I was doing some light dusting, the radio on in the background. They were discussing Will Young, who had approached the Education Secretary over the relatively new, derogatory use of the word ‘Gay’ in schools i.e. ‘That is so gay’ or ‘those shoes are gay’.
He has statistics ‘show 23% of young gay people attempt suicide and 56% will self harm.’ These are worrying statistics but I find it hard to reconcile them with a linguistic eddy over another layer of meaning in the word ‘Gay’. I would imagine there is much more direct verbal abuse, as unacceptable as even more serious on-line bullying. His suggestion that teachers should be ‘trained’ to stamp it out in the playground will have as much success as Canute ordering the tide to go back.
Language changes and officialdom – even French officialdom – has little success in stopping it. I’m old enough to remember when ‘Gay’ gained its new meaning. I remember the varying reactions, ranging from the ‘intrigued’ to the ‘irritated’ that a fine old English word could never be used again without this new connotation. To dance with ‘gay abandon’ took on an entirely new meaning.
But then ‘Gay’ had been such a piffly little word, old but underused. Now it became turbo-charged culturally and politically. The language had changed.
And it changes again. In a new world ‘wicked’ and ‘bad’ have an extra layer of meaning. ‘That’s wicked’ or ‘that’s bad’ means exactly the reverse, depending on context. The word ‘Gay’ has taken on the same fate.
I don’t know. It may have begun as consciously homophobic – some gay-baiting master-mind injecting it like a virus into the playground. Somehow I doubt it, but then again language is hard to pin down.
Whatever the origin of the changed use of ‘Gay’ I doubt that its casual use in today’s playground is consciously homophobic, but I accept it has tainted a ‘brand’. The word ‘Gay’ was bravely appropriated to mean something proud. This extra layer of meaning is unfortunate, but what is appropriated can sometimes be re-appropriated in unexpected ways. In ten or twenty years ‘gay’ may have an entirely new layer of meaning with or without teachers being re-trained.
Will Young has every right to express his concern, and use his minor celebrity status to approach the Secretary of State for Education, but he should also be aware of its dangers. Writing as a teacher with some experience of playground politics I fear such pleadings to officialdom for special treatment reinforces the concept of ‘victim,’ – a far more tainted brand and something Gay Pride resisted from its inception.