"That's so gay!" It's one of the latest young teen slang terms for anything that is "stupid" or "uncool" and it's causing quite a ruckus.
Many LGBT advocacy organizations are up in arms over this ubiquitous slang term saying that it leads to intolerance and ostracism of LGBT youth. Sociologists point to this as a proof that the 13-17 year old crowd has become increasingly "conservative" and reject anything unusual.
A British study, Youth Language: What Young People Are Saying, showed a quickly involving language and deep intolerance for anyone who deviates from a bland suburban norm.
Decrying the use of the word "gay" as an insult and derogatory term the various academics have pointed to this trend to mean that young teens are openly homophobic and swinging toward an ultra-conservative ideology.
Yet, is that really the case? As any gay person can tell you there are a long list of words thrown about since time immemorial in schools, in locker rooms, and on playgrounds to quickly insult a friend or classmate. Faggot, queer, gay, butt-pirate, among many others have been heard by LGBT youth for decades.
The difference I have noticed recently is the fact that while previously there was an awareness that the term was meant to wound deeply the teens of today are almost unaware of what they are saying.
Image via WikipediaOur nephew who recently turned 15 uses "gay" to mean dumb or uncool often. We sat him down and asked him about his usage of this word when we first noticed it. He seemed actually shocked to think that someone would take offense. He certainly had no personal animus toward gay people, certainly not his two gay uncles and partners. He had never considered that "gay" with a small "g" that he used as slang was related to "Gay" with a capital "G" to mean our sexual orientation. It was simply the word they used in conversation.
Could it be that teens aren't more "conservative" really? We all know that teenagers have a deep seated need to belong. At few other times in life is it more important to be part of the group than during adolescence. Bucking any trend or fad embraced by classmates and peers can lead to social suicide in a high school or middle school.
Adolescence is a time of great social and psychological change. Children at this time replace their family structure with friends and peers and look to these people for their sense of belonging. The normal rebellion of youth that involves drawing clear distinctions from parents to assert independence does not preclude simply replacing that relationship with one involving friends and classmates. The desire to belong remains and in order to belong it is necessary to do those things parents might find objectionable. For many young people coming from homes where acceptance of others is preached from birth the natural rebellion would be to eschew those values and substitute attitudes meant to shock. Thus, the use of offensive language for ethnic minorities, gays, and even the disabled.
It is not, I think, that children truly hold such attitudes. Indeed, when pressed they seem genuinely surprised that anyone might assume they are bigoted. Rather, like the use of profanity the choice of such derogatory terms is meant to shock teachers and parents while creating a slang language that allows the teen to feel included.
Perhaps this comes from the fact that in our educational system Maslow's Heirarchy has been flipped on its head. Children are taught that the most basic need is personal achievement. That without personal achievment and excellence as measured by tests and "percentiles" they have little worth.
For children who struggle under these educational ideas, it seems natural that they would gravitate to peers who can fulfill the various needs including making them feel worthy of attention as well as part of the larger group. In order to take part, they must adopt the attitudes and speech of their peer group.
Perhaps this is why not all teens use these terms. Those who are higher achieving tend to reject the derogatory slang and are more socially aware. Meanwhile, those children who get their self worth from peers and pop-culture trends quickly adopt such terms to feel included and to separate themselves from those who do achieve and receive praise.
Certainly, according to the British study the same teenagers who favor the derogatory slang terms also eschew their classmates who are studious and excel. They consider the arts, reading, and literature to be the domain of people who are not "cool."
None of this is to say that using such terminology is acceptable. But, it might help us to understand why teenagers have adopted such language and help us to respond appropriately when confronted with its usage.
Furthermore, perhaps none of this is very surprising in light of the fact that in most school curriculum LGBT people are missing from history. Many states have laws requiring that teachers themselves only mention the word "gay" in negative terms.
How can teachers explain why using "gay" to mean stupid is wrong when legally in states like South Carolina and even Arizona they are legally required to agree?
Students are never taught about LGBT people or our struggle for Civil Rights. Most teenagers, until Milk came out this year, probably had no idea who Harvey Milk was or about the Gay Rights Movement beyond the usual salacious TV coverage of various Pride events.
Likewise, children are never told how San Francisco became a gay Mecca. When I was in high school and even college San Francisco was a running joke and insinuating someone should live there meant you thought they were gay. What if we'd been taught a little history? Perhaps understanding how San Francisco became a refuge from a terrible world and how World War II and the discharge of thousands of gay soldiers who were left stranded in the city created a huge population of LGBT people who finally decided to stand up instead of being beat up.
But, the religious people who dictate to our schools and school boards what can be taught and how will never allow this to happen. Children using "gay" and even harrassing LGBT students is perfectly fine with them since it has been their agenda all along.
Can we really blame the kids for their language choice when every step of the way we've failed them when it comes to their education and socialization?