So, it’s become pretty common nowadays for people to call something “gay” when they think it’s bad. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that not everyone is okay with that. But it seems like calling things “gay” is so important, an entire assortment of defenses has sprung up to explain why this isn’t a problem. Well, unfortunately, it is.
It’s often said that this is just the result of language evolving, and the meaning of it has changed, much like how it didn’t always refer to gay people. Well, now it does. And in this case, the meaning of it hasn’t changed. It’s not as if we’ve started calling gay people something else. This is how gay people are known. And using it as an insult hasn’t displaced this meaning at all – it’s concurrent with it. At the same time that people are calling bad things “gay”, people actually are gay, and yet that’s supposedly not something bad at all.
Some have pointed out that words can mean more than one thing, and people who call things “gay” don’t intend for it to have anything to do with gay people. But if it’s meant to have no relation whatsoever, why is that word the one that’s being used when it already refers to gay people? If people started saying “That’s so atheist” or “That’s so Asian people” as an insult, would you really think it had nothing to do with atheists or Asian people? You might say that’s not what those words mean – but the meanings of words can change, right?
When the identity of a minority group that’s pervasively discriminated against is co-opted to refer to anything that’s bad, it’s not that easy to assume good intentions given how widespread this prejudice is. People who hear you using it like that won’t know what you intend. People who actually are gay don’t have the luxury of assuming you don’t mean anything by it. And what are people going to think, when they hear this all the time? Every day, the message goes out: gay equals bad. If someone grows up with the word “gay” being used to mean anything that’s wrong, what happens when they find out there are gay people? Are they immediately going to understand that this is the one exception? Are they not going to make any kind of association here, when “gay” has always meant something bad?
Some have said that it’s pointless to try and get people to stop using it like that, because, once again, languages change and we can’t do anything about it. But we are the ones who use language – all of us. And the notion that people are incapable of even thinking about the words they use and deciding not to risk being needlessly offensive is not very well supported. People aren’t that helpless.
Of course, some of them say they have gay friends, and they don’t mind using it as an insult. But if that’s why you think it’s okay, would you stop using it because some gay people don’t think it’s okay? If that wouldn’t change your mind, then you probably don’t really care if it bothers people. You’re just looking for a reason to keep saying it.
Naturally, some people will insist they’re free to say whatever they want. And they certainly are. But in the same sense, the rest of us are free to call them out and think less of them for their irresponsible use of language. Perhaps they’ll even say they don’t care what anyone thinks about it. Well, they don’t have to! But if you don’t care about that, then you shouldn’t care if we think you’re a borderline homophobe and an ignorant child. Hey, they’re just words, right?