HOT TOPIC TUESDAY: That's so what?

Recently Vince Vaughn was criticized for describing electric cars as gay in the trailer for his new movie.



This brought up the big debate about the phrase, "That's so gay" and how offensive it really is. What do you think? Do you cringe when you hear someone say that phrase? Do you speak up? Do you laugh? Do you say it, too?



I hear a lot of people who use the phrase defend it in the same way that people who use the phrase "that's so retarded" do. They say that they don't have anything against gay people or people who are mentally challenged. They're just sayings. Everyone knows what they mean.


But what do they mean?


Well then, why can't they just say that instead?



Here's what I think. Saying that because you don't mean to offend someone when you say something people find offensive doesn't cancel out its offensiveness. I mean, obvs. But people use that excuse all the time.


The Web site ThinkB4YouSeak.com has been campaigning against the phrase for a while now. I think it should stop, too. But we have a long way to go.



On Suite101.com, Regina Sewell reports:


According to Kevin Jennings, the founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, “That’s so gay!” is one of the most frequently heard insults among second-graders, second only to “That’s so stupid!”


Seriously? Second graders. That is so depressing.



Listen. Bullying starts early and it's serious. Words are powerful. Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase and Billy Lucas are boys who recently committed suicide after being bullied and accused of being gay. Tomorrow, there's an event to bring awareness to this crisis. You can learn more at Lee Wind's blog.



 I want to leave you with a powerful video I saw recently. It shows Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns talk about what it was like to grow up gay in a community that didn't accept him.


Joel survived. But there are so many kids out there barely hanging on. I'm not sure telling them "It gets better" someday is enough. We need to make it better NOW. I hope you'll share your ideas for how we can do that in the comments.


Thanks for listening,


Jo

20 comments:

Kate said...

Great post- and certainly one that makes you think. It's a tough spot- because at the end of the day, it's just a word. Stopping the use of one word (or a handful of words) does not neccessarily correct the problem, or stop the bullying.

I'm in a high school setting now and those words are tossed around without thought- and I feel like that what needs to be targeted. Not the words, but the thought process. We need to start teaching compassion, acceptance, self worth and self confidence at the same time we start teaching reading and writing. We need to let kids know that it is okay to ask for help, that there is no shame in reaching out to others when you are feeling alone.

To tell a kid (or adult for that matter) to stop using a word becasue it's offensive is something that I dont' think works, especially if that word is ingrained in their vocabulary. However, if we can teach them about treating people with respect, even if you don't agree with their lifestyle and choices, then I believe the words will cease as well.

It's a sad period of time right now, but amid the tragedy i think we will find strength. We are seeing it in the "it gets better videos"- people are starting to stand up and bring a bit of focus to the topic. From that we can strive to educate and begin to change the culture that has allowed hate-words, insults and bullying to thrive. I'm hoping that change is beginning now and that we can keep the momentum flowing.

Lydia Sharp said...

You are so right; it has to get better NOW.

My son is in Kindergarten, and he has to ride the bus with kids up to fifth grade age. I stand out there every morning with the kids in our neighborhood at their bus stop, and a first-grader said to his older brother just this morning, while my son was out of earshot, "Joseph is such a stupid brat."

I was standing right there.

I said, "Really? You think my son is a stupid brat?"

The kid got embarrassed, and his brother whispers (loud enough for me to hear, though), "I can't believe you just said that in front of his mom."

But what if I *wasn't* there? What are these kids saying to each other when they're out of earshot of teachers and parents?

I said to him, "You know, you don't have to like everyone. But you don't have to be mean, either. If you don't like someone that doesn't give you the right to say something mean about them. Just keep it to yourself."

Unfortunately, my son is not the only kid in that group who has been targeted by the bully kids. I've had to stand up for a particular girl in the group, too. The boys had her to the point of tears one day, just because she has asthma and they think it's funny when she can't breathe.

WTF? This is elementary school. And these aren't even huge-huge issues, like if a teen realizes he/she is gay, bi, or feels they are the wrong gender. What's going to happen when these same kids get to high school? I shudder at the thought.

But maybe something a parent or teacher, or even just an adult neighbor, says to one of them can make a difference NOW.

I personally have to combat things that my son's father says around him, such as "That is so gay." Passing it off as "just a saying" doesn't make it right.

IT STARTS AT HOME. I can't change what comes out of my son's father's mouth, but I CAN do whatever I feel is necessary to make sure my son understands what is okay and what is not.

We're adults. We have the ability to control our tongues and our actions. So do it! Be aware of what you're saying and doing around your kids. Even little comments like "That is so gay" can have HUGE effects.

Sorry that got a little lengthy, but this is a big deal to me. I was bullied from elementary school all the way through high school just because I was overly shy. It seems kids will find any excuse to pick on someone. My son has a learning disability so he's already considered "not normal", but that doesn't mean I'm going to allow him to repay those mean comments in kind.

IT STARTS AT HOME. Now.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Great post!

