Gay or Stupid? One's Still an Insult
Not too long ago, Lee Stern, a music educator, was accompanying his 11-year-old nephew in an elevator in his Chelsea apartment building. Mr. Stern is gay, and so is his brother, who adopted the boy with his partner and lives down the hall.
A man got in the elevator, and after he left, the boy proclaimed, "He is so gay." Mr. Stern inquired after the response, and his nephew explained that he'd reached his assumption based on a potent whiff of cologne. Mr. Stern responded that cologne had nothing to do with sexual orientation. After all, he and the boy's fathers didn't wear any, and they are gay. Then the child said: "No. I mean he is gay," Mr. Stern recounted. "He was talking about the muscles, the shorts. He was Chelsea," Mr. Stern said, laughing.
If the man were, in fact, just Jersey Shore, would the child's initial conclusion have been an affront?
Not according to an appellate court in Albany, which last week issued a ruling that in its judicial effect stripped the word "gay" of any derogatory connotation. It is now no longer considered slanderous in the State of New York to falsely call someone gay. Gay has, in the eyes of the court, as it has in the minds of sane people, lost currency as an accusation. Say I chose to live my life as a telenovela and decided to break up my best friend's wedding by announcing in a rehearsal dinner toast that her husband was gay. That husband would now have as little ground for a lawsuit against me as if I had described him as blond, pigeon-toed, happy or merely mediocre at Texas Hold 'Em.
In arriving at its decision, the court erased decades of rulings that treated inaccurate descriptions of sexual orientation as defamation. "These appellate division decisions are inconsistent with current public policy and should no longer be followed," the unanimous decision, written by Justice Thomas Mercure, stated.
What took so long?
While the decision clearly reflects the ideas and opinions of an increasingly enlightened citizenry, it might also be said to speak to the evolving etymology of the term gay itself. During the past two decades, American adolescent vernacular has broadened the definition far beyond implications of sexual orientation. In a circle of 13-year-olds, "That's so gay!" might translate to: "Only ding-dongs go to the movies on Saturday when anyone who is anyone goes to the movies on Wednesdays." It might be gay to wear Pumas in a place where Converse high-tops are the rage, or gay of a teacher to assign a 10-page essay on "Buddenbrooks" three days before Christmas.
Ten years ago, on an e-mail list dedicated to issues of linguistics, an extensive conversation got going over whether the word gay had morphed specifically into meaning "stupid." The cumulative answer was, yes, it seemed so, and this was happening around the world, including in the United States.
But in New York, where teenagers who have grown up with gay parents, friends, aunts and cousins are perhaps thicker on the ground than most places, perhaps we've entered a new phase, where gay has simply reverted to meaning homosexual, a term so unremarkable it is delivered with the easiest neutrality. Some unscientifically gathered evidence suggests that we might have.
Last week, Emily Kerins, 14, a student at the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Astoria, Queens, told my colleague Juliet Linderman that she'd grown offended by the indiscriminate use of the term gay. "If I were gay and someone used that word in a negative context, of course I'd be insulted," she said. "I hear it all the time, every single day in class. The other day I raised my hand and answered a question wrong, and someone said, 'You're so gay.' What does answering a question wrong have to do with my sexuality? It's damaging to gay people to use the word like that. People don't want to go through life being insulted and discriminated against. It's wrong. I'd much rather call someone a loser. I used to say it when I was younger, but I stopped."
Outside St. Ann's School in Brooklyn Heights on Friday, I encountered a similar sense of backlash. "A lot of kids say, 'You're really gay' because they think that's what an adult would do," Agnes Guillo, a seventh grader, explained to me. "They think it's an insult, and they think the insult will give them power."
A boy named Eden Stern-Rodriguez, 16, was there with a group of high school friends, all of whom stood adamantly against any extrapolated uses of the term gay whatsoever. "There are people who live in my house who are gay," Eden told me, explaining that his mother's best friend lived with his family and that if he ever referred to anyone as gay, it would be because they were, in fact, homosexual.
Perhaps there's a new synonym for lame and the older ones among us don't yet know about it. And maybe it's just "lame."