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

The phrase that’s so gay doesn’t hurt everyone. Nor is it even offensive to all lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. But it does indeed hurt some. Studies and common sense show that it hurts lots of people, in fact—especially young ones.

The title of a brand new book by psychologist Kevin L. Nadal uses the term “microaggressions,” first coined in 1970 by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, to describe those subtle forms of hostility that most LGBT people experience frequently. That’s So Gay!: Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community shows that “(t)hese accumulated experiences are associated with feelings of victimization, suicidal thinking, and higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and other health problems among members of the LGBT community.”

Microaggressions have three different subtypes, as listed by the APA: microassaults, microinsults, and
microinvalidations. “That’s so gay” falls into the category of microinsults—“snubs, gestures, and verbal slights.”

Microassaults “include intentionally calling a person who identified as a sexual or gender minority a derogatory slur, or telling a trans person that they cannot use a multiple-stall restroom or rejecting their entry into a multiple-stall restroom when they try to use one,” and microinvalidations “serve to exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of certain groups.”

Sam Killermann made the following flowchart to indicate when it’s okay to say “that’s so gay”:

The point being, of course, that it’s usually not okay unless you’re appropriately describing a person with a gay or lesbian orientation.

Below LGBT activist Ash Beckham gives a rapid-fire and interesting speech about how the words “so gay” can hurt:

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.

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.

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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