I would be interested to see a discussion on how we handle all this as literary artists. Filmmakers were called to task. But does that hamper their art? Should we as authors push back on first amendment grounds? Is it a question of rights versus choices? How much do real-world ramifications play in?

It's not a new conversation--we have discussed it mostly in youth literature in the context of race and the N-word. Is it racist to leave it in? Is it whitewashing to take it out?

But certainly, societal sensitivities vary from group to group, or there would not be a multimillion dollar sports franchise called "the Redskins."

I don't know that when it comes to art and speech, there are easy answers, but thoughtful choices are important, and it might be helpful to include "that's so gay" in these conversations.

Jonathon Arntson said...

I'm gay AND I use that phrase. I am ashamed about the latter, but certainly not the former.

The phrase "That's so gay" has the potential to change someone's life, for the worse. As we have seen in the past few months, there are a lot of young people in our country who do not feel good about being gay. They are killing themselves because they cannot stand life anymore.

For the rest of us to remain complacent and smug about our right to use a phrase that could be the catalyst to cause someone to take their lives is horrific.

We get to choose what we say and how we act, but we cannot choose whether or not to be gay.

I expect others to respect that and think about what they say.

Re: the synonym phrase, "That's so retarded" is one I use WAY TOO MUCH (even once is way to much). The same logic applies: people with disabilities do not choose their circumstance, but they can choose to live on. Why would they want to if people in general use them as scapegoats?

It's time for people to grow up and get a vocabulary that doesn't depend on contrasting who we are. We are all human, let's work together.

Jo Knowles said...

Kate, Lydia, Cyn and Jonathan,

WOW. What a great discussion. So many good points. Thanks! There's a lot to think about here.

Jo

kristen tracy said...

This is a great discussion. I think because I'm a writer and have spent so many years studying poetry that I'm hyper sensitive to language. I actually thought using this word in this way had been recognized as a slur and had been out of mainstream usage for a while. I was really surprised by the whole Vince Vaughn thing. I tend to go to the other extreme. When I became friends with somebody with a developmentally challenged brother I became nervous about saying anything that even sounded like the word 'retarded.' I remember telling a story and specifically not using the phrase 'flame retardant' because I thought 'that's too close to the word I'm not saying.' I guess if it's within my power, my preference is to avoid hurting somebody's feelings. And word choice feels like something completely within my power.

robinellen said...

The phrase is definitely used around here (and my husband uses it often) -- I can't really control him, of course. But I've told him how much I don't like it, and I've talked to my son (who's 8) a couple of times about how I don't ever want to hear him use it.

Part of the problem are the interchangeable words (pu$$y, fairy, faggoty) which are also used. It leaves no room for misinterpretation of any of the negative feelings behind the phrases, and it's definitely troublesome that these words are appearing at younger and younger ages. Of course, my husband's friends call each other these names (especially gay and the 'p' word) all the time in jest -- none of them are gay, and I have to wonder if they'd continue the practice if they had a gay friend.

Laura Ludwig Hamor said...

I don't like that that phrase is given so much power. I have told teenagers before that I don't like it, but they say "it is just a word". Can something be just words?
Do we have to take it to heart?
I have heard comedians use this argument for the F word. That it is just a word, and maybe we need to give kids the tools to ignore some of this. Maybe we need to not take everything to heart, or not think it is about anyone.
I think the people who commented, who admitted using this phrase, did not mean it as a mean, a slight, or an attack. And maybe a thicker skin would help that. maybe if people felt accepted in their lives, they would not think it is 'about them".

Maybe the acceptance would take the fire power out of a small phrase down a notch and put it out.

Tess Sharpe said...

Last time I taught acting, I had a group of 20 kids ages 5-16. The first day, at least 6 of them used the expression "That's Gay"

The second day, I sat them all down and had to explain to them WHY it was wrong. I felt like I was doing their parents job.

Great post!

Emily said...

I hate that phrase..HATE IT! Of course, I hate that it is traditionally a slur against Gays or Lesbians etc, but I what I hate the most is the casual usage of the phrase that seems to have slipped into our contemporary language.

In my WIP one of the characters says, "That's so gay" more than once, but I believe it needs to be kept in the manuscript because it highlights something the main character is struggling with (his father's homosexuality). So I definitely do not believe that we need to soften YA literature by removing all types of gay slurs.

However, I think we need to be careful as writers that we do not perpetuate phrases just for the sake of being 'edgy' or controversial etc. As long as real teens hear real slurs like this, we would be remiss not to create a realistic world for our teen characters.

Perhaps the real teen who uses these slurs will think twice when they see how the same slurs impact the characters they are reading about. It's a really tough issue.

Catherine Clark said...

Great post. The phrase "that's so gay" has bothered me for so long that I can't believe it still exists. I feel like it was born in the 80s and should have faded to obscurity by now. I don't know why people think it's okay to say as a putdown. Is there an equivalent? That's so...hetero. That's so...Neanderthal. But those don't hurt.

I hear both kids and adults use the phrase, and just cringe. Don't they know? How can they NOT know it's not okay to say that?

