A late August post briefly mentioned a recent study from the University of Michigan, which found the phrase “that’s so gay” to be associated with negative health symptoms among lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) college youth. It’s worth briefly highlighting that news item again, because the study helps shed light on an important issue—”microaggressions”—in the lives of LGBT youth.
Is “that’s so gay” anti-gay?
As readers are surely aware, young people frequently use the phrase “that’s gay” or “that’s so gay” to describe something as stupid, weird, worthless, or otherwise undesirable. The Michigan study’s authors note that the phrase “has become so ubiquitous that it has been described as ‘low-level, tolerated background noise’ across educational settings, including college settings.”[1. I have not found a free version of the full text of the Michigan study. You can purchase a copy here, and you can read about the study here.] While some young people use the phrase in an intentionally anti-LGB way, many others use the phrase without considering its anti-LGB connotations. Indeed, many people who use the phrase will deny that it has any anti-LGB connotation at all; they argue that it only means something is stupid or undesirable (at least in the way that they use it), and that the word “gay” in the phrase doesn’t mean “homosexual.” In the minds of these young people, there is nothing inconsistent with being pro-LGBT equality and using the phrase “that’s gay” as a “generic” put-down to describe things they don’t like.
So is “that’s so gay” an anti-gay phrase or not?
I believe strongly that it is, but the issue is complicated.
On the one hand, I find it implausible that using the word “gay” as an insult or put-down can ever be completely free of connotations with respect to gay people or homosexuality. And I often react with surprise when people express doubt about whether using the word “gay” to mean “stupid” or “worthless” is hurtful. Clearly, a large part of me thinks, the phrase is offensive and anti-gay. Why isn’t this an easy question? We all know, after all, that regardless of what some adolescents claim to mean by “that’s so gay,” children grow up in a world where being called “gay” is at least sometimes considered insulting precisely because it means homosexual. Are we really supposed to believe that the word, at some age or stage of growing up (or in some special context), magically sheds its LGBT connotation altogether?
Plus, if a trend started among young people to frequently use the phrase “that’s so Jewish” or “that’s so Asian” to mean “that’s stupid,” few (adult) people would have trouble understanding why the practice was offensive. Most young people would surely get it too. I have trouble imagining an attempt to rationalize such phrases in the way that “that’s so gay” is often rationalized: Would young people say things like, “we don’t mean ‘Asian’ literally; we just mean ‘Asian’ in a generic way to mean stupid--not actually, like, Asian Asian!” This hypothetical defense sounds ridiculous, but young people defend the use of “that’s so gay” with nearly identical language all the time.
Finally, if we measure whether the phrase “that’s so gay” is offensive in part by looking to its effects (as opposed to looking merely at the conscious intent of the speaker), the Michigan study lends credence to my intuition—shared by many others as well—that the phrase “that’s so gay” is offensive and anti-gay. The Michigan study found that LGB “students who more often heard ‘that’s so gay’ reported feeling more left out at the university”; hearing the phrase more frequently was also “associated with reporting more headaches and problems eating or a poor appetite.” These findings are consistent with research from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN): GLSEN’s 2011 National School Climate Survey—released yesterday—found that “84.9% of [LGBT] students heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) frequently or often at school, and 91.4% reported that they felt distressed because of this language.”
But despite all this, I confess that the “that’s so gay” question is a bit complicated. I share, for example, the widely held opinion that “that’s so gay” isn’t nearly as harmful as anti-gay words like “faggot” and “dyke.” And I can’t deny the fact that some young, highly intelligent, and vocal supporters of LGBT equality use the phrase “that’s so gay” in a way that (they believe) is not anti-LGBT.
How can we reconcile these intuitions and understandings? What, in the end, do we make of the phrase “that’s so gay”?
The Michigan study helps answer these questions by describing “that’s so gay” as a form of “microaggression.” This way of thinking about the phrase usefully captures its harm as well as the subtlety of that harm.
What is “microaggression”? The term did not originate from the recent University of Michigan study. Researchers first used the term in the 1970s to describe subtle forms of racism. Since then, the term’s meaning has been broadened and applied to describe the experiences of a range of marginalized or stigmatized groups, including racial minorities, women, and LGBT people. Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a widely cited authority on the subject, describes microaggressions as “the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.” Microaggressions may be “unconsciously delivered as subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones” (emphasis mine). While a single microaggression may appear harmless, particularly when considered in isolation, the cumulative effect of the microaggressions may be grave. Dr. Sue writes that
microaggressions are constant and continuing experiences of marginalized groups in our society; they assail the self-esteem of recipients, produce anger and frustration, deplete psychic energy, lower feelings of subjective well-being and worthiness, produce physical health problems, shorten life expectancy, and deny minority populations equal access and opportunity in education, employment, and health care.
Responding to microaggressions
Thinking about phrases like “that’s so gay” as forms of microaggression facilitates a more nuanced—and likely more accurate—understanding of the different kinds of homophobia that permeate young people’s lives. By identifying “that’s so gay” as an act of microaggression, we can recognize its potential for serious harm (especially when considered on a cumulative basis) while also accepting that the “perpetrators” of this harm are not necessarily “bullies” who require a harsh punishment (though some may fit that category). This, in turn, should help us craft more appropriate remedies. While punishment for harassment most definitely has its place, other kinds of preventive and remedial measures may be particularly useful in responding to prevalent microaggressions.
Institutional responses that go above and beyond mere punishment of “bad actors” are, in fact, precisely what the Michigan study’s authors recommend. (Though the authors’ study focused specifically on universities, their recommendations appear appropriate for secondary schools as well.) For example, the authors call for “[s]trategies to foster feelings of acceptance on campus,” pointing more specifically to the benefits of gay-straight alliances and other forms of “intergroup dialogue.” And to decrease the use of “that’s so gay” on campus, the authors state that “[i]t may be helpful to develop campaigns about the heterosexist nature of the phrase ['that's so gay'] and the possibility of related negative well-being for [LGB] students.” In other words, don’t just punish students who derisively call things “gay”: teach them that their words have subtle negative meanings and not-so-subtle consequences. More specifically, teach them about the harm of cumulative microaggressions–which is not a difficult concept–and about the evidence that certain words and phrases may be harmful to their classmates regardless of the speaker’s intent. By talking about microaggressions, schools can also support and validate the feelings of students who feel injured by these attacks; these students may otherwise worry that to speak up about microaggressions is to “overreact” or “make a big deal out of nothing,” especially because microaggressions may appear harmless when considered in isolation.
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of applying penalties to students who engage in bullying and harassment. Indeed, “that’s so gay” is not necessarily a microaggression in every situation. In some (perhaps many or most?) contexts, the phrase is quite purposefully and effectively used as a hateful or intimidating verbal attack, and it should be treated as such. But the Michigan study, considered in light of the writing on microaggression more generally, reminds us that effective responses to bullying will require more sensitivity to nuance and context. Not every “that’s so gay” springs from a place of hatred, though its consequences may be similar