POLITICS: Linguistics in Culture – “Don’t Be Gay!”

This week Brendan O’Neill argued that using ‘gay’ as a derogative is not homophobic. As a linguistics student, who happens to be gay, I argue as to why it is and why this use should be curbed.

‘Don’t be gay’ is a phrase I’ve heard thrown around a lot. It’s been directed at me, directed at my friends (both gay and straight) and just overheard by children and adults alike.

The most famous case of this social faux pas was back in 2006 when self-proclaimed ‘king of breakfast radio’ Chris Moyles caused uproar after saying he didn’t want a ringtone because it was ‘gay’. The BBC defended his use and put it down to a modern use of the word, simply a reflection of how the young of today use it. Brendan O’Neill had a similar argument saying that “gay now means rubbish” and he makes similarities to “sick” and “bare”. The problem is words such as “sick” and “bare” don’t have any associations with a social group, so of course there is no issue with “sick” changing meaning.

When someone says to me ‘don’t be gay’ they are obviously not asking me to change my sexuality, and in most cases they’re not actually intentionally being homophobic, so what the hell do they actually mean? I spoke to some gay guys about their experiences of this word as an insult and got their opinions on what they think is going on.

But first I would like to take you on a brief history lesson. So sit up straight (or gay if you’re so inclined), spit out that gum at the back there and pay attention.

Gay first came into English around the 14th century to mean cheerful, which should surely come as no surprise. It has had various other meanings throughout history, my favourite of which has to be ‘addicted to social pleasures’ which was by extension then associated with homosexuals. It would seem the homosexuals of the 16th century were just as much the party animals as the thriving gay scene in the 21st century. Who would’ve thought it eh?

Obviously the history of the word is vague but what we do know is that by the middle of the 20th century, by whatever association, gay had come to mean homosexual. It was a great force in the gay liberation movement. A simple label with no connotations or clinical associations that ‘homosexual’ had during the early awareness of AIDS.

Great so we have ‘gay’ to label ourselves and are free to be whom we want to be and live out our ‘gay agenda’ whatever that may be. Personally the only thing currently on my gay agenda is to get tickets to Billy Elliot the musical but hey ho!

So where did gay as an insult come from? It’s difficult to pinpoint as you may well imagine, but studies indicate that gay first became an insult in fraternity type situations. Straight men using it to disassociate with homosexuality and reinforce their hetero identity. By using it as an insult they are saying, ‘that’s not me, I’m not gay’ – a form of social divergence to reinforce their straight image. This may be fairly obvious; when talking to gay guys the most common use of this form of insult was from straight blokes. In many cases though people weren’t accusing these guys of being homophobic. Most guys would say ‘so and so says it, but he’s not homophobic, he’s my friend so of course he’s not’. I do believe that many people who use ‘gay’ as a derogative aren’t being homophobic in their intent.

The problem here lies with the next generation and the move for gay equality. If, as adults, we are deeming the use of ‘gay’ as a derogative as acceptable, we are saying to the next generation ‘don’t worry, gay is a bad thing but gay people aren’t though’ talk about mixed messages! What are children to think of gay people when a crappy ringtone can be deemed ‘gay’? We’re telling children one thing but showing them something else. We need to lead by example.

So yes, the meaning of the word ‘gay’ has taken on new meaning, and we cannot help that, language changes and evolves though social discourse. What we can change however is how we continue to use this word. Allowing children to use ‘gay’ as an insult will eventually bleed into their psyche and they will associate being gay with being abnormal, less or not as good; thus bringing up a generation of kids who will unintentionally think in homophobic ways, and worse still a generation of gay kids who see themselves as inferior.

Language affects the way we think, so choose your words carefully and don’t be gay.


Written by Josh Howell


The Verse Staff

2 thoughts on “POLITICS: Linguistics in Culture – “Don’t Be Gay!”

  1. You state “sick” doesn’t have any associations with a social group. One could argue unwell/disabled people are marginalized also. I am not suggesting the use of “sick” is as harmful as the use of “gay”, but there are similarities in the usage (I do have limited knowledge of “sick” in the current context, so sorry if I’ve misinterpreted)

  2. Great article. I totally agree with everything said here. I think that although most people who use the word as a derogative term aren’t trying to be homophobic, the fact that the word refers to a certain sexuality and also ‘bad’ cannot really be anything but homophobic. I used to use the term in the negative sense when I was about 12 or 13, just because all my friends did. I can’t remember what made me realise it wasn’t a great way to talk but anyway I did come to this conclusion pretty quickly, and consciously forced myself to kick the verbal habit. I mean, I if I hear someone say “don’t be a girl” as an insult, I feel offended and call them on it. Nobody would get away with using ‘black’ as an insult and then whining that they weren’t being racist! It’s no different.
    However, it is interesting how words can hold more than one meaning. ‘Straight’ is not without it’s connotations. It can also be used to mean ‘mainstream’ ‘boring’ or even ‘doesn’t do drugs’. I remember one day as a small hippie child telling someone ‘I’m not straight!” much to their amusement. Obviously this is totally different to the ‘gay’ semantic change, though. I can’t help feeling that if I was gay I would find the ‘new’ use of the word extremely insulting.

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