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Wednesday, 22 May 2019 10:39 pm

Let us NOT have a ‘gay’ old time

“You commie, homo-loving sons of a gun,” Sean Penn told the judges when he collected the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Harvey Milk. These days “homo” is a rarely used word, replaced by the positive term “gay”. But recently “gay” has taken a negative turn of its own. How much power is there in a word? asks LAURA FRYKBERG in this special feature:

picmain“The love that dares not speak its name,” was one way Oscar Wilde described it.

A century later homosexuality was openly spoken of and endorsed by use of the positive term “gay”. This encouraged people to be open about their homosexuality and to accept that it is not unnatural.

But in the past few years, with the rise of the word “gay” to mean “lame” or “naff”, some fear attitudes toward homosexuals haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think.

Just this one three-letter word can offend members of the homosexual community, make a young woman change the way she speaks and provoke public outrage against a media organisation.

While this storm rages, younger people are not even aware it is problematic.

For example, people will sometimes say “that is so gay” when referring to something they dislike.

Among the under-30s, “you are so gay” is a catchphrase response expressing disappointment. In some cases, “you are so gay” is a criticism of a mate who chooses to remain sober while others are getting drunk.

In all these cases, gay means “lame”, “uncool” or “weak”, or to older generations “naff” “square” or “corny”. This development has happened within two generations of “gay” being changed from meaning “happy” and “joyous” to meaning “homosexual”.

When Wellington woman Alanna Lawson complains about the state of her messy student flat, for example, she’ll say: “It is so gay because when I am not around the guys don’t do any cleaning.”

The 22-year-old admits to using the word in this way, but feels it is wrong and people could take offence.

“I have used it in the past to mean ‘bad’ or ‘lame’ as a sort of descriptive word but I want to change it, as I think there is always a risk that you might offend someone.”

The Red Bull junior manager says that there have been plenty of times when she has been describing something “bad” and has used it, then regretted it later.

Some people worry that using the term “gay” negatively might affect sexually confused youths.
Matt Akersten, editor of, says if teenagers who believe they might be gay hear the word all the time to mean undesirable and wrong, it encourages them to believe that their sexuality is unacceptable.

Akersten thinks people should realise it is “A-OK” to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans-gender, and using the word “gay” negatively can have nasty consequences, even if there is no homophobic intention.

“The denigration of gay people can fester on in subtle ways. The derogatory use of ‘that is so gay’ can create a breeding ground for future attacks on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.”

Why has the word developed this way?

Max Cryer, Language expert and author of several books based on his radio  program “Curious Questions”, says there is no answer to this, because some words never change meanings, others do.

“I remember when things considered desirable were described as ‘hot’; now they have reversed into ‘cool’. The meaning of both words is unaltered but their application in fashionable speech has altered.

“If ‘gay’ is now a fashionable word for ‘bad’ or ‘lame’, so be it, fashions come and go.

“Some people don’t care a jot what offence they may cause by use of words they know to be sensitive. This is because of the speaker’s soaring sense of conceit and a belief that no alternative is worth considering.”

Cryer says education overwhelmingly conditions language development, so perhaps this use of the word originates at high school.

Alanna Lawson says she heard the word a lot at high school and she thinks that is where it slipped into her diction.

“When we grew up, we were taught that someone homosexual was different or strange.” She says negative ideas are put into our heads at a young age and stay with us.

She says she has never been pulled up for calling someone gay, except by her own conscience. But, she points out: “If you used somebody’s race as a word that implied negative or bad that would be racist. If somebody said that is so ‘Asian’, you would get a horrendous response.”

Akersten says that “being a gay person has been seen as undesirable in the past as well as weak, sinful, predatory or diseased”.

And homophobia is still real, he says. While New Zealand has openly gay MPs, church workers, sportspeople and media celebrities, widespread use of the word “gay” to mean “bad” in schools is a concern.

Willy Flockton is a 28-year-old journalist who “grappled with the term gay” when he first came out five years ago.

“I saw it as a negative term with connotations of ineffectualness, weakness and something that I didn’t want to be affixed to me.”

However, he says that now he sees it as a term of empowerment.

Flockton says before he came out he was one of the biggest users of the term “gay” in a negative sense.

“I’ve noticed I don’t use it that way now and think it’s because I have opened my mind to what it actually means for things to be described like that.”

Underlying this use of the word is a deep-seated, subconscious homophobia, he says.

“It really disempowers gay people by associating them with lameness. It took me, a gay man, a long time to realise that  using ‘gay’ in that way did not help make homosexuality a ‘normal’ societal group.”

Is it perhaps too precious to read so much into just one word?

Kathy Cumming thinks so. She says she uses “gay” as a negative, but only in certain company, and intends no offence.

In conversation with former colleague and good friend Nellie Husband, catching up on each other’s news, Cumming will on occasion describe something as “so gay”.

Husband doesn’t consider it’s worth pulling her up on it but is surprised to hear it from her friend, a 30-year-old communications manager for Greenpeace.  

However, Cumming says two distinct tones accompany the use of the word. “I have a certain way that I say ‘gay’ when I mean silly or not to my liking, and a sort of emphasis I place on it, which makes it clear it’s not being used in a derogatory way.”

She says that she only uses the word around people she knows and would definitely “be more careful about using the term in a gay bar or civil union rally”.

Cumming also argues that “the English language, for all its originality and brilliance, is still awash with ambiguities. I think it’s OK to use any words as long as they serve their purpose, assist in communication and don’t offend.”

Not every homosexual is necessarily offended.

A 23-year-old lesbian, who wanted to remain anonymous, says people should never be politically correct.

“I don’t take offence [at the term]. I also am guilty of saying that phrase. I think it is depressed, bitter, old, haggard lesbians who get annoyed about people using ‘gay’ in that manner because they are looking for another excuse to hate the world.”

However, even light-hearted public use of the word “gay” was enough to embroil the BBC in a row three years ago.

According to a report in The Times, the BBC argued that “gay means rubbish” in defence of Chris Moyles when he said on his Radio 1 breakfast show: “I don’t want this one, it’s gay.”

This led to complaints that the BBC used the word in a homophobic sense.

In its judgment, the BBC complaints committee ruled the use of the word “gay” in a derogatory sense could cause offence and advised caution in its use.

Privately and publicly, the word is loaded with connotations and, although not necessrily homophobic, can easily be taken that way.

It appears to depend on the person using “gay”, the context, the social situation and the meanings people attach to the word.

If Australian-born gay rights activist Peter Tatchell is right, then these meanings are short-term.

As he said on the Guardians website, “Queer, gay, homosexual … in the long view, are all just temporary identities. One day, we won’t need them at all.”

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is is a Whitireia Journalism student who has a passion for music, fashion, films and contemporary novels. She plans to work in radio and television.
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  1. Ironically, this article uses the term “lame” to refer to “bad.” But lame means disabled. I suspect that people confined to wheelchairs are not too keen on this used of “lame.”

  2. For a start it was homosexual Americans who coined the word gay for their ilk… it previously meant happy.. who give’s a shite what over sensitive idiots think..

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