We are discussing the design of ID card design for an upcoming school event and one of the top management in our school suggests colour-coding them pink. Then, she corrects herself and says, “No, not pink. Pink is a gay colour. Who would wear it?” I am stunned by the many things wrong with that statement, and I wonder if there are heterosexual colours. For the moment, all I can say is that I’m sure nobody sees it like that anymore and that I’m sure they’ll wear it. I don’t believe my own eyes when, a few days later, I am patrolling the corridors during lunch because we have to send everyone to the dining hall as a part of our student council duties. We are about to check the bathrooms when one of my friends stops me and gestures towards the men’s restroom instead of the ladies. Then she laughs, hastily apologises and assures me she was joking. Frustrated, I reply with “I’m comfortable with being unsure of my gender identity” and I get a “you know, I think you’re a little uptight”. It was a little more serious when one of my friends was called out on a chat group for putting up a feminine profile picture and some of our peers proceeded to bully him for it in front of our grade.
Each of these situations warrants its own article, but the last situation definitely called for intervention, and a few of us did stand up for my friend. The other cases, however, are less preventable and more ambiguous. I’m often told I’m over-reacting when I express my irritation at people who use “gay” interchangeably with lame, feminine or both, and questioning someone’s gender identity is either used to insult them or is brushed off as a joke. Ideally, being undecided about gender or sexual orientation should be like being undecided about university – a universal but mundane phase – hardly a point to make fun of.
The problem with misinformation and bullying is that changing laws does not necessarily reflect changing mindsets in the majority; this is a pervasive worldwide issue. In fact, even in a nation like the USA, which, in 2015, legalized same sex marriages on a federal level (overruling state bans on them), bullying remains a rampant problem. According to a human rights watch report as recent as december 2017, both physical and verbal abuse persist. Statistically speaking, according to Mental Health America, students are 2.5 times more likely to harm themselves and are 4 times more likely to kill themselves than their heterosexual counterparts and most queer teens in the USA identify bullying as the second most important problem after unsupportive families. The problem may be deeper than mere legislation and a lack of accurate and sensitive representation in entertainment and media is certainly a major issue. But language too can perpetuate the bullying culture that many minority students face. ThinkB4YouSpeak was a campaign by GLSEN, Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, to reduce Anti-LGBTQ language (like “that’s so gay”) which can be the stepping stone for more violent harassment. GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate survey showed that 75% of LGBT students hear slurs like “faggot” or “dyke” frequently at school and 9 in 10 report hearing anti-LGBT language frequently or often. According to Shannon Gilreath, professor of law at Wake Forrest, “Physical violence begins with bullying, name-calling and homophobic remarks. When nothing happens to someone [for making slurs], it escalates to violence.”
Can language also contribute to creating a hostile environment that makes it more difficult for people to explore and eventually accept themselves?
Michael Woodford, assistant professor at University of Michigan Ann Arbor, coauthored a study published in the Journal of American College where the impact of hearing “that’s so gay” on 114 students who were either gay, lesbian or bisexual through a survey. The frequency of hearing that phrase in the last 12 months was recorded along with questions about “perceived social acceptance, physical well being, mental health and willingness to disclose sexual orientation”. The study showed a positive correlation between higher frequency of hearing the phrase and feelings of isolation and negative health symptoms.
According to a Huffington Post article on a CutVideo about “30 Gay Men React To The Word ‘Faggot’” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecUdWGCcd74), the reactions were mixed. A few men found it empowering when they reclaimed it and used it themselves while many associated it with disrespect, lack of education and pity for the user. A poignant one word response was pain. It was certainly a word which still held baggage for these men.
On the other hand, a lot of people defend its usage, saying that the word gay has lost it sexual connotation and, indeed, in the context of an Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) survey, it was in many cases, used in the sense of “rubbish”.
Like GSLEN, Stonewall, a queer charity in the UK, also started an education campaign on homophobic and transphobic language recognizing that while the intention may not have been homophobic, the unintended impact may still be negative, especially with the fact that even transphobic or homophobic phrases when de-contexualized can perputuate prejudices and equate being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender with something shameful. In one of its published guides on how to tackle homophobic and transphobic language in schools, they found that 84% of young students who identify as gay found its derogatory use distressing. One 15 year old, Sophie, said “It’s the constant stream of anti-gay remarks that people don’t even know they make. I feel awful all the time” The report also found, similar to the ALT study, that teachers chose not to intervene because the intent was not homophobic, or it was just harmless banter.
The meaning of gay has evolved a lot – from happiness, to representing an oppressed community, to even “lame” or “uncool” today. But when we have barely begun to accept that community, using it as a negative adjective just yet could send out a wrong message to both current and future generations. Using it in this context evokes shame and alienation. I can’t prevent the evolution of the meaning of gay, but I don’t think we should rob it from a community that is still in the process of reclaiming it, to mean something derogatory.
Similarly, the justification for using gender as the butt of jokes is that there isn’t anyone around who is unsure or questioning their identity, which is similar to the defence used for rape jokes – there aren’t any victims around to hear it. But questioning identity is deeply personal and may not always be obvious, even to the person undergoing it. Using these words carelessly could unconsciously create a hostility around this process of exploration. And in a time where safe spaces, which are already few, are fast disappearing completely, perhaps sensitivity in our humour and more creative slang are what we need.