Maybe I need to stop cringing on the inside--and talk about it with them.

ivanova said...

I couldn't agree more with this post.

Peter Littell said...

For me it comes down to a combination of intention and awareness.

On the one hand, what is the intention of the person saying the expression? For example, is you say “That’s so gay,” and you are gay, perhaps you’re saying it with no intention of malice but more with playful irony and to a self aware audience that knows you’re just kidding around. While I can’t recall ever using this expression, I have used the expression, “That’s so metro.” I don’t mean it as a put down, but rather to make a quick reference identification of something. My cat Oscar is a very elegant cat, who is very self aware of his looks and if he could I’m sure he would use all kinds of lotions and wear extremely fashionable clothes. To me, he’s so metro. Is that a put down? That’s not my intention. It’s just an observation.

On the other hand there is a need for awareness of what words and expressions can mean. If you are aware “That’s so gay” is offensive or has derogatory implications to your audience, then no amount of good intentions can justify your using it. And if you are unaware, then someone needs to make you aware.

What’s not been discussed here is what was actually said in the movie. Vince Vaughn’s character says, “Electric cars are gay, not homosexual gay, my parents are chaperoning the dance gay.”

So what’s the intention in this statement? There is certainly plenty of awareness in that the character is separating the different meanings of gay. I haven’t seen the movie, but from the clip it appears that while he is putting down the electric cars for being gay, he is making a distinction that it’s different from homosexual gay. I’m not saying what he says is a good thing, because his intention appears to be putting down electric cars by using the word ‘gay’ and clearly from the reactions to this clip, the audience is only taking it to mean gay as in homosexual, even if he says otherwise. And the reason why no one gets the distinction is that the intention of the entire statement is to associate gay, and all that society thinks about that word, as negative.

Sara said...

Here's where I always come down: if someone tells you something is offensive, it's offensive. Don't say it. You don't have to debate why you can't say it, or why some people can say it and you can't (this drives me insane when people discuss the N word). You've been told it offends someone, that's really all you need to hear and know. I do believe in having thick skin, but too often we criticize people for being offended when perhaps the person who did the offending should simply say, "I'm sorry" without qualification. "Retard," "gay," the N word - these are words that are popularly considered to be offensive, and the reason why should be clear. Does that mean a filmmaker or an author can't put those words into a character's mouths? I don't have a problem with it if it reveals something about them and the artist feels it's absolutely necessary. But I think many would find that it's not, if they really thought it through.

Jessica Love said...

I try to explain this to my students. I tell them that even though, to them, it's "just a word," what they are doing is using a word that describes how someone IS to mean something that they don't like.

I ask them how it would feel if someone started "that's so Kyle" every time something "gay" or "retarded" happened. They act like they get the point, but as soon as they think I'm not listening, they say "gay" again.

::sigh::

It just makes me think of all of the kids sitting in the room who are struggling with their sexuality and it makes me so sad for them to hear this over and over like there is something WRONG with them. Like the way they ARE is a word used to describe that feeling you get when your teacher springs some extra homework on you.

Honestly, there is something about the culture of high school where it is okay and even expected to just be MEAN to each other. I have so many sweet, kind students. But when there is a group they all get so mean. It breaks my heart. It's so easy to be nice. Just as easy as it is to be mean. I wish we could change that culture.

Sara said...

Jessica, I wonder if this is a relatively new thing? My mom commented, after spending the weekend caring for my 6-year-old, that all of the shows on Disney and Nick are basically kids being smartasses to each other, and now that I look at it I see that it's true for the most part. That's the culture these days, it seems, and that's what kids are absorbing from a young age. I just don't remember that the humor was so nasty and grown-up when I was young, but then maybe I'm not remembering it correctly. Maybe "Facts of Life" and "Different Stokes" and "Family Ties," etc. were meaner than I remember. The John Hughes films and "Heathers" were from that period, and they certainly weren't sugar and spice...

Lee said...

I agree with your comments and truely it stems back to what the youth are exposed to while young and most adults do not think about the ripple effect of their language. For eexample it takes 5 or more positive to override one negtative implant. So parents, bosses, others in suggestive control do themselves much damage with negative comments like "your so stupid" as it would take 5 "your so smarts" to get back to zero.

Micol Ostow said...

Great post, Jo! It's obviously a REALLY hot topic. I agree that the "just a word" argument is lame. Any implication that "gay" equals something negative perpetuates homophobia. A little sensitivity goes a long way.

Claire Dawn said...

I personally take no offense to these sort of things. I'm neither gay nor retarded. But I am black, and I have no problem with similar inflections on being black. I make these jokes myself.

As far as media (including print anf books) goes, it's a hard call. How much is the media supposed to influence life and how much is it supposed to reflect it?

On top of which I don't approve of hiding the real world. If the media doesn't show these things, but they still exist, we're just sheltering kids (and people) from them. And then the first time they come across them, they'll be that much more hurtful.

Adeeva Afsheen said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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