This week, a journalist in a popular newspaper used the word 'gay' in a manner that reinforced negative connotations; yet again I was reminded me that there is still a long way to go in ending the use of the word gay as a pejorative term.
The use of the word gay to describe an object or person as being without worth, for example "those trainers are so gay" (for "so gay", read those trainers are "so shit") continues to be endemic in British society and especially within our schools and youth culture. This fact is once again shockingly illustrated by the latest Stonewall School Report.
Back in the 70s, when I was at primary school, if a pair of trainers were considered below par they were dismissed as being "spazzy" or "spastic." For me these were words genuinely capable of hurt and damage; my reasoning for this was usually made to sit on the side of the hall during PE, his name was Daniel and he was a wheelchair user. Daniel was regularly subjected to the use of these words.
In 1982 in a secondary school PE lesson whilst attempting a forward roll, the PE teacher walked over to me, kicked me in the side with her foot and shouted;
"Do it properly you spastic!"
Sitting up, humiliated I caught the gaze of Gary, a disabled boy in my class whose eyes were brimming with tears on the sidelines - for a brief moment we connected and then he bowed his head.
Later that day after I had caught up with Gary and enquired as to his wellbeing;
"It's ok, it doesn't matter" he said in total resignation; but of course it mattered, and to this day I have never forgotten the look on Gary's or Daniel's faces.
Let me put my cards on the table right here right now, I firmly believe it is no more ok for a person in a wheelchair to be party to use of word "spazza" than it is for a black person to be subjected to racist language or for a gay person to hear the word "gay" being banded about as a replacement for the words "shit" or "crap".
I also firmly believe it is not rocket science to understand why using the word gay in this manner has the potential to cause damage to our kids.
Take one child who is questioning their sexuality, often with low self esteem, maybe fearful of rejection by their teachers, family, society, cultural or faith group. A child who may be aware of the voices in the world who claim they will go to hell, that they are sinful, that they deserve to be hung or to get AIDS and die.
Sound dramatic? This the reality for many young LGBT people, they are in a uniquely vulnerable position, look no further than the Stonewall Gay and Bisexual Men's Health Survey for startling supporting evidence.
Now add to the equation the endemic use in society of the word 'gay' by press, peers and society 'role models' as a replacement for shit/crap and other negative words and phrases.
Place yourself for a moment in the mindset of the vulnerable young LGBT person as they hear and read the word gay used in a pejorative way.
On top of everything they have felt, heard and fear about being LGBT they now very clearly are being sent a message that gay = rubbish.
I repeat, it is not rocket science to see how this might damage our kids and young adults. In exactly the same way, wheel-chair bound Gary and Daniel's hearts must have broken a little more every time they heard the word "spazza".
"I don't mean to be homophobic when I say the word gay to describe something rubbish" is a common defence and yet this is no defence at all. We must all take responsibility for the words we use, and the word gay used pejoratively hurts and damages children and yes, even some adults who have struggled on through prejudice, rejection and discrimination for much of their lives.
The bottom line is this; do we care more about word choice than the mental and physical well being of young people?
Whether one intends to be homophobic or not, the potential is there for uniquely vulnerable kids to be damaged by some people in our society that apparently think it is ok to use the word gay in this manner.
Pupil questionnaires undertaken by Key Stage 2 pupils in my own primary school clearly matched the damning statistics in the Stonewall School Report by showing that 75% of pupils in my school were hearing the pejorative use of the word gay on a daily basis. As a school leader it was my statutory and moral obligation to proactively tackle all forms of bullying in school, therefore it was a no brainer that as a school we needed to sort this issue out, but to do this ALL our staff needed training first.
I led the assembled staff through a whole day training, asking them to consider their own use of the word gay, their own experiences of hearing derogatory language aimed at gay people and laying my own experiences on the line as a common point of reference.
What followed was an unforgettably cathartic experience for everyone in the room, and in a respectful and highly structured manner we shared our differing viewpoints and experiences and reflected as to why we hold the beliefs we do. We celebrated difference and we found joy in commonality, and that commonality was our ability to put the children first.
When evaluated afterwards every single staff member agreed that together we needed to act to ensure that no child in our school would be party to homophobic bullying or language and that in doing this we need not compromise any deeply held beliefs. Some staff suggested that they would rethink their use of the word gay in their private lives and some stated that they would adopt a zero tolerance to the use of the word gay in a pejorative way with their teenage children and their friends, in the same way they tackle the use of racist language.
After training the staff in my school, with all their diverse backgrounds and beliefs, were confident and consistent in developing with pupils a zero tolerance approach to the use of homophobic language such as 'you're so gay/your pencil case is so gay'.
Recently a visitor to the school asked a Year 4 child about saying something like, "your shoes are so gay."
"We don't do that here, because it could hurt other people, especially gay people" came the reply.
Within a year, through training and developing empathy with our staff and pupils, incidences of homophobic bullying and language are down from 75% of pupils hearing it on a daily basis to no recorded incidents as of July 2012.
I am happy to say we now have pupils informing newly admitted pupils that we don't say the word "gay in a negative way" in the playground now.
I am happy to say that we have children who have no issue with using the word gay to describe a sunny day freely again in their writing, because we have taken the time to explore the ways in which the word can be used, positively and negatively and set clear expectations.
I am happy to say that several parents have informed me that they have stopped themselves from using the word gay in a negative way and that they have challenged teenagers and in some cases other schools over their continued normalisation of "that's so gay."
On more than one occasion people have said to me:
"It's so sad, gay used to mean bright and happy".
Well here's a thing, it still does, if you let it.
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