After years of listening to me complain about my students being rude, disrespectful and a whole host of other words I’d never call them to their faces, a dear friend sent me this article. Although it is out of the U.K., it speaks to a growing problem here in the states as well. As it turns out, we are also to blame for it.
I’m speaking, of course, of the prevelance of the word “gay” in the modern teenager’s every day vocabulary. Although three of the top 11 insults listed are fairly specific to the U.K., it is of particular interest that seven of the 11 are all terms for homosexuals and all but two of them speak to sexuality. What exactly does this say about society?
After reading this article, I put my extra sensitive teacher radar on. Today alone I heard my students say the word gay five different times.* Not once was it in reference to a specific person. Homework was gay. My rules were gay. Julius Caesar was gay (the play, not the man himself). Even a student losing his book was gay (not the student, but the fact he couldn’t find his book). Each time I gave my famous reply, “no, in fact, your ______ is not homosexual,” to which the student rolled his eyes and said, “You know what I mean.” Yes, sadly, I do know what he means. I can’t help but wonder if he really does.
Gay has, without a doubt, replaced the concept of being lame or uncool in the modern high school classroom (and middle and elementary for that matter). I don’t think I’ve heard the words lame or uncool come out of any student’s mouth this entire year. It’s always gay. No matter how I rail against it, talk to them (or their parents) or threaten detention, the word is like a cancer, it spreads with no sign of yielding. It has become such a routine part of their vocabulary that they really do not even give it a second thought. They don’t consider it a slur, nor a word that falls under the “obscene language” policy of our school. I’ve actually had kids try to argue that they cannot get in trouble for using the word because it’s not “a bad word.”
Of course every kid I yell at for using it, swears he (or she, although my girls don’t use it nearly as often) isn’t making fun of anyone sexuality. Even when I point it out to them, they do not get the connection that they are taking a word used to describe a homosexual and equivocating it to being unacceptable. While they may not be blatant in their homophobia, they do not acknowledge the mere association with the lifestyle and their disdain for an activity/thing/person as a subtle form of bigotry.
When they want to be intentionally cruel and put one of their classmates down, they don’t use gay, they use “fag.” This is the word that gets them in real trouble in my class, because they mean to abase their classmates and move from being casually derisive to actually being malicious and prejudice.
Although I would like to punish each child in my classroom who uses the word gay as an insult, I would be able to paper my walls with detention slips. It amazes me that even my “good kids” who come from well-educated families who appear very open and tolerant let the word slip from time to time.
I’m not sure how to combat this problem. As the article suggests, in time gay will no doubt go out of vogue. I know that when I first started teaching 10 years ago, I rarely heard it. In ten more years I’m sure the kids will have moved on to a newer, fresher insult. I can’t help but wonder though if this current trend of turning someone’s sexual preference into the daily insult will continue. In 10 years will fag replace gay? What if it is something even worse? I shudder to think about it.
*I didn’t hear any of the other words on the list used once.