gay” helped steer it towards its current meaning. By the end of the 1960s, “gay” had been well established as meaning “homosexual” from its “carefree” beginnings.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that “gay” had developed a pejorative meaning. In the 80s and 90s, “that’s gay” had cemented itself as a generic insult amongst youths. Rather than saying something “sucked” or was “lame,” people used the word “gay.” Why? Despite the sexual revolution in the late 60s and free love in the 70s, homosexuality wasn’t exactly trendy. So, at least when people first started saying, “that’s gay,” the association that being gay is negative was still prominent.

That is, until the 21st century, when gay culture began to enter the mainstream, people started to object to the use of “gay” in the pejorative sense as offensive and homophobic. Here’s a good example: British radio host Chris Moyles once said on air, “I do not want that one, it’s gay,” in reference to a ringtone, causing quite the uproar.

A 2006 BBC ruling by the Board of Governors on Moyles’s use of the word stated: “The word ‘gay’, in addition to being used to mean ‘homosexual’ or ‘carefree’, was often now used to mean ‘lame’ or ‘rubbish’. This is a widespread current usage of the word amongst young people… The word ‘gay’ … need not be offensive… or homophobic… Moyles was simply keeping up with developments in English usage. … The committee… was “familiar with hearing this word in this context.” The governors believed that in describing a ring tone as “‘gay’, the DJ was conveying that he thought it was “rubbish”, rather than “homosexual”. …The panel acknowledged however that this use… in a derogatory sense… could cause offence in some listeners, and counseled caution on its use.”

That ruling didn’t sit so well with some folks. Minister for Children Kevin Brennan stated, in response to the BBC ruling, “Too often seen as harmless banter instead of the offensive insult that it really represents. … To ignore this problem is to collude in it. The blind eye to casual name-calling, looking the other way because it is the easy option, is simply intolerable.”

It was around this time that “gay” in the pejorative sense started being used less and less. Currently, we’re at an all-time low of the pejorative usage of “gay”; and “gay” is almost exclusively used to mean “homosexual.”

So, now that you’ve read a summarized history of the word, “gay” and how it has had a different definition, like, every other century, does that change your opinion on the phrase, “that’s gay”? If someone says “that’s so gay,” without a single thought towards the LGBT community around people who don’t interpret that use of “gay” as meaning “homosexual,” is it still offensive?

That’s up for other people to decide. I can’t sit here and say that it’s not offensive when plenty of people do find it offensive. But I’m also not going to stop saying, “that’s gay” simply because it offends a few people. What kind of society do we live in if we can’t offend a few people now and again? If we put restrictions on words and phrases simply because some people find them offensive, where would we be in terms of art or language? Where do we draw the line between what is and isn’t okay to say?

Frankly, much of the language we use is based on our own stories and experiences. I have a very good friend who I berate, insult, and threaten on a daily basis and vice versa. Do I actually want to stab him in the throat? No, of course not, but I’m sure as shit going to say that to him when I see him next. It’s just how we amuse ourselves. Some people find that language appalling, and that’s okay, it is appalling. But I’m not going to accommodate my personal interaction with a friend simply because you’re uncomfortable with it.

I’ll be honest, I’m a privileged white gay man who went to an all-boys private school and lived in the suburbs of Baltimore City. While I heard plenty of homophobic comments from my peers in high school, I never really experienced homophobia on a personal level. I never felt threatened, I never felt bullied, and when I came out in senior year, the reactions were generally positive (at least to my face). So, “that’s gay,” doesn’t have a negative connotation for me.

That being said, I’m very aware that many, many other members of the LGBT community haven’t been as privileged as I am and may have experienced homophobia in its worst forms. So, if “faggot!” was yelled at you on a daily basis, if you were bullied or threatened, or if you’ve experienced violence or straight up discrimination because of your sexuality, why wouldn’t “that’s gay” have a negative connotation?

Here’s where we get to the intention vs. perception argument. Often I hear people discounting intention as an excuse to say hateful things. While, in some cases, people have certainly been dicks about it, I don’t believe that intention doesn’t count. When I say, “that’s so gay,” I don’t mean it to have a negative connotation because, to me, that phrase doesn’t have one. However, I’ll acknowledge and accept that for other people, it very well may have one. I will say, “I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intention to offend you,” and that should be enough.

It’s not a goal of mine to offend for the sake of offending; I’m not Seth MacFarlane. But, again, I’m not going to censor my language simply because you find it offensive. Everybody is responsible for his or her own words, that’s a given. You can’t just throw words out there because you like to say them and think that it won’t affect someone else. However, berating someone for the use of a phrase like, “that’s gay,” and equating said person as a homophobe is a little irrational. You don’t know their story, you don’t know what that phrase means to them, or if it’s an inside joke.

That doesn’t mean that if someone says something that bothers you, that you don’t get to go up to them and tell them that it bothers you. If something someone says bothers you, you should totally go up to them and say, “Hey, I don’t like that you said that.” But when someone says to you, “Oh, I didn’t mean it that way,” that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily being a dick, or that they’re using it as an excuse to say hateful things, or that they’re a racist, sexist, or homophobe. To put it simply, I don’t want to live in a world where “I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention” isn’t good enough.

This is a complicated issue, with strong opinions on either side. Both sides are wrong for the right reasons and right for the wrong reasons. There isn’t really a winner here. But I truly believe that we’ll all get along much more easily if we take a deep breath and stop overanalyzing each other’s words. Plenty of people are ignorant, and say stupid things. And plenty of people overreact when they hear something. If we all just try to be a little more educated and a little more relaxed about the things way say and how we say them, I truly believe general day-today social interactions will be far more pleasant.

“The world is full of things that upset people. But most of us deal with it and move on and don’t try and burn the planet down. There is no right in the world not to be offended. That right simply doesn’t exist. In a free society, an open society, people have strong opinions, and these opinions very often clash. In a democracy, we have to learn to deal with this.” – Salman Rushdie