When I was at school in the 80s and 90s, our insult of choice
was 'naff', the etymology of which is thought to derive from gay
slang for a straight man, meaning 'no good' or 'useless' (Not
Available For Fucking). Our two other insults were 'lame', and -
since this was Nottinghamshire during the miners' strike - 'scab'
These words had different origins in the adult word but all meant
approximately the same thing: rubbish. A scabby bag, a naff coat, a
lame person. These categorically did not mean somebody (or their
bag) was heterosexual, physically disabled, or strike
Similarly, the rise of 'that's so gay' to become today's
playground insult of choice does not mean that homophobia is
rampant in schools, as Stonewall claims.
The meaning of language changes, and always depends on context and
motivation. 'Queer' meant 'odd', then became a badge of pride for
gays; 'gay' originally had the conflicting meanings of lewd, noble
and cheerful, and only in the twentieth century became a neutral
term for homosexual. Children's use of language is particularly
opaque, since terms take on a quite different significance in their
introverted and inverted world.
Children are emphatic that they don't use 'gay' to mean
homosexual. Tony Thorne, compiler of the Dictionary of Contemporary
Slang, says 'It is nearly always used in contexts where sexual
orientation and sexuality are completely irrelevant.' One teacher
noted that it is a light insult used quickly, a 'casually throwaway
remark…said without any obvious malice'.
Stonewall calls on teachers to always challenge the use of 'gay'
as an insult, summoning parents and higher management until
children agree to change their vocabulary. Hundreds of primary
school children have been reported to their local education
authority for using such 'homophobic language' (though most said
they didn't know what the term meant).
Of course, if a teacher wants to intervene - and use it as a
jump-off for 'it's ok to be gay' discussions - that's all to the
good. But any general no-tolerance intervention is absurd,
censorious, and entirely misses the point.
The climate faced by gay teenagers is better than ever, when
celebrities are out, every soap opera has gay characters and
confident gay teenagers populate shows like Ugly Betty and Glee.
Today's gay teenagers are remarkably unashamed, more at ease with
themselves than any other generation. Some of them come out at
school, which would have been unthinkable when I was at school -
then George Michael still pined for women in his pop videos and the
whole thing was an unspeakable taboo.
One New Zealand teacher was so concerned about the use of 'gay' as
playground slag that he sought to ban its use entirely. Is that
what we want, to turn it again into an unspeakable word? Why not
issue a dictionary of 'acceptable playground slang'?
Of course, teachers should deal firmly with any bullying of gay
teenagers, and teach equality and open-mindedness to all ages. But
this campaign against children's latest playground insult - which
is neither used against homosexuals nor means homosexual - is just
Josie Appleton is director of the civil liberties
group the Manifesto Club (manifestoclub.com),
and published a report arguing against hate-speech reporting. To
read click here manifestoclub.com/racistkidsreport2011.