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Karin Greenberg

Karin Greenberg
Long Island, New York, USA
April 12
freelance writer and full-time mom


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NOVEMBER 5, 2009 3:33PM

What Gay Looks Like in Middle School

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"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. 





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middle school, language, gay

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I cringed the first time my 6th grader came home from a slumber party and announced they had played "Smear the Queer", a tackle football game I remember being played daily in my childhood neighborhood. He had no idea what it meant. We had a great conversation about what those words might feel like to people in his life that he knows are gay. It doesn't stop him from playing the game but I do believe that someday he'll have the confidence to speak up when one of his friends says it.
It's amazing that any child makes it through adolescence unscathed, especially those who are "labeled." Glad you have such an open dialogue with your son. Wish more people did.
Rated for intelligence.
I suggest getting him to come up with another word and use it in your presence. My kids know better than to use swears in front of me. They don't even say, "Shoot" (which I use all the time) because they think it is a version of "the S-word" that would get them in trouble.

(I learned this because they confided in my sister, when she used unacceptable language. Their message was, we're adults, we're cool. (This delivered by my son, who has not reached puberty yet.))

I haven't heard Gay or Retarded, but I have informed both kids that "Boobs" and "Boobies" are not acceptable terms for body parts.

You might not change your son's speech with his peers, but if he learns to not use certain words at certain times, that's an improvement.
I don't know where this came from other than a negative source. I do find however that as the kids age, other words take the place of 'Gay'. My godson, who has known I was a lesbian since he was 10, used the term at home, and his mother ripped him up one side then the other (verbally of course) using me as an example of who would be hurt by that term in that way. He may have used it at school, but it never came out of his mouth at home again. I also suspect he might have been more careful even at school. At least I hope so. He's 17 now - and 'fucked up' seems more popular than gay.
Your son's intelligence and compassion are a credit to the thoughtful and sensitive way in which you are raising him.

Thanks for an excellently written piece.
Please stop asking your son if he's gay. Many 13 year old boys don't have much interest in girls. Your gonna give him a complex fer Chrissakes.
Maybe we can start a new fad by saying, "That's so Republican."
This kind of hate language drives me crazy, too... even if that's not what the kids mean by it.
I had to have conversation with my step-kids about this type of derogatory lanuage not being acceptable in my household or in my presence. My MIL was very upset with me because her bible beating background says that being gay is wrong, but I told her that every place in society has rules and the kids had to learn to live with them... they might as well start by trying to live with mine.
Maybe I'm a little old-fashioned, but don't you think 13 is a little young to be asking your son if he's gay? First off, how would he even know that early? Second, if, at 13, he was gay wouldn't he be way too embarrassed to tell you?
I just read your two posts from today back to back. Your dad raised one smart, loving and compassionate woman. Your son will be the beneficiary of a long legacy.
mamoore: That's pretty harsh--smear the queer--i never heard of that one! It's great to talk about it--keeping the conversations going is the best way to keep our kids open-minded.

madcelt: I honestly look forward to when my son says "fucked up" instead of gay. I'm not so offended by the curses.

rebel & john: I think I mischaracterized the tone of my conversations with my son. We are exceptionally close and when I ask him about being gay it's in a casual way that's sort of matter-of-fact but not in a way that implies something's wrong with him for not hanging out with girls. And I don't ask him often. I just want him to know that he can tell me anything.

Thanks Donna, Malusinka, Rogue, & Inteson for your insightful comments.
I O'Really thank you!! Your comment makes me smile :)
Excellent post. It sounds as if your son is going to turn out great. Thanks for helping him be a better person.

You're right about our generation being different. I grew up in rural Arkansas, where I never heard anyone speak a pro-gay word until I was in 11th grade.
I'm trying to understand why you don't simply tell him he's not allowed to say it in your house or at least in your presence. My kids don't, although I assume they've used it with their friends, as it is indeed a common insult. Mostly it's just a habit.

