Tuesday, October 18, 2011

That's So Gay-ven

I'm an English teacher. That role in my life brings with it a passion for language. I love words. I love speaking and writing and reading and thinking about the way words come together to communicate ideas. I love profanity. Sometimes, one good exclamation of the f-word really makes things better. I love the creative ways in which we create language and the inventive ways that slang enters our vocabulary. What I don't like, though, is when we use language as a weapon of intolerance and as a way to marginalize people.

I very rarely write referrals to students for using profane language in my presence. I'm one of those teachers when I hear a student swear, I'm more likely to say, "Hey, language!" and usually they sheepishly apologize for letting the f-bomb drop in front of me. There have only been a few times when I've actually sent a student to the office for offensive language. All but one of those instances have been times when profane, abusive language has been directed at me. I know I'm a bitch; I don't need a student calling me that to my face. (Do it behind my back the way God intended it, people!)

Then there was that other time. Students were working in small groups on some project I had given them. All of a sudden, I hear a student exclaim loudly, "This assignment is so gay!"

Of course, I'm sure you're all thinking, "What's the problem? Mel clearly had her students doing an assignment on homosexuality. She's so cool and progressive."


What this student MEANT to say was that the assignment was any number of negative terms -- stupid, difficult, bad, sucky, shitty, et cetera. Instead of using one of those terms, though, the student chose to use "gay."

When did this become acceptable? When did we as a society decide to turn a blind eye to people using "gay" as a negative term synonymous with stupid? Before you roll your eyes and call me a prude, think about it. What if that student had said, "This assignment is so black!" (Or used an even more offensive term than "black.") "This assignment is so female!" "This assignment is so basketball player!" Do any of those make any amount of sense? Wouldn't we find those statements inappropriate on a variety of levels?

Somewhere along the line, though, we've decided that it's okay to let "that's so gay" happen. The same is true of the use of the word "retarded." That word flies around like bumblebees at a honey convention, and yet we continue to allow it to happen despite the tremendous amount of insensitivity it displays. At some point, we as a society have to make choices about how we use language and the subliminal messages we are sending to each other (and our kids) when we allow certain groups to become synonyms for bad, stupid, or downright undesirable. At some point, we have to choose acceptance over ignorance. At some point, we have to choose understanding over persecution. At some point, we have to realize there's nothing wrong with being gay. When that happens, "That's so gay" makes as little sense as saying "That's so delivery truck driver." It's just a fact of life and nothing more.

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