The Power of Words – “That’s so gay”

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San Jose Pride festivalgoers hold up the transgender pride flag at the annual parade in August.

Ava Stark, Arts and Entertainment Editor

“That’s so gay.”

The phrase is often jokingly used on campus in response to a minor inconvenience, such as extra homework. It’s  also commonly used to insult a cis male students’ masculinity.

For LGBTQ+ students, the phrase makes them feel uncomfortable, and some say it enforces stereotypes of how queer students can think and act.

Social science teacher Stefanie Menera, who is supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, sees her students use the phrase often in a classroom setting.

“It doesn’t sit right with me, not just as a teacher but also just as a human person because the school is supposed to be a safe place for students,” said Menera. “It makes me uncomfortable. Usually what they say is you’re equating gay people saying things like, uncool or bad, but it’s threatening the masculinity of people.”

Menera said that only showing one perception of this community can “put people into a box.” 

“It suggests that gay men have this feminine or hyper-feminine element to who they are,” she said, “which isn’t a bad thing and isn’t always true. There is a spectrum of what queerness looks like across all different types of identities and all different types of people.”

However, when coming from a queer person, “that’s so gay” can mean something different and have a different impact on people within the LGBTQ+ community. 

Senior Ainsley Bateman, who is president of the Queer Student Union, believes that when it’s said by a member of the community, it’s not such a bad thing

“I try not to judge because I know some people in the community like to use it as a joke,” Bateman said. “Who am I to judge who I should be calling out for that just based on appearance because that’s exactly what using that phrase perpetuates, the usage of the stereotype that gay looks one way and that’s exactly what I’m trying not to do.”

Even so, Bateman knows that it’s still harmful more often than not.

“I know that a lot of times, it’s not used in [a harmful way],” said Bateman. “But the origins come from a place of discrimination and so it’s difficult to see when I should be angry about it and when I should just let it go.”

Where did it come from? “Gay” was originally an Old French term, adopted into the English language later on with the meaning of joyful or carefree. Overtime, it became a way to describe homosexuality.

Senior Sam Sharrard, who is gay, has heard “that’s so gay” often from people within the LGBTQ+ community. 

Sharrard thinks that though they’ve seen it most commonly as a joke, like both Menera and Bateman, it can still make them feel uncomfortable at times depending on the context. Sharrard believes that the people they hear it from lack the maturity to understand if they can appropriately use it.

“It all comes with maturity,” they said. “It’s kind of the stage now where people are saying these because they’re funny. But when it’s time to step into the real world they’ll realize it’s insensitive.”

Illustration by Dhatri Tummala

Many in the LGBTQ+ community have shaped the derogatory term into a casual phrase that can represent them. This reclamation of the term has lessened the negative impact it has on them.

“It’s the same sort of idea of the reclamation of terms that has in the past been used against you,” said Bateman. “Who’s to say that now you can’t use it to joke about yourself?

Despite the somewhat normalization of the phrase in the community, when Menera hears it in her classroom, she immediately shuts it down, as its smaller impacts on individuals “perpetuates a larger societal problem.”

“That type of language is something that does not fly in my classroom,” she said. “I’m otherwise a pretty relaxed teacher but not when it comes to phrases that are oppressive in some ways.”

The same sort of situation is brought up with the word “queer” which used to also be used as a discriminatory term. In the past, queer was used as a slur against the community, but has been reclaimed, according to Bateman, to “nicely encompass the identity.”

“You run into the same problem of who should be allowed to use the word and who shouldn’t be allowed to use the word,” they said, “and how do you judge that from the outside.”

To Bateman, it’s important to educate those who use “that’s so gay” regularly to bring awareness to the negative impacts it may cause.

“‘That’s so gay’ is not the phrase that’s going to cause the most harm,” said Bateman. “But I think the problem with it is that it just psychologically extends a stereotype. Informing people of the fact that [using the phrase] will be classified as something that is a microaggression just in the way because it perpetuates harmful ideas.”

Menera said that though it’s okay for the LGBTQ+ to use it, it isn’t for others because of the changed meaning.

“This idea of reclaiming an oppressive language is a difficult thing for students to understand,” Menera said. “It’s not a phrase for them to reclaim.”