I have a friend who grew up with a "retarded" brother. They used that word officially, and it's only within this past year that Cleveland changed the name of its Board of Mental Retardation. She is instantaneously and intensely offended--to the point of blood pressure, anxiety, and anger skyrocketing--when she hears someone throw that word around as an insult. Which has led me more than once to think that there needs to be an appropriate replacement. Which THEN leads me to feel guilty that I'm sitting there trying to come up with a "good" insult. This same friend is also vociferously opposed to the use of any words that malign the mentally ill, as in "crazy" or "nuts." There's always "moron" and "idiot" although they come dangerously close to "retard," don't they? Do you see how insane this is, this place of trying to come up with a viable insult? It feels like the whole wrong road.

But I did always like "eejit," an insult used by a lot of Mauve Binchy's characters. I think it's vaguely reminiscent of "stupid" and is used as a noun. As in "You eejit! Whatja do that for?!"

Yeah, I don't have a classy response to this post at all.
We have always tried to teach our kids that being gay was just as positive as being straight. As with anything you pound into your kids, you are never sure if it is actually crossing into their thoughts. Well, it at least made it through to my 8 year old: he came off the school bus last spring with a puzzled look on his face. He told me that a boy on his bus laughed at him when he dropped his backpack and then told him he was "gay" So my loving sweetie pie son told him he wasn't gay and what would that have to do with dropping his backpack. To my son, being called gay because he dropped his backpack was like being called an ice cream cone. So his Mama had to explain to him the language of hate.
thats the other ugly one..
and the sad part about the gay thing in jr high and high school is there are so many damn emo brats out there that are so androdgenous (i know i cant spell sorry) that you dont know who is gay.. whos not.. and whos just following just to fit in..
Adults should let adolescents 'slip up' with less offensive curse words that don't apply to groups of people. In my middle school, muttering 'shit' would bring silence to the room, but screaming 'gay' was tolerated.
I realized I was gay when I was 11, which is a pretty common age nowadays. There's nothing wrong with asking your son if he's gay, but if you are a mother who really pays attention, you would probably know, because you've known your child longer than he has known himself. If you thought he was gay, go ahead and say "I know that you're gay. Waiting for him to come out only prolongs his anguish for fear that you could react negatively; asking him if he's gay leaves him room for denial. The majority of mothers just know.

Bravo for being a concerned, enlightened parent. If your son realizes that using "gay" as an insult is unacceptable (and why), he may stop his friends from saying it, thus preventing words of hate from escalating to physical violence.
My grandson, who is 19, recently came out to his Mom and Aunt, and me. We suspected he was gay from about the time he was three, and were sure by the time he was seven. He experimented with girls, and for a time (when he was around 12) thought he was bisexual.

When he was in middle school, he threw around the "g word," and made comments about gay celebrities -- as you say in your post, it was part of the culture. But I always felt he was uncomfortable even as he said it. It seemed forced, like he was trying to fit in.

His Mom, his Aunt, and I had the same kind of talks with him as you had with your son, but though we tried to present a calm and neutral facade, inside we quaked with fear that if our suspicions were accurate, when he came out to himself, this banter would come back to him as self-loathing.

I don't think it had as profound an effect on him as we feared, but his high school years were rough, as he struggled to recognize himself.

I wish someone had told us, as Will Dees says in his post, that it would have been best for us to say "I know that you're gay." He did deny it when he was asked. Although society is so much more accepting now, there still are no guides for parents and family who know that their child is gay even before he or she does.
"Fucked up" is really no better. The whole use of forms of "fuck" as curses comes from sex negativity, homophobia, and misogyny.

Think about it. Why is "you're fucked" a bad thing? Why is "fuck you" a threat? Who gets fucked? Women and gay men, that's who. Using that phrase as a curse carries the implication that being a woman or a gay man is a bad thing. The same argument applies to "cocksucker" as a curse or the somewhat toned-down "you suck" -- again, who sucks cocks?

"Fucked up" doesn't directly say the same thing, but its use as a curse is related to the other usages. Sorry, these usages are just as offensive as "gay" as an insult.
I love Louis C.K.'s take on this:

Also, a recent South Park episode dealt with this issue as well.

Words evolved just like everything else and so do their meanings. Remember Negro--it was once an accepted term. Now it just sounds bloody silly. You call a black person a Negro and they'll just laugh at you.

