This is part 1 in a planned series of posts about terms that are used as generic pejoratives but that also just happen to be terms referring to a group of people.
I’m gonna start with what I think is one of the easier ones to discuss: gay.
These days, when an American under age 30 or so says “That’s so gay,” they don’t generally mean anything related to homosexuality. They just mean it’s bad. They mean they don’t like it.
A couple years ago, I heard a co-worker (who I think was in his mid-twenties) proclaim, “This website is so gay!” He didn’t mean anything homophobic by it; to him, that was a generic insult.
I cringed every time I heard him say something like that, which he did once or twice a week. After around the half-dozenth time, I summoned up my courage, and I stepped around the cube divider, and I told him, “It makes me uncomfortable when you use gay as an insult.” He was apologetic and embarrassed, and after that I never heard him say it again.
I’m guessing here, but I don’t think it had ever occurred to him that the word gay, meaning “bad,” had anything to do with the word gay, meaning “homosexual.” I think to a lot of people, those are two separate words that just happen to be spelled and pronounced the same.
But I don’t think it’s just a coincidence. I think one evolved from the other; gay has for some time been used as a taunt and an insult against kids who behave in stereotypically gay ways (which has been considered bad), and over time it’s come to refer to generic badness.
That kind of evolution of meaning happens in language all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with it per se; and it’s fine for words to have more than one meaning. But when the term in question is still in use as a non-derogatory self-adopted label for a less-privileged group of people, then it seems to me that using that term as a generic pejorative is problematic.
To be clear: I’m not primarily talking about the use of gay that means “that’s reminiscent of something stereotypically associated with homosexuals.” If I flop my wrist around while talking and someone says, “Hey, man, that looks kinda gay”—well, that’s problematic, and if they don’t mean it as a compliment then it’s probably somewhere between ignorant and homophobic, and it invites a comeback like “And is there something wrong with that, girlfriend?”; but it’s not using the term as a generic pejorative. The generic use is calling something gay without any intended reference to homosexuality.
One could argue that the generic use is better; at least it’s less overtly homophobic. But I’m bothered by both uses—one because it’s homophobic, the other because to at least some listeners, it’s hard to make the separation. If I were a kid who’d figured out that I was homosexual but hadn’t told anyone yet, and if I constantly heard the word gay used pejoratively, I don’t think it would help much to tell myself “they don’t mean it like that.”
I know that the word gay has changed in meaning before; when it first started to be used to mean “homosexual,” there was a lot of pushback. People expressed great sadness that such a lovely carefree happy cheerful word was being taken over by Those Homosexuals, and I have little sympathy for that position. But I don’t think the current shift in use of the word is the same thing. Before, the word didn’t refer to a group of people; now it does. To me, that makes an enormous difference.
So what it comes down to for me is that when people use the word gay in a pejorative way, it makes me uncomfortable. Whether they intend it or not, it sounds to me like they’re equating homosexuality with badness. I obviously can’t stop anyone from using the word that way, but I would prefer that people choose other terms from English’s vast trove of derogatory words.
- So what can you say instead of gay when you want to express dislike? There are lots of options. Annoying. Ridiculous. Goofy. Foolish. Pathetic. Bad. Awful. Ugly. Uncool. Trivial. And so on.
- In a 5-minute Ignite video, Ash Beckham explains the problem.
- A study suggests that “The more respondents were uncomfortable around feminine men, the more likely they were to report saying [‘That’s so gay’].”
- There was a Dykes to Watch Out For strip (#368) that addressed this issue—but it was problematic too, for reasons I’ll discuss later in this series.
On a side note, other gay-related terms may undergo similar shifts. For example, in that same group at work, I once heard a co-worker (also in her twenties) refer to someone as a “pansy.” An out bi colleague of theirs was there that day (he wasn’t around when the other guy used gay pejoratively), and he told her what pansy means, and she was not just embarrassed, but horrified. She was an ally, and certainly hadn’t intended any homophobic insult; she just had no idea that the word specifically insulted gays.
Speaking of other words: I have a whole list of other words to discuss in this series, words that both refer to a group of people and are used derogatorily. (Sometimes generic, sometimes not.) They get harder after this; a couple of them are words that I used to say, and about which I used to say “well, but this is a different word, it doesn’t mean the same thing.” But I gradually learned that they were harmful to the groups in question, and I’ve stopped saying them.
I’m guessing that some of y’all will want to talk about other such words in comments on this entry, and I’m not going to stop you; but fwiw, I’m choosing my ordering of discussion carefully because I think it’ll be easier to discuss some of the words if we lay the groundwork with others first. In particular, I think that, among my friends, gay is likely to be one of the easiest to agree on, so I’m starting here.
(Wrote most of this back in February, didn’t post it ’til now.)