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The Negative Impact of Slang Language

One of the most interesting things about language is slang. Defined by Webster’s as “an informal vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech,” slang is a testament to the malleability of language and most people use it on a regular basis. Think of how often you hear terms like “dope,” “off the hook,” or “the bomb,” all terms that have been given new definitions in recent years.

Slang also allows people to create a verbal insider code where common phrases acquire new meanings understood only to their specific group. Gay people are masters at inventing slang, whether it be the “closet,” “bears,” “in the life” or the pre-Stonewall “friends of Dorothy.”

But one bit of slang I’ve always had trouble with is “that’s so gay.” Originally used in the 1980s as the equivalent of “stupid” or “annoying,” the phrase has been revived thanks to shows like South Park and the Simpsons, and youth-oriented movies like Loser.

The phrase has worked its way into popular music as well. Katy Perry has a song entitled “You’re So Gay,” and although some members of the community interpreted her previous single “I Kissed A Girl” as a supportive statement, the new song makes it clear that the phrase is not a compliment. With lyrics like “You walk around like you’re oh so debonair/You pull ‘em down and there’s really nothing there,” which play to the stereotype of gays not being “real men,” she admonishes the object of her desire with “you’re so gay and you don’t even like boys.”

That is why I was glad to read that the Advertising Council (the people behind most of the public service announcements on television and radio) has decided to address this issue with the “Think Before You Speak” initiative. Using celebrities like Wanda Sykes and Hilary Duff, the campaign aims to educate people about the negative impact of this language. This topic has proven to be contentious, indeed litigious, in the past. In 2002, high school student Rebekah Rice was sent to the principal’s office for responding to inappropriate questions about her Mormon background with “that’s so gay.” Her family sued the school for violating her First Amendment rights, arguing that it was a common phrase. However, the suit also sought damages because other students started calling her “so gay.” In 2007, judge Elaine Rushing ruled against Rice, stating that “unfortunately, this is part of what teenagers endure in becoming adults.”

Rushing may think she is doing the right thing is encouraging people to develop a tougher skin, and apologists state that using “that’s so gay” is no reflection of homophobia, but language has a way of impacting people on a level even deeper than overt physical attacks.

Most of us can remember hearing “gay” used as the ultimate put-down in our early school days. I first heard it in elementary school, a card played when people wanted to graduate from momma jokes. Although I didn’t really understand what was being said, there were a few times I laughed along with the others, trying to be a part of the crowd, as children tend to do. Imagine my surprise at discovering I was a punchline! That was one of the first messages I received that told me that being gay was something to be ashamed of. That kind of internalized homophobia can persist well into adulthood.

The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which has contributed almost $2 million for the Ad Concil campaign, reports that 90 percent of gay teens are verbally harassed at school, which contributes to the high dropout rate for gay teens, as well as a suicide rate three times as high as straight children. That is why Chicago is planning the School for Social Justice Pride Campus, a high school aimed at gay students. A similar school, named after Harvey Milk, already exists in New York.

Some will say the debate over “that’s so gay” is overblown because it’s a new era and it represents a way of rebranding the word, similar to the attempts to make “ghetto” and the “n word” universal descriptors instead of referring to African-Americans. The problem with that logic is that the original meaning of those words is never forgotten, and their associations are too powerful to be recast in a new light, which is why people often get into trouble trying to use those “new definitions.” You may recall that a few years ago several colleges came under fire for throwing “ghetto parties.” The students may have thought they were being progressive or funny, but to most people it looked like trading in black stereotypes, from the malt liquor being served to the fake gold teeth and gangster rap soundtracks.

It is the same way with “gay.” Even if you assume that it is not meant in a homophobic manner, who wants to be considered stupid or uncool, two labels that children most definitely do not embrace? Kudos to the Ad Council and GLSEN for realizing that, contrary to the old refrain, sticks and stones may break bones, but words can hurt people too.

From “Blackout” 10/13/08 by Anthony Rucker


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