By Amy Kaufman Burk
“It’s so gay.”
Proper delivery mandates an exaggerated disdain, smirking recommended, condescension required. The speaker is cool; the it is not; the gay most certainly is not.
As a mother of three – one middle teen, one older teen and one young adult – I’ve heard that expression more times than I care to count. Not from my kids, but from their friends, all during high school. These otherwise domesticated boys (I have never heard a girl speak those words) were invariably taken aback when I told them that phrase was banned from my home.
Reactions ran the gamut.
One young man was puzzled: “You mean you don’t allow the word gay?”
Another stared as my son explained that curse words didn’t bother his mother. “You can say sh—“ he offered helpfully, “but not that phrase.” “Why?” his friend was incredulous. “Because it equates the word gay with a put-down.” The boy looked genuinely confused. “Really? Are you sure?”
A third boy gaped as my son spelled out his mom’s language requirements. His friend swallowed hard, and asked if he could stay while I helped my son with a project. This boy sat still for the next two hours, staring at me, and looking quickly away whenever I met his eyes. He accepted a glass of water, and thanked me so effusively that his gratitude clearly had nothing to do with his drink.
Another boy used that expression to mock a classmate. When I stopped him, he told me he had never respected a parent more. He refused all future invitations to visit, and I never saw him again.
A friend of my daughter’s was well aware of the house rules. He periodically made a self-conscious show of using the forbidden phrase, and then apologizing profusely. When I told him I’d had enough, he thanked me.
But I first heard the most prevalent response from two tenth-graders. One bravely challenged me, “Why do you care? You’re not even gay.” The other shot him a like-duh look, and turned to me, blushing deeply; “I’m really sorry; I didn’t know you were gay.”
In the 1940s, in the wake of World War II, terms of contempt targeted the Japanese – in the ‘50s, in the Hollywood radical crowd, It’s so bourgeois — in the ’60s, It’s so square — in the ‘70s, It’s so retarded — in the ‘80s, It’s so lame. And in the ‘90s, He’s/She’s such a girl.
I wonder what’s next, the up-and-coming insult that will sweep the nation.
“It’s so gay.”
Those words pepper the speech of adolescents. Some have no idea what they’re saying. Some hope to be stopped and redirected. Some are experimenting with the feel of the words. Some are deliberately cruel. Some are testing the “it’s not my problem” approach to issues beyond their limited parameters.
Whoever these young men may be, whatever motivates them, we parents have a responsibility. We correct our children when they forget to say “please” and “thank you.” As they grow older, we correct them when they say “who” instead of “whom.” We need to step up and step in. Gay is an adjective, not an insult.
And what about empathy? According to the unwritten rules, if I stand up for a targeted group, I must be a member. If homophobia disturbs me, I must be gay. And if I were, my stance would become more understandable, and more easily dismissed.
I am deeply gratified that my sons and daughter are comfortable bringing their friends to our home. I enjoy talking to these vibrant young people, with ideas and perspectives that broaden my own. I appreciate that they speak freely, while offering warmth and respect. However, we all know my place in their community: I’m the “Odd Mom.” “Odd” is the parent who is comfortable with random curse words, but who will not allow put-downs regarding race, religion, gender, physical attributes, mental capacity, or sexuality. An odd definition of odd.
I’ve accepted that I’m viewed as strange. If my brand of odd turns out to be the new up-and-coming insult, I’ll speak odd with pride.
Until then, let’s speak gay with pride.
Amy Kaufman Burk published her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in support of the LGBTQIA community, and as a voice against bullying. www.hollywoodhighbook.com