We hear it at the bar and the gym—they hear it in the playground and at summer camp.
People just fling it out there without consideration of its impact. For a person reconciling their sexual orientation, the connection between "homo" and "stupid" can feel mean-spirited. It can be especially damaging for young people figuring out that they’re gay. Saying "that’s so gay" when really a person means "that’s so stupid," or "that’s so uncool" is really stupid and really uncool.
Sure, words can have multiple meanings. And as a thinking species we can distinguish between words with multiple meanings from the context of their use and the way in which they are spoken.
"Maybe they mean happy. But probably not," said my son. Evidence of the thinking species.
There are a lot of words that hold power in our society even when used without malice. It’s great if your kids don’t say "that’s so gay," but they’re going to hear it, so helping them understand its impact is part of raising thoughtful and intelligent people.
- Ask your kids if they know what the word "gay" means. Given the various uses of the word, some might not be clear if its never been explicitly defined.
- Give your kids a historical perspective. Explain that the meaning of words often change over time.
- "Gay" originally meant happy, but is seldom used that way any more. A long time ago (as early as the late 17th century) the word was used to describe people who were uninhibited. Starting in the mid 20th century and continuing today, "gay" is used to describe a man who is attracted to men or a woman who is attracted to women. If your kids are really young, say five or six, you could say men who love men to keep it simpler. Other words to describe people who feel this way are homosexual, queer, lesbian, and LGBT. Explain that different people like using different words.
- "Gay" is also (incorrectly) used today to mean "stupid" or "uncool."
- Reinforce that gay people are just like other people. They live in your neighborhood, go to your school, and are friends and family. Talk about who you know that is gay.
- Explain that gay people are not always treated well. Not so long ago, lots of people thought it was wrong to be gay. Some people still think it's wrong, but it’s not.
- Help your kid understand that "that’s so gay" might offend or hurt people given the historic oppression and the continued stigma that some gay people face.
- Help your child develop empathy by asking them to imagine being gay and hearing people say "that’s so gay" with the distain and flippancy in which it is often used.
- Finally, equip them with strategies for confronting others who throw the phrase around. If they feel safe, they can respectfully educate other kids about their word choice.
Letting our kids know that their words matter is empowering. Their voices are strong and have impact. If their current word choices are hurtful, even when unintended, we are obliged to gently point it out to them. It’s what will make the world safer and friendlier for all of us.