Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What is Gay?

“That’s so gay!”

I’ve always hated that phrase. I hated it when my students used it, and I’d always ask them what it meant. What did it mean for something to be gay? And why was it used as a pejorative? Knowing a number of gay people among their friends and parents of their friends, and knowing a number of gay people among the people they admired, none of them could come up with a good answer, and they stumbled along saying things like, “Well, it’s spelled differently…it’s G-E-H, and not G-A-Y.”

To which I said, “B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T.”

But why was it considered an acceptable pejorative to call something gay?

I think that in order to get to the bottom of this, we need to leave our current, “enlightened”, times, and go back a few decades to when we saw and understood things a lot differently. It was only when I did so that I got it, and it finally made sense to me.

We need to go back about 40 or 50 years, and consider a word that was commonly used before the word “gay” gained wide currency, and before the word “gay” used to mean anything but a state of happiness. The word I’m thinking of begins with the letter “f,” and no…it’s probably not the word you’re thinking of.

The word I’m thinking about is “fairy.” As a middle-schooler in the late 60s, I didn’t know from sexual orientation, but I did know about fairies, sissies, and pansies. Effeminate guys who sashayed around and acted like girls…or rather, acted like bad caricatures of girls. And come to think of it, this is probably what the general population thought of what we then just called homosexuals; because we had no clue that they existed among “tough, he-man” types. Those people were still closeted, and would be for a long time. To our limited understanding, being a homosexual guy was about being a fairy, being a sissy, not acting like a “normal” guy, and wanting to be a girl.

So when we said that someone was acting like a fairy…or that other f-word, we meant that they were being effeminate, or that they were acting weak and helpless. And there was definitely something seen as being wrong with that.

So fast forward to the present, and what do we have? A generation of kids who use “gay” as an insult, but that doesn’t necessarily have only the “sissy” image to go with it, because they know lots of gays who are anything but fairies or sissies. Complicating matters is the fact that there are plenty of gay men who are “light in the loafers” who use gay precisely to describe others like them who fit that stereotype, and things that fit the “fruity” gay stereotype. And this creates a problem similar to that of blacks using the n-word.

And yet, some things still seem decidedly “gay” in the classic sense to many people. I mean really, who among us doesn’t know what a kid means when he says he doesn’t want to take dance class because it looks “gay,” or because people will think he is? Or fathers who don't want their sons to work with flowers because it will “make them gay.” Let’s face it, we know exactly what they mean.

So from all of this, three questions arise. The first is why are we defining gay by the old stereotype even though we now know better?

The second is when did “gay” overtake “sissy” and “pansy” as the word to use for something that seemed effeminate?

Third, and perhaps most important, why does it even matter if a guy is a little “light in the loafers”…or if a girl seems a little “butch”? Why can’t these all be seen as variations as natural as hair or skin color?

After all…when was the last time anyone was ever given grief over their skin color?

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