Sunday, February 7, 2010
"It just means bad. Gay is something that you don't want to be."
Yesterday, I was tutoring a 4th grader, Luis. I tutor kids one-on-one. Right now I have six students, and I tutor them on different days.
Luis I tutor every Saturday afternoon for two hours at the public library. I teach him English language arts (I could never teach him math. He would need to tutor me in math).
In any case, the first hour of our sessions we focus on reading. I have him read Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi. He reads three chapters, and we discuss the story, etc.
Pinocchio was written in Italian, in the 1880s. The English translation we are reading is from the 1940s. As a result, there are some words that children today are not familiar with, and I take the opportunity to increase their vocabulary by defining these still-used yet seemingly-archaic words for them.
Well, yesterday, as he was reading, Luis started to giggle. I asked him what was so funny, and he pointed at a word in the text: "gay."
"Why do you think that word is so funny?" I asked him.
"It's a bad word!" he said.
"Read the sentence again," I told him, "and see if you can figure out what 'gay' means in the context of the sentence."
He read the sentence again, and said he didn't know. I told him that, as it it used in the sentence, "gay" means "cheerful." I gave him other synonyms: "joyful, gleeful, merry, jolly..."
" 'Gay' means all those things?" he asked.
"Yes. It can also mean 'lively' or 'exuberant.' Why? What do you think it means?"
"I don't know. It just means 'bad.' If you're gay, it's a bad thing. In school, any kid who does something dumb, or makes mistakes, or isn't liked, or is bad at sports, or dresses bad, is gay."
I decided not to correct him for saying, "dresses bad," rather than, "dresses badly," in favor of sticking to the topic at hand.
"I know what you mean," I said, "for example, if you think something is uncool, you say, 'That's so gay,' or if something looks weird, you say, 'That looks gay,' or if a TV show is bad, 'That show's so gay.' "
"Yeah. Right. It's gay. Did kids talk like that when you were in school?"
"Yes," I said, and then I paused. I didn't know if he knew that gay also refers to homosexuality. When I was nine, I had no idea what homosexuality was (or even what heterosexuality was) but with kids today, you never know...
After thinking it over, I said to him, "So we know that the proper definition of 'gay' means 'cheerful,' and that as slang, some people use 'gay' to mean 'bad.' Can you think of any other way that 'gay' can be used in slang?"
He thought it over for a long time, and said, "No. It just means bad. Gay is something that you don't want to be."
I wanted to tell him, "Well, you should not use that word to mean 'bad' or 'weird' or 'stupid' or 'something you don't want to be,' because 'gay' also means 'homosexual,' and there are lots of kids that, as they become teenagers, realize that they are gay, and it makes them feel less of themselves if they hear their classmates using the word that describes what they are as a pejorative."
I didn't tell him that. I decided to drop the subject. I decided to only teach him that "gay" is a synonym for "cheerful," and move on. Let his parents teach him that "gay" also means "homosexual." That's their job, not mine.
But it did get me to thinking. Anti-gay sentiment is instilled in kids at a very young age. Even before they know what "gay" means, they know it is bad, weird, negative and something that you don't want to be-- even though nobody wants to be gay (you just are or you aren't). But if you are, and you're young, it must be a blow to your self-esteem to hear people using the word for what you are to mean "bad."
"I hate this class. It's so Asian."
"This movie sucks. It's so woman."
"I'm not doing that. That's so black."
"Look at that awful dress she's wearing! It's so Hispanic."
"Why do we have to do this? It's so white."
"I'm not hanging out with them. They're so man."