The intent, effect, and environment within which words are used are vitally important in determining whether homophobia is present or not.
You wouldn’t say “that’s so jew” or “that’s so black” – that would be so racist – so you should also refrain from saying “that’s so gay”. This is the end of the argument for many parents, teachers and equality activists. Yet educators find that when they reprimand young people for using this term, they often face an angry rebuttal from kids, who say, “I’m not homophobic, I’ve got gay friends”.
So what are we to make of this defence? The easy answer is to say that the denial of homophobia is a tokenistic rejection of what has become a socially unacceptable attitude. It is certainly the answer given by gay rights group, Stonewall, when they argue that such expressions are evidence of continued homophobia. Yet to automatically assume homophobia in youth, without listening to their perspectives, is to pre-judge them. In my new book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia, where I spent a year researching what it means to be a guy in school today, I found that the default position for straight male youth is to be supportive of gay rights, inclusive of gay peers and critical of homophobia.
I have written for Open Democracy before about the erosion of homophobia and the softening of masculinity in the sixth forms where I collected data. Then, I argued that the success of the gay rights movement, increased visibility of LGBT people in the media, and the democratizing power of the Internet has resulted in a profound change in heterosexual young people’s attitudes toward homosexuality. I argued that this led to a softening of masculinity, with a marked expansion of acceptable gendered behaviours. And as the attitudes of these young men changed, so did the way they talked about homosexuality.
Many of my participants did not use the phrase ‘that’s so gay’, but those who did insisted that it was not homophobic. Their argument rested on two key points. First, they pointed out that there were two meanings for the word gay: one meaning ‘rubbish’ and the other referring to sexual identity. For example, Alex said, “It isn’t meant homophobically. When I say ‘that’s so gay’, I don’t mean homosexual”. Angered by the suggestion that some might perceive it as homophobic, Lewis was more forceful in response. “What?” he said, “So saying ‘it’s so gay that I got homework’ means that I think my homework is a guy and is attracted to other guys? That doesn’t make sense”. Zak said, “I say it all the time. But I don’t mean anything by it. I’ve got gay friends”.
Many adults who grew up in cultures of intense homophobia will find both parts of this argument to be lacking credibility. After all, when I was at school, “that’s so gay” was said by students who also used homophobic pejoratives and bullied students who were camp or feminine. And these young men certainly would not have had gay friends. Yet in today’s gay-friendly environment, students use language in new ways, with different meanings. The key issue is that words can have multiple meanings, and we distinguish between them based on the context of their use and the way in which they are spoken.
Consider the following scenario: You are walking along the street, when a friend urgently shouts “DUCK!” What do you do? I suggest that your first reaction is not to look for a bird waddling along the road going ‘quack quack’. No, rather, you will lower your head, pretty quickly. ‘Duck’ has two distinct meanings, and we accept we are able to interpret the meaning by the manner in which it is said. Why is ‘gay’ so different?
One argument is that the difference lies in the psychological associations ‘gay’ has with a sexual identity and its history of homophobic oppression. This is a valid point, but the young people in my research did not see it this way. For them, ‘gay’ has two distinct meanings just like ‘duck’. Thus, I argue the difference in interpretation occurs because older generations may not be able to cognitively separate the two. Older generations have not learned to understand the use of the word in the same way and they are judging young people from an adult perspective, without considering their viewpoint. By listening to the voices of the young people in my study, I found they had a sophisticated understanding and use of language. It’s just that it’s different to our own perspective.
When it comes to understanding the meanings and effects of language, context is all-important. “That’s so gay” can be homophobic, if it is said with negative intent or within a homophobic environment. But when it is said in settings where sexual minorities are open, out and proud, and heterosexual men are friends with their openly gay peers, it takes on different meanings. In such a context, it is not homophobic. As openly gay student Eddie commented, “I don’t mind straight people saying ‘that’s so gay’. I say it, so it would be hypocritical if I had an issue with it”.
Further supporting this dual meaning, I found that heterosexual and gay students bonded through use of the word ‘gay’. For example, Max, an openly gay student, was working alongside Cooper and James in an English lesson. While Cooper was doodling in his book, he looked up and asked Max, “Is this really gay what I’m doing?” Max started laughing and said, “Yeah, it’s pretty gay”. Another time, openly gay student Greg was playing catch with Lewis and some other heterosexual friends. As Lewis threw the ball, it slipped out of his hand, travelling only a few metres. Greg shouted, “Lewis, you’re gayer than me!” Such forms of banter strengthened the students’ friendship, and also appeared to expunge the negativity from use of the word—consolidating the dual meaning of the word “gay”.
To be clear, I am not advocating for the use of the phrase “that’s so gay”. One of the problems with it is that older generations will hear homophobia even where none is intended. Indeed, some of the LGBT students I spoke to felt uncomfortable with the phrase at the same time as they argued it did not connote homophobia. In The Declining Significance of Homophobia, I develop a new model for understanding this changing use of language, which highlights how the intent, effect, and environment within which words are used are vitally important in determining whether homophobia is present or not.
My point here is not to defend usage of the phrase. Rather, it is to argue that calling people homophobic for saying it is both wrong and counterproductive. Instead, it is crucial we listen to young people’s perspectives. When someone says “that’s so gay”, we should also consider discussing with them why some people might find it offensive, the history of gay oppression and the value of empathy. By engaging with young people about this issue, we might even find that we learn something about their increasingly positive attitudes toward homosexuality.