I'm sorry, but what exactly is behind the comments concerning the blogger asking her son if he were a homosexual? Perhaps someone can answer this question for me. Are heterosexual 13 year old boys too young to know that girls excite them? Is there anyone out there who actually believes 13 year old boys don't think about sex? Why is it that certain people think that being homosexual involves an act of decision-making that takes place at some later date - i.e. later than "normal" people? Sexual orientation isn't an act of ratiocination! It's an act determined by arousal. Your private parts "tell" you what you like.

As a 13 year old boy my body told me what I liked (i.e. the boys in my gym class) - even though in the 1970s that was pretty scary. I became aware of my sexuality at the same time as my peers. The only difference was my sexual socialization would have to wait until I finally escaped from home at 18.

Nowadays, it's rather different (at least for some).

I congratulate the blogger for asking her son whether or not he was gay. If he had been gay, I'm sure that would have made an almost impossible to comprehend difference in his life. Having a frank discussion with your child is not going to alter your child's sexuality. At least it didn't alter mine - no matter how many times my father talked about the opposite sex. The only difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals is the object of our desires.

And no, it's not too early to ask that question if you ask it as well as this blogger did.
Explaining to your son that the manner in which he is using the word may be “hurtful” to others, should be sufficient to encourage him to be more thoughtful. If he remains resistant, I see no harm in telling him that you find the word to be personally offensive, and ask that he not use it in your presence.

As a teen, my best friend’s mom told me that she did not care to hear that something “sucks”. Being a young man who was respectful of adults (a trait sorely lacking in much of today’s rebellious youth); I obliged and curbed my speech.
Oh, Alison Deli, what a beautiful child you have there. I feel like crying when I imagine your talk with him. Reminds me when, after trying EVERY avenue to protect my son from a bully, I finally had to tell him "You're going to have to hit him," and gave pointers and permission to so so. I think I may burn in hell for that. When he was about twelve we visited friends and attended a screening of "Gods and Monsters" with a gay couple and a lesbian couple. He and I had always talked about being tolerant of and kind to others, but still I remember thinking "please don't say ewww!, please don't say ewww!" at a few parts in the movie, but he was unphased. When we talked about the film later, he said, "Oh Mom, I have gay friends!" Now at 26 he DJs at a gay club. Teaching tolerance does work; sad to note, however, that teaching intolerance does as well.
During my two boys' primary and high school days I never heard one word from either of them about "gay" or even cultural or racial differences amongst their peers. Both boys attended schools where the majority of students were from other cultures and races. Caucasians were in the minority. It is interesting that nothing about such matters ever came up in discussions with them about school. One thing we did do though was try to meet their schoolchums and the parents of same. We were always alert to any potential for problems in the future. When dealing with different religions and cultures it pays to be interested. If my youngest would ask if he could stay overnight at a friend's, I would normally, all things being equal consent but afterwards would grill him on the overnight scene. Since many of their friends were Moslem I would always ask if he saw alchol in the house and counterintuitively would breathe a sigh of relief if he said yes. Most of his friends had more money than we did and the main problem I had during those years was trying to keep up with the foreign equivalent of the Joneses. Every time another kid got a new BMW I heard about it. Finally I had to breakdown and buy both of them cars, a BMW convertible for one and a Porsche Boxster for the other. After all this is our country and I' not going to let immigrants, wealthy as they are to shame me.
Thanks for all your comments.
The interesting thing that I'm realizing as I'm reading is that there really doesn't seem to be much of a "gay-bashing" problem in my town. I don't think the kids (at least not to my knowledge) are prejudiced against gay people, it's just that they're using a put-down that insults gay people without intending to.

But it's true that if I just forbid my son from using the word in my house, he'll probably fall out of the habit. He's such a good kid that I don't really have much need to be strict with him. But in this case, I think I have to put my foot down.
@ Will Dees

If you thought he was gay, go ahead and say "I know that you're gay. Waiting for him to come out only prolongs his anguish for fear that you could react negatively; asking him if he's gay leaves him room for denial. The majority of mothers just know.

That's the worst thing you can do, even if you say it in a tone of voice that express "you can tell me everything"

The worst thing you can tell a teenage boy is "you can tell me anything" because that will clam him up further! Many teenage boys don't want to talk about things until they're ready! They won't even talk about someone who says "you can tell me anything" in a concerned, tolerant voice!

