"I'm not using 'love'. That's so GAY!"
My son was writing thank-you notes for his recent Bar-Mitzvah. He was not happy with my suggestion to replace "from" with "love" before signing his name.
"What does GAY have to do with it?" I asked him.
He was used to this type of comment from me. His utterance of the most popular put-down among his peers was a sure-fire instigator. Our conversations surrounding the topic are as frequent as my son's harvests on Farmville.
It usually plays out like this:
Him: That's so GAY!
Me: Why do you have to use that word?
Him: What's the big deal? Everyone says it.
Me: It's implying that there's something negative about being GAY.
Him: You don't understand--that's not how we use it.
Me: Think of how a kid who's gay feels when he hears everyone around him talking like this about things that are ugly, un-cool, or disgusting.
Him: I have to go harvest my blueberries.
My son is an extremely intelligent and compassionate 13-year-old. We have had many long talks about sexual orientation before. I explain to him that there are people who feel attracted to people of the same sex in the same way that others are attracted to people of the opposite sex. He seems to take this in stride. I ask him if he thinks he's gay. (He doesn't interact much with girls). He tells me he is not, that he likes girls. I tell him if he is, it's okay. He tells me again that he's not gay and that he knows it's okay, but he's not. I ask him if he knows anyone who is gay. He says he's not really sure.
The problem, I realize each time we converse about this, is not in his view of homosexuals. It is in his participation in the pop-culture language that spreads through the hallways of middle schools like a wildfire. My son is growing up in an age that is more open-minded than many previous generations. When I was his age, my mother never sat me down to try and foster tolerance for gays and lesbians. And she certainly didn't ask me if I liked girls.
I remember being in 8th grade. Everything was "GAY." The pink turtleneck that the math teacher wore was GAY. The book we were assigned for English was GAY. The way that those two 7th-graders walked down the hall laughing was GAY. GAY was everywhere. The word, that is, but not the real thing.
These days, the same stupid things are GAY to middle school students. The difference, and it's a huge one, is that the real GAY is a big part of their lives too. It's not uncommon for one of my kids to walk into my bedroom when I'm watching Brothers & Sisters and see two main characters (a gay couple) making out. When we go to my step-father's house for a holiday, his gay nephew and partner are nothing out of the ordinary (except to my husband the first time we met them-- he asked what business they were in together).
I'm not sure there is anything we can do to get this insulting expression cut out of the speech of an entire culture of children. The more important thing, one which I think is being done, is to maintain communication about and tolerance for those who are gay. People are afraid of what is unknown to them. Because homosexuality was so hush-hush years ago, it was seen as a frightening problem. Now, with its segue into mainstream life, it is not something to fear.
What we need is a new word for kids to use when they are "dissing" something. If we can find something catchy, then we can begin a huge nationwide campaign to push this exciting, fresh put-down. And GAY can go back to meaning either "happy" or "homosexual," with no more insults on the side.