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Contrary to What a Student Debate on Linguistics Might Tell You, Misusing the Word 'Gay' Is Harmful and Regressive

05/12/2013 14:56 GMT | Updated 03/02/2014 10:59 GMT

In the realms of pseudo-intellectualism inhabited primarily by students, there is nothing that cannot be subject to a hearty debate. We students love a good flush-cheeked, eye-bulging academic volley, often supplemented by some form of cheap spirit. A recent stimulus for a debate such as this happens to be the Tab's publication of an article defending the word 'gay' when used as a pejorative. The article was soon thrust onto Facebook and received instant glory: it legitimised the behaviour of many people who use the term in such a way. The thrashing of laptop keyboards began immediately and, surprisingly, most people were in favour of using the word in its derogatory sense.

They argued that the evolution of language naturally allows for semantics to change. Words can be re-appropriated and redefined, they said, so that our understanding of them changes through time. A sound argument, or so it seems to someone with sparse linguistic knowledge, but phrases such as 'that's so gay' are not nearly as innocuous as this recent discourse implies. The fervour with which many people sought to agree with the article in question certainly contradicts the current Stonewall schools initiative, which aims to discourage young people from misusing the term 'gay' and subsequently humiliating their LGBT+ classmates. Similarly, the linguistic argument holds very little weight for those who have been intimidated, ostracised and, once in my case, spat on at school because certain people had an inkling that something outside the heterosexual norm might be lurking.

Unfortunately, whether the writer of this article and his defenders realise it or not, they have become homophobia apologists. The main victims of this dangerous argument are those who are not yet comfortable enough with their sexual orientation to challenge homophobia, or worse, not yet able to understand that their sexuality is natural and normal. Even more worrying is that the writer of the article sought to legitimise his stance through the conciliatory 'it's ok, because I'm gay' proviso, which serves to invalidate the sense of humiliation and intimidation felt by those most affected by the pejorative, which is used all too casually.

The term 'gay' has been used in its nominal and adjectival forms in relation to gay people for almost fifty years. We are all familiar with its contemporary semantic meaning and there is simply no room for ambiguity. To use the term in its pejorative sense is to recognise that you are deliberately misusing it. Those who use 'gay' in this way often argue that the term holds distinct, dual meanings, but this is simply a fallacy. The term is both sensitive and culturally loaded; misusing it makes a conscious association between homosexuality and something that is 'bad.' In most university settings, you are likely to be called out or challenged if you describe something as 'gay' when what you really mean is boring, overly-romantic or unfashionable. In many other circumstances, such as school classrooms and corridors where 'coming out' does not yet feel safe, this is not the case.

Stonewall is investing time, energy and money into normalising homosexuality amongst young people, particularly in schools. One of the key tenets of their initiative is to 'set the meaning straight' with regards to the word 'gay.' We can debate the evolution of language over a pint at the union to our heart's content. Meanwhile, vulnerable young people in schools who are being informed that their choice of schoolbag is 'gay,' their hairstyle is 'gay' and the fact that they don't seem to express much of an interest in the opposite sex is 'gay', will not be comforted by a student debate over semantics. Through language, they are being taught that their sexuality is synonymous with negativity and this must be challenged.

To suggest otherwise is to bolster heteronormativity and legitimise casual homophobia. The word 'gay' is not a pejorative and nor should it be used as such, and I think this is as far into the debate as we need to go.