I was a teenage boy once, so don't tell me that isn't true!

The solution? JUST BE PATIENT! even if it you gotta wait years!

Eventually, they'll tell you the truth!

Waiting for someone to open up may not politically correct, but it's the best strategy there is!
Another thing,

I think when boys enter puberty, they start to have an internal gag reflex towards any thought of males doing sexual things with each other!

I had that gag reflex and used to make homophobic comments myself!

I was NEVER a religious conservative! My parents weren't religious conservatives! I live in one of the bluest states in the nation (Hawaii)!

But that didn't stop me or my peers from having an internal gag reflex against homosexuality! That's proof that the internal gag reflex is biological!

It was later in my adolescence that I learned that many homosexuals wish they weren't that way, many considered suicide due to the stigma!

Learning that changed me, and made me feel guilty about homophobic things I might've said in the past!
Although some have voiced the concern over asking a 13teen y/o whether he was gay, by claiming what 13teen y/o knows? Nearly everyone knows who they are attracted to from a very young age but because being straight is so "normal" those that are do not recognize this knowledge. Those of us who are not straight, however, are confronted with a disconnect, being straight is "normal" being otherwise is not, at least that is the messages that we receive from nealy the time of our birth.

Many gay children know, and recognize, that they are not straight from as early as three. Many do not have a name for what they are, which is sad because the "hate the gay" messages have been incorporated into their interal moral framework by the time they have a name for it, and self-hate.

A 13teen y/o may not acknowledge if he is gay, but he does know!
One more thing, then I'll stop for now!

My mother did preach tolerance towards homosexual, though she only started discussing the topic in the 2nd half of my adolesence! My father? He never talked about the issue once!

I also learned one of my favorite uncles was gay! I only learned it when he was dying! At first, I heard relatives saying he had diabetes! Then I learned the truth! My grandma told me that uncle had AIDS! Of course, I was curious of how he got it! That's when I learned the truth about him!

That's the heavy burden I feel now! I thought homosexuality was gross, but now I feel bad about disrespecting the people that I know! I now know that they didn't want to be that way, and that some considered suicide!

Let that be a lesson if your child express homophobic thoughts!
Maybe you should ask your son how he world feel if someone said to him, "But that's so Jewish." Especially if they were talking about saving money on something.
When I was in middle school we'd say, "That's queer." (I didn't.) We always seem to be fascinated with sexual orientation when we are young and exploring sexuality. But how to best avoid this I'd think is by talking it out like you did.
I remember that in sixth and seventh grade..."fem" was the word used, as in: Keith plays the violin, he's such a fem.
oh, Mom, it only gets worse. I have two girls (the Dots), one in eighth grade, the other in ninth. They are little social Activists, but I can't get the older one (newly in HS) to stop with the homophobic slurs. It's just not slurs to them. In Middle School, there was a lot of the That's so Gay stuff. That was bad enough. Now that she's in HS, it's more the fag stuff, where fag can be a noun or an adjective. They call girls they don't like Fag Hos, and Fag Hags (not even knowing what a Fag Hag is... or used to be!). And she would never Ever discriminate. I just can't get the language to stop.

oh, and I just read Tom's comment.

Here, let me as you if this is racist:

We're watching something the other day, and there's four rock and rollers walking toward the camera (it was a parody). There was the long blond haired one with a cape and black boots; the one that looked like Keith Richards; the drummer looking one with a ballcap on backwards, and then.... The eldest Dot says, "No the one on the right, the one with the Jew Fro," while pointing out which one played bass or something.

I freaked out.

She called me on it. "Would it be racist if I just said the one with the Fro?"

well, um....

This guy had the very curly hair, kinda full, not kinky like an African American fro. So I guess it was identifiable as a Jew Fro.

But does that offend you? She says it's said at her school all the time.

I'm gettin so old.
Mike: Thx!

Kyle: I'm LMAO!

Tom: I have actually said that to my son many times--doesn't really seem to faze him. I guess it's hard because people don't walk around saying "That's so Jewish." (at least not so others can hear them!)

