“That’s So Gay”: Is the Popular Phrase Sometimes Okay?

Many young users of the phrase “that’s so gay” deny being homophobic. And it turns out that some actually might not be, at least not very.

Indeed, saying “that’s so gay” has become so commonplace that such users might differentiate their own special definition of “gay” (synonymous with such various adjectives as stupid, hideous, effeminate, bad, etc.) from its other common meaning regarding sexual orientation. (Hardly anyone uses it anymore to mean merry.)

My point? Many who regularly call something “so gay” don’t quite comprehend the possible negative impact of it.

It’s probably happened to you, and it has happened to me. And when that young nongay male relative from whom I otherwise felt acceptance said about a movie rental choice “that’s so gay,” his (paraphrased) response to my reaction is what many young guys might now say: It’s not about you. I don’t mean it that way.

Although both girls and guys use these words, I can’t find any research specific to the former. There is some regarding male adolescents, though. British sociologist Mark McCormack reports in his 2012 The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys Are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality that it’s now commonplace for male teenagers to be comfortable with their own or others’ gayness and to not equate saying and hearing “that’s so gay” as homophobic.

The Independent says of McCormack’s work, “The real value of this book isn’t the way it rescues gay teens from victimhood, but in the revolution in masculinity it documents, about which many oldies are still in denial.” One of the oldies, that’s me.

From his blog post “The Complexity of ‘That’s So 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. And when doing this, 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.

Keep in mind, McCormack studied teens residing and going to school in Britain. To an interviewer writing in Salonhe states that “the U.S. is a decade behind the U.K. on this particular front.”

Why is that?, McCormack is asked. Well, it may very well have something to do with our “polarities.” On the one hand, we have such factors as the evangelical Christian movement and lingering stigma about AIDS being a gay disease; on the other, we see burgeoning anti-homophobia strategies and support.

One of the interesting things about the U.S. is that you now have over 5,000 gay-straight alliances, and we really don’t have them in the same way in the U.K. At some schools in the U.S., you’ve got active, powerful gay-straight alliances with out and proud gay kids, and then you’ve got other schools where that doesn’t happen and there’s quite a bit of homophobia. So there’s that issue again of there being polarities.

Again and again, on all kinds of contemporary issues, it’s all about our red/blue, black/white, either/or in the U.S., isn’t it? Truly, just as homophobia is and always has been a disease, so is our ongoing polarization.

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