Welcome to another segment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that works to foster the unlearning of oppressive words in our everyday language by explaining why they are harmful and providing inclusive alternatives.
This week’s phrases are “that’s so gay” and “no homo.”
“That’s so gay” is a common phrase heard in everyday life, particularly in school hallways and classrooms. Most people have probably heard “gay” used in a negative context in social settings. “Gay” has become a popular replacement for negative adjectives such as bad and bizarre to describe people, objects, and events. This phrase is so normalized in everyday society that colleagues, partygoers, SkyTrain riders, and Hollywood blockbusters often don’t acknowledge the impact that this language can have.
When confronted on their homophobic language, many folks will often defend themselves by saying that “they didn’t really mean that something is gay,” or that “gay means happy!” without thinking about how their language, regardless of their intent, creates and sustains an unsafe and heterosexist environment around them. For me, hearing queerness used as an insult automatically marks the space that I’m in as dangerous. When I visited my high school this summer for the first time since graduating, I couldn’t pass by some of the classrooms without remembering the voices of teenage boys snarling “gay,” as if they knew that I would be haunted by it years later. As a queer woman who feels as though I need to be closeted in a variety of social situations – often for personal safety – hearing phrases like “that’s so gay” invisibilizes and shames my identity before I even have a chance to honestly express it. While my experiences cannot speak for every LGBTQIA2S+ individual, this is all too familiar for too many folks.
Posters, university campaigns, and awkward PSAs starring Hilary Duff have all tried to combat the use of this phrase while appealing to a school-age demographic, but most of them don’t examine how this casual, everyday language may affect queer identities on a much larger scale. Saying “that’s so gay” or using a queer identity in a negative context construct queerness as a negative trait. Replacing a negative adjective with a queer identity “others” queerness, labeling it as undesirable and deviant from the “norm” of heterosexuality. At the same time, this language reinforces the dominant view in society of (typically white, cisgender, monogamous, middle-class) heterosexuality as the “default” and “good” sexuality.
That’s heteronormativity at work, and it creates a system where queer folks must justify their existence on a day-to-day basis. Heteronormativity creates a power imbalance in which straight folks are privileged in many ways. Cisgender straight folks, for example, can assume that they will be around someone of their own gender/sexual identity when they walk into a room, and that they will receive unwavering social acceptance from their peers. Far too often, these simple privileges are taken for granted. When a straight person calls something “gay” when they mean to call it annoying, ridiculous, or uncool, they are failing to recognize the privilege that they hold in society and the power that their language choices have. Using queerness as an insult harms, silences, and invalidates the identities of queer folks, creating an environment where heterosexuality is assumed “unless otherwise proven,” while queerness continues to be stigmatized as the “abnormal” and “deviant.”
The same goes for the common saying “no homo.” This phrase is used when someone does not want to be perceived as queer after saying or doing something that they perceive as “queer.” For example, a self-identified straight man could say something along the lines of this to his male friend: “I totally want to give you a hug – no homo, though.” The person who uses this phrase may feel as though their masculinity and heterosexuality are in question, and will therefore go to great lengths to separate themselves from queerness.
This, of course, is problematic in many ways. It perpetuates common stereotypes of queer folks (in particular, gay/queer men) as being effeminate, hypersexual, and weak – and therefore “lesser” than “strong, masculine” heterosexuality. These tropes also erase the fluidity of masculinity, which exists on a spectrum, by creating binary expectations of what masculinity should be. The strong, silent, unemotional cisgender man is not every man. Some men, for example, have vaginas. Some men are in queer relationships. Some men work in “traditionally feminine” careers such as nursing or teaching. Saying “no homo” positions “clear and unquestioned” (cis)heterosexuality as the ideal for everyone, while positioning queerness as inferior, unacceptable, and something that must be avoided.
In short, phrases such as “that’s so gay” and “no homo” stigmatize queer identities and experiences. This language can be especially harmful for queer youth who are growing up in unsafe homes, workplaces, and classrooms. As we work to create safer spaces on- and off-campus for LGBTQIA2S+ students, we must constantly evaluate and unlearn the barriers that prevent queer folks from living honestly and authentically. Removing these phrases from our everyday language is a good start.
|“This assignment for English is so gay.”||Boring, difficult, unnecessary, pointless, time-consuming, tedious|
|“My mom and dad grounded me for a week. They’re being so gay.”||Unreasonable, unfair, ridiculous, annoying, obnoxious, irritating|
|“I don’t want to see that movie – it looks gay.”||Dull, uninteresting, bad, weird, uncool, like it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test|
|“I love you, man – no homo.”||“You’re a great friend, and I really love and care about you! You’re very important to me.”|