Lainey & Barbra: I always think of the word "retarded" also. My mother married my step-father 5 years ago and he has a 24-year-old daughter who has mild mental retardation. I hear the word used all the time. Today, I actually got a flyer in my kids' backpacks for a lecture on "Spread the Word to End the 'R' Word" sponsored by the Special Ed. committee. Very interesting--I guess they see it as a huge problem.

Will Dees: I think you're right. And I'm pretty sure my son is not gay. But I just wanted to ask him to see if maybe I was wrong. But I've been told my many gay people that they knew from a very young age.

Connie: I'm not sure what I think of the Jew Fro--could be just a funny joke or if you think about it too long, it could be offensive. The difference to me with the Afro and Jewfro was that African Americans seemed to be the ones to coin theirs and they were proud of their hair--but I could be totally wrong about the origin of the Afro--I have to look into that more.
You really need to get over this. And to think that any adult can come up with any "new words" that kids will adopt is cloud cuckoo land: The more parents object to a word the more kids will use it. Moreover, the use of the word "gay" as now used by kids, has as much connection to its homosexual origins as their use of the word "fuck" has to sexual intercourse.
And the jewish mother neurotically attempts to CONTROL her kid how??
Seeing as a thirteen year-old boy may still be in the process of figuring out which way the wind blows, I think it is inappropriate -- nosy, even -- for a parent to inquire of a son 'are you gay?' You probably feel so progressive and smug that you fail to realize how insensitive and intrusive you are being. Had you one iota of insight, you'd appreciate that your son's sexual orientation is none of your damned business. At thirteen, he's entitled to a private life.

As wise old Gore Vidal has pointed out on numerous occasions, homosexual is an adjective, not a noun: acts are homosexual, not people. One of my big beefs with the 'gay' movement is that it has succeeded in enhancing the popular association between men who engage in homosexual acts and the kind of mawkish effusiveness one sees on television shows like 'Brothers and Sisters', or for that matter anything starring Sally Fields.

Were your son say that 'Brothers and Sisters' 'is like sooo gay!' he'd be absolutely correct in doing so. For certain he should be tolerant of people who are primarily same-sex oriented. But I'm afraid pink turtlenecks and Madonna are toujours gai.
"Maybe we can start a new fad by saying, "That's so Republican.""

Inteson, there's no need to do that, as 'hypocritical' is sufficient, just as 'santimonious' obviates the need for 'that's like so Democratic!'

However the genius of the Gen X-Zer usage 'gay', is that it describes the association between such otherwise disparate cultural points as 'Desperate Housewives', $300 Diesel jeans, Madonna and a host of lesser 'divas', etc. It covers them with one big rainbow blanket, if you will.
We always used 'Generic', 'Lame' or 'Gay.' They were interchangable. I'd love to see Gay come back to it's original meaning, along with square. Problem being, these things just keep going around and it's hard to stomp them out.
I've been trying to kill 'scuttlebutt' for years to no avail.
"Maybe you should ask your son how he world feel if someone said to him, "But that's so Jewish." Especially if they were talking about saving money on something."

"Jesus saves, Moses invests": I don't think it's bigoted to commend a people for being smart with their money.
Andy thank you so much for reminding us that 'twas a time when 'gay' meant joyous.

Consider this line of Yeats: "I know that Hamlet and Lear were gay/Gaiety transfixing all that gloom". Thanks to Gay Liberation, most people would have to pull out the OED to understand what Yeats was trying to say!
Thank you mr.strange, new, greyhead person for your support. Unfortunatly you just made yourself look like me trying not to be me, and by me responding, it's only increasing the illusion. It's like the chineese finger trap.
I used to confront this word all the time when I taught religious school to Jewish adolescents ( age 12 - 14) both genders. Finally one day I just looked a kid and said "Why don't you say "Oh for Jew!" ? He said "Because that's stupid" I said "Why ?" Another kid piped up "Because it doesn't have anything to do with being Jewish!" I said: "BINGO!" After some discussion on how they would feel if the words were switched in school, they were quite sober. I never heard anyone say it in my classroom again. And the kicker is that several years later one of the kids 'came out'.
Lynn in Fargo