Our community has mixed feelings about language. Some of us embrace words that many consider derogatory in an effort to “take back” our identities; others freak out at every politically incorrect statement we cross paths with. I’ve heard many non-heterosexual people poke fun at people who take offense to comments like “that’s so gay.” After all, no one can offend you without your permission, and words only have the power we ascribe to them—right? At a drag show or queer rights workshop, the comment “that’s so gay” can dissolve a room of so-called adults into a fit of giggles. In a traditionally heterosexual environment, however—say, a public high school—those same words carry the bite of social ostracism and the power, however unwillingly acquiesced, to wound.
I happen to know that growing up hearing ‘gay’ equated to an insult makes it very difficult to accept one’s ‘alternate’ sexuality and feel comfortable with, or even worthy of, existence in general. It is exactly this scenario that GLSEN’s ThinkB4YouSpeak advertising campaign seeks to stamp out. GLSEN—that’s the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network for those who don’t know anyone in grade school or do but live under a rock—has been running public service announcements that point out how senseless and potentially hurtful it is to use “gay” as a synonym for “stupid” since 2008. Older ThinkB4YouSpeak posters define words like faggot or dyke in a way that explains the potential pain attached; newer print ads and videos replace the word ‘gay’ with words representing other groups to show how silly this sounds (“that’s so jock who can complete a pass but not a sentence”). Television—and, of course, YouTube—have made celebrity video appearances a crucial attention-getting aspect of the ThinkB4YouSpeak campaign.
This January, campaign videos featuring Wanda Sykes and Grant Hill got attention on a screen far bigger than most laptop computers. Thanks to airtime donated by Grazie Media, owner of the Jumbotron screen outside the Lucas Oil Stadium, these videos aired approximately sixty times during the Super Bowl. GLSEN estimates that about 150,000 football fans viewed the videos, which were the first of their kind to air at a Super Bowl, on the big screen during the game.
Anti-gay groups—including everyone’s favorite, the Westboro Baptist Church—protested the airing of the ads and even went to the Super Bowl to form a picket line, which apparently didn’t get too much attention from the sports fans. My favorite coverage of this side event can be found on GLSEN’s own Facebook page and includes a photograph of one counter protestor holding a sign that reads, “I’m transgendered. I’m prettier than all of the WBC and God still loves me.” This sign really stood out to me, and not just because I tell everyone I care about that they’re pretty on a daily basis (consider it my personal body acceptance campaign). This woman’s stance is particularly touching because neither GLSEN’s acronym nor the target phrase “that’s so gay” directly references transgender people or culture. To assume that this means that transphobia and homophobia are unrelated would be absurd; as a boy teased for “acting gay” is usually really being teased for “acting” feminine, it can be argued that both have undeniable roots in traditional (and, yes, arguably sexist) gender roles. While I clearly cannot pretend to know the motives behind this particular sign, I view it as an acknowledgement of the fact that we all need to work together on issues like this if we expect things to improve.
It is not as if the transgender community is new to the power of language. In fact, gender variant people almost always have an even more complicated relationship with language than people who use words like ‘gay’ as actual identifiers. While “gay” implies “man who dates men,” there is no such string of letters that calls to mind “mostly feminine somewhat genderqueer person who dates mostly masculine generally transgender-identified persons.” This fact has often made it difficult for me to explain my interests to would-be dates or my relationships to friends or family.
As a writer, I happen to believe that language is very important and powerful. I am a fan of self-definition and expression and am awed by the power that claiming a label can give to a person taking ownership of a non-heterosexual identity; however, I have found that queer vocabulary—despite the seemingly weekly addition of a new word—has failed me. Identifying as bisexual always encouraged the incorrect assumption that I would date a cisgendered (biologically male) man, while identifying as lesbian undermined my partner’s identity as a man. I tried pansexuality for a while, but quickly grew tired of horrible jokes involving kitchen appliances. At this point in my life, I use only the word ‘queer’ to identify myself, because it is the only all-encompassing word that comes close to describing my personal sexuality—specifically because it is so vague, devoid of so much as a single gender marker. This word is accepted without question by people who simply want to know that I am ‘family,’ and respectfully questioned by anyone interested in my personal experiences.
I’m not upset about not having an exact label; the fact that it’s so vague also gives me some ‘wiggle room’ to redefine who or what I am, and who or what I am attracted to, as my life—or sometimes even day—goes on. I have come to terms with the fact that there are as many gender identities and sexual orientations as there are people, and have given up on finding a nice package to present myself to strangers in. To me, this is just as empowering as it is for others to be able to boldly and publicly identify as gay or lesbian. The only trouble I have is when homophobic people have a hard time understanding why I take gay jokes personally—or when members of our great queer family cast me aside for not being clearly, irrefutably, simply gay.
So, the next time you say something like ‘that’s so gay,’ be first aware of how the phrase will be taken by any nearby unsure gay people who don’t realize your intentions. Secondly, be aware that, if any mostly feminine somewhat gender-queer people who date mostly masculine generally transgender-identified people are in your immediate surroundings, they might just ask you to clarify who counts as a ‘gay’ person in the first place.