If it’s not gay, it’s not gay- Why our language matters

Misuse of the word ‘gay’ in place of words like ‘crap’ sends a clear message about acceptance and inclusion (or the lack of both of these). It says that we believe these words are interchangeable; that they mean the same thing.   I think it is also a subtle but damaging form of bullying. Unfortunately, a lot of the people doing this do not even realise what they are doing (or the impact it has).  It has become so common or ‘normal’ that when we hear language misused in this way, many of us are not challenging it.

The Rainbow Youth media campaign last year (If it’s not gay, it’s not gay) was incredible but it is up to all of us to take this message further and to speak out when we hear language misused; along the lines of the farmer in the ad  “It is deeply disappointing, but it is not gay”.

This is my experience.  I started a new school this year after moving from the North Island.  Just recently as part of this year’s Pink Shirt Day I decided that as a part of celebrating anti-bullying and being unique, I would wear a bright pink dress. Mostly because I could and because I was having some fun. Besides, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with a boy wearing a dress, regardless of his sexuality, should there?  Just as I was walking out of the P.E. changing rooms I overheard something directed at me by two fellow students walking in the opposite direction. And for time’s sake, I’ll cut to the chase: I was called a gay faggot for simply wearing a dress. As the offenders snickered at their snide comment and swaggered off, my blood was left to bubble and boil.

Unfortunately, this did not feel like a remotely rare situation. The very fact sickened me to think about it. Why do I think that this almost feels commonplace, even though it’s never been directed at me in this way? Where do people learn this kind of behaviour? But going back through my school years, I realised that it could only have started in years seven and eight. I remember that time well: all of a sudden you are given so much freedom and independence! You can catch the bus or train to school by yourself, have a phone of your own, and go to the dairy after school with your mates! What a breath of fresh air! You feel so much older, more ‘responsible’.

Then some kids start swearing; dropping f-bombs in every second sentence carelessly, like it’s the new ‘the.’ Perhaps you have an older sibling who tells you ‘big kids things’ or you see it on social media (a whole new can of worms!). You start hearing about words like ‘gay.’ Any word to do with sex seems so funny, even exciting! Having no knowledge of what you are saying, you and your friends think that you are so cool with your new vocabulary, calling each other fags or describing maths as gay without any understanding of what you are really saying by using these words in this way (or at all).

It is especially the misuse of the word ‘gay’ in this scenario (not to mention the addition of the derogatory term ‘faggot’) that hits me the most. I remember kids at intermediate school saying this so often that it felt commonplace, even though I had no clue what being ‘gay’ meant (other than my assumption that it must mean ‘stupid’, of course). Health classes at this stage did nothing to help me understand what was being said around me. The teacher, untrained in health or P.E, handed out some diagrams of genitalia, brushed over puberty, and hey presto! Health lesson done, right? I beg to differ, Year 7/8 Teacher from my old school.  Things need to change.

There is a clear and definite need for our primary school students to have an understanding of sexuality and gender and to be part of creating acceptance and inclusion rather than enabling ignorance and misunderstanding.  I am thrilled that Sticks ‘n Stones are already working on this, including some awesome Rainbow Youth videos (Inside Out) but more needs to be done in all of our classrooms (and not relying only on the health sessions)

So, let’s fast forward a few years, a decade even. Your knowledge of sex and sexuality has increased considerably and you hear a kid calling another kid ‘gay.’ What do you do?

And to that end I leave you with that simple question.

When we do nothing we say that what is happening is ok.  We say that something being gay is the same as it being shit and in turn that there is something wrong with being gay.

As the one of the Ad agency team that created Rainbow Youth’s epic ad said in a stuff article in October last year:

“By focussing on something as simple as language, viewers will understand that they possess the tools to call out such behaviour.  If you see this going on and you know it’s not really cool, you have a way – a lighthearted way – to say, actually it’s not cool to say that. It’s not you on your high horse, it’s not a big telling off. You can just quote the ad – ‘It’s not gay’. “

Written by Ollie.  Sticks ‘n Stones Advocate.  Mt Aspiring College.  14 years old.