GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) has announced a new ad campaign which aims to explain why "that's so gay" should not be used as an insult and discourage its use. It's a brilliant campaign whose only fault is that it didn't start years ago.
The problem is, of course, that using "that's so gay" as an insult (about, say, an ugly pair of shoes, or the annoying comment a fellow student just made in class) is also an insult to gay people since it equates "gay" with "bad." But this is a subtle point, not easily explainable in a sentence to a middle or high school student (believe me, I've tried). And it's even harder to do it without getting the inevitable rolling of the eyes accompanied by the mental blow-off. Why care about this particular insult? After all, middle schoolers are just mean, right? This is different than the usual "isn't she ugly," "wow, what a nerd" meanness because it's based in the person's fundamental identity. 90% of gay students reported being harassed in school in the past year. Over one third were physically assaulted. And one third of gay teens attempt suicide - four times the rate of their straight counterparts. Speech may be just words, but it still hurts, and it has physical repercussions as all hate speech does.
The solution presented by GLSEN is a series of (star-filled) ads that teach by example by replacing "gay" with a description of someone else. For example, "that's so '16 year old boy with a dorky mustache,'" or "that's so 'using FORTRAN when you could use Java.'" They're perfect because they get the point across without being overbearing. Plus, it's easy to remember. The closest good solution I've heard was at a workshop for teachers that I attended run by the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia. They suggested a quick response in the classroom that went something like "when you say 'that's so gay' as an insult it's hurtful to gay people. It's important that everyone feel welcome in my classroom. There are gay people in our community. When you say things like that it makes them feel unwelcome. Don't say that anymore." It was quick, straight to the point, and didn't leave room for discussion. It was certainly the best response I had ever heard. But it was also hard to remember and definitely not usable by non-teachers. The new ads are slicker and leave room for students to correct each other in an excellent snarky fashion.
Do I think that this ad campaign will suddenly remove this insult from common vocabulary? Of course not. But at least it starts by explaining why it's a problem. Education is always the first step.