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The ‘gay’ word: what does it mean when young people use it negatively?

When I was growing up, I noticed something about the word “gay”. The more prevalent it became, the more negative its connotations. A word that originally meant happy and carefree became a neutral label to describe homosexuality, and ended up being a term used to pinpoint something people don’t like, find embarrassing, or want to distance themselves from.

But does this mean that young people are more homophobic than ever before?

Alex Newton is programmes manager at Stonewall, an LGBT campaigning organisation that encourages people to “get the meaning straight”. He says: “We find schools have high levels of casual homophobic language, and high rates of homophobic bullying. It’s incredibly damaging.”

However Durham sociologist Mark McCormack argues the way the word “gay” is being used does not carry homophobic intent.

“Young people today aren’t saying it in the same way,” he says. “But it’s very hard for people who heard ‘gay’ as being solely homophobic, like I did growing up, to see that it can mean something different to a different generation.

“The problem with saying ‘that’s so gay’ is that even though you and your friends might know you’re not being homophobic, if you’re using it in a public or semi-public space, other people might see you as homophobic,” he adds.

With just my student overdraft as my budget, I decided to make a documentary exploring how this piece of language had evolved, and speak to people both gay and straight to see how they felt aboutthe word taking on a negative meaning.

Some gay people I spoke to were content with the word evolving, while there were straight people who were outraged. Younger people, whom we might have expected to have more awareness of what it means to identify as gay because of media coverage, were often the demographic defending the negative use of this word.

Many older people I spoke to felt strongly that it should it not be allowed to be used negatively. The language we use, consciously or subconsciously, can reflect our feelings towards minorities.

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Saying “eurgh, that’s gay” reveals a lack of collective understanding of what it means to identify as gay. Equal marriage legislation may suggest that society has advanced in its thinking, but there remains a gap in its grasp of gay identity, culture and sexuality.

In the week leading up to the premiere of my documentary, The Gay Word, its trailer was shown in a London cinema. Staff noticed how the audience’s body language often shifted and became awkward on just seeing the word gay projected on screen.

In Soho, I handed out stickers promoting the film and reactions were mixed. Despite being in a famously gay-friendly area, one person hastily said: “I’m not gay”. In making this film, I’ve learned just how much of a loaded term gay is.

So what is the solution? I believe LGBTQ-inclusive education in schools would be a great start.

This means not only practical information on safe sex, but also open, encouraging conversations on identity, relationships and mental health. Young people struggling to come to terms with their identity in a hetero-normative world need that opportunity and it’s a chance for everyone to understand one another better.

Making the documentary, I found school-level education was an issue that kept coming up – pupils, teachers, ex-pupils, academics and activists all said school is where this misunderstanding could begin to be resolved. One secondary school teacher told me staff often “turn a blind eye” to behaviour that may be making gay pupils feel uncomfortable at school.

The young people I met while making this film told me that school is tough and not a place they can flourish. One student said: “Once people know you’re LGBT, it’s harder to make friends. Some people get near you, just so they can pick on you.”

Until this changes, young people will continue to grow up feeling that the word “gay” means alien, embarrassing, stupid, or wrong.

  • Watch The Gay Word documentary in full, below.

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