Stonewall's latest campaign to raise awareness about the use of the word "gay" in schools is long overdue. Reactions such as Brendan O'Neill's recent piece for The Telegraph are as predictable as they are flawed. "Young people have changed the meaning of this word" O'Neill writes. "Somewhat controversially, gay now means rubbish, or pathetic, or lame". He goes on to point out that in many cases the phrase "that's so gay" is not directed towards gay people at all, and is therefore devoid of homophobic intent. This is all true, but it is also beside the point.
Quite obviously, language functions through a process of association. Is it really feasible to suppose that words can ever be wholly divorced from their prevalent connotations simply because of intent? Is it not the responsibility of teachers to educate pupils in the power of language and to be aware of how their words might be interpreted? According to O'Neill, apparently not.
There is nothing new about O'Neill's argument. In 2005, Radio 1 presenter Chris Moyles described a particularly irritating ringtone as "gay" during his breakfast show, but the BBC governors dismissed subsequent complaints on the grounds that this was "widespread current usage" amongst young people, and that "it was to be expected that Chris Moyles would use expressions and words which the listeners used themselves". By this rationale, the BBC should have had no problem at all when Moyles used the word "fucking" live on air, given that such expletives are also part of the lexicon of the playground. But following an Ofcom investigation the BBC did not leap to Moyles's defence, but instead announced a new stringent code of conduct for its presenters.
The truth is that we all tacitly accept limitations on certain forms of verbal expression for the sake of social cohesion, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. Most of us, for instance, are happy to modify our language in the workplace, or when out in public, because we understand that there are broadly accepted standards for polite discourse that differ from private conversation. Why should a school be any different?
According to a Stonewall report, two in five gay pupils fail to report homophobic bullying because they feel that nothing will be done, and three in five say that teachers do not intervene when they witness such offences. Casual anti-gay terminology contributes to this climate, whether the intention is homophobic or not, and pupils need to be made aware of this. O'Neill would have us believe that this is simply the inevitable evolution of language, but his hypothetical example of the General Medical Council seeking to outlaw the use of the word "sick" to mean "good" is tentative in the extreme. For a gay teenager, living in a culture in which being gay is linguistically associated with inferiority and ridicule, the stakes are somewhat higher.
In any case, O'Neill's optimism about levels of gay tolerance amongst young people is simply unfounded. He cites a poll claiming that 82 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds are in favour of gay marriage, a statistic which is entirely irrelevant to the fact that anti-gay bullying is endemic in our schools. What of the 55 percent of LGBT pupils who have experienced direct forms of bullying? What of the high rates of attempted suicide amongst LGBT pupils as compared to their heterosexual peers? O'Neill's belief that "the new use of the word gay does not speak to a prejudiced outlook" simply reveals that he is out of touch with the realities of school experience. If he really believes that being gay at school is no longer a problem, he will have to explain why so few gay pupils are open about their sexual orientation.
O'Neill further maintains that Stonewall is "fighting a losing battle. When youth culture starts fiddling with particular words, little can be done about it". Again, this is sidestepping the real issue. The point is not to eliminate language that we find unpalatable, it is to register an objection so that pupils understand what is and is not acceptable in polite society. It's about sending a clear message to gay pupils that they are as valued and respected as their straight classmates. Put simply, it's a matter of courtesy. Is that really too much to ask?
With over 1000 homophobic attacks being reported each year in London alone, and many more going unreported, now is not the time to be complacent about educating the young in the importance of respectful social discourse. Stonewall are right to take a stand against the likes of O'Neill, and they deserve our support.