The word “gay”

Many years ago while taking a fiction writing class, I wrote a story about a gay couple at Valentine’s Day. I’d have to dig pretty deep in my file archives to find it, and I suspect I don’t even have it anymore.

Though I’m certainly not a fiction writer, the story itself wasn’t too bad. The most impressive part of the story was the way I described the couple’s cat. Naming him “Dante,” I wrote several highly descriptive passages of the cat getting into various mischievous adventures, culminating in an exploration of one of the character’s jeans that had to be ended with a rescue. All of this going on while the two characters argued about something

Definition of gaySince I don’t own a cat, it’s rather amusing to remember I wrote a story involving one. And I suppose it isn’t any less amusing that I wrote a story about a gay couple without knowing one.

There certainly wasn’t any ill will in this story toward gay couples, only the chutzpah of a college kid thinking he could do anything. I remember taking pains to write the story in a dignified manner, witholding the names and genders of the couple until halfway through the story for maximum shock value. This was in the mid-nineties, before television shows like “Will and Grace” brought gay couples to the mainstream. Looking for a new angle on a traditional love story, I simply wanted to portray the couple as “normal.”

In the sort of irony that only historical hindsight can bring you, the musical Rent made its Off-Broadway premiere that same year. Composer Jonathan Larson spent seven years waiting tables while he worked up the score. And I thought I could bang out a story in a few days.

I don’t know if I’m truly any more qualified now to discuss the trials and tribulations of gay couples than I was 15 years ago in college. But I’ve learned a few things since then, one of them being the risks faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth.

According to a 2007 survey by the advocacy group GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), almost 9 of 10 LGBT students were harrassed at school during the past year. Three-fifths felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and roughly a third skipped a day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe.

Harassment comes in a lot of different forms — not all of them are overt. Some of them have just sort of worked their way into contemporary culture.

Prime example: the phrase “that’s so gay.” More specifically, the use of the word “gay” as an adjective to mean something dumb or stupid. As in “that homework was so gay, man.”

This is a phrase that’s annoyed me for years. Confronting people on it almost inevitable results in an awkwardly angry retort: “I didn’t mean it like that…”

And yet the words still get used.

Language is a funny thing. The way we speak, the words we use to describe things do have a tendency to control the way we think about things. Ever read 1984? Then I don’t need to explain this to you. If you haven’t read Orwell’s novel, take a read. In particular, pay attention to the work on the language Newspeak.

This is part of the reason I was so happy last year when GLESN began its campaign “Think Before You Speak.” Targeted at adolescents, the campaign’s into its second year urging teenagers to think about the words they use and the effects they cause.

I’m looking forward to hearing some official statistics showing some positive results. I personally feel that in the 1-1/2 years this campaign has run in my school, I’ve seen a reasonable decline in this sort of language.

There’s a lot further to go, and I can’ t presume to speak for the people who are most affected by this issue. But writers need to write, at least from time to time, in a way that effects some positive change in the world.

This is what I missed in that story over 15 years ago. I used gay culture — without even knowing anything about it — as a means to simple entertainment.

So happy Valentine’s Day to everyone out there. May your day be happy, non-commercial, and safe.


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