Worrying about homophobia in schools? Don't be so gay...

Zoe Williams has got a particularly irritating column in the Guardian today where she argues that the routine use of the word gay as an insult in schools today should just be accepted as a done deal.

Apparently because school children do not mean ‘homosexual’ when they call their peers gay but rather ‘crap’ or ‘stupid’, then use of the word is fine! If we try and challenge it we’ll just make it worse, so best just walk away and let them get on with it.

I’m not gay but I am female and I know that when people use the word ‘girl’ or ‘woman’ in a pejorative term, as one of the young men sitting near me did the other day, when he suggested that his football team played like a bunch of girls, I find it pretty offensive. I like being a woman and I enjoyed being a girl, I think it’s a pretty cool thing to be (pay and power gap notwithstanding, obviously). I certainly don’t like my sex or gender being conflated with a rubbish team of footballers!!

As one of the commenters points out in her column Zoe Williams manages to reduce bullying and prejudice to semantics. Yes, language changes and I’m all for a living vibrant language. But changes in language do not happen by coincidence. I think the fact that gay, in the playground, now means rubbish, crap or broken is as a result of homophobia. What about those teenagers who are gay and hurt by these insults being thrown around? What about the gay teachers and adults around them? Did Zoe Williams consider them when she suggested that we all give up because teenage ‘yoof’ culture will win out in the end.

I know that teenagers use language to shock and rebel; but what if we’re not shocked by it? Then it just becomes common place and I don’t want to live in a world where using words such as gay, girl and woman, words that are used to describe groups of people, are everyday insults.

What is it with adults today? Are we so much in thrall to the concept of youth that we must follow teenagers lead, even when we’re being led into the world of the playground bullies? Teenagers are not fully mature and both those hurling the insults and those receiving them may not have the ability to understand the nuances between gay being used to mean homosexual and gay being used to mean crap or rubbish.

I don’t have children myself but I do mentor a teenager. Part of that mentoring is about providing him with an insight into my values and setting him boundaries of behavior, as well as listening to him and being his friend. But when the chips are down, I’m the adult and it is my job to guide him through the grey areas of what is right and what is wrong, not his to guide me. So, from taking things to lost property when you find them in the playground instead of pocketing them, to not sneaking underneath the tube gates without paying and, yes, to showing him how words can hurt, I help provide him with a set of values which I hope will make him into a sensitive, thoughtful and honest adult.

Sure, I can’t stop a teenager from using gay as an insult, but I can give him my opinion of it when he or she does; it’s just as much my language as it is his or hers.

Because it is an uphill struggle doesn’t mean I’m going ever think it is OK to use the word gay as an insult. Zoe Williams can argue that trying to challenge the use of the word is pointless but I’d rather stick with Stephen Williams and the Lib Dem campaign against homophobic bullying in schools. Of course it is up to teachers to set the boundaries for children’s and teenagers behaviour in schools just as it is up to parents, youth workers and other volunteers to do so out of school. Where are young people meant to learn about kindness and sensitivity if we, as adults, get too caught up in the semantics of language to bother?


Lee Griffin said...
13 Mar 2008, 15:07:00

The key is to ensure enough education about respect, and not to get caught up on semantics as I feel you are doing.

It's all well and good putting the onus on the speaker to not offend but this is unrealistic and overly petty. If someone says "gay" in reference to something being stupid and they never mean anything against homosexuals by it then why is it your right to assume offence? Is it not highly presumptuous to believe that your interpretation of a word is more important than another person's interpretation of a word?

The reality that is needed is balance, one where people that throw words and actions around with reckless abandon are made to realise there are potential consequences of almost everything they say and do and to respect people's feelings if this is brought to their attention, while at the same time also being able to have a bit more of a "thick skin" and to not over-react because of overly personal interpretations and to engage with offenders where they feel language or actions go too far.

If everyone is to follow your stance on the word gay here, personally re-attributing to it the historical negative yet not going far enough back to re-attribute it to the historical positive, then there are logical arguments to be made for rather mundane language and actions being frowned upon just in case they ever offend anyone also. And that is simply not realistic or progressive.

Feminist Avatar said...
16 Mar 2008, 17:47:00

This needs to be challenged because it is not a coincidence that the word 'gay' came to mean 'stupid' or 'crap'.

And semantics are important because it is through language that we give meaning to our world. If we associate 'gay' with 'stupid' or 'crap', we are saying something about how we view people who are gay, whether we realise it or not.

School said...
27 Mar 2008, 03:33:00

Very Good article, you make some interesting points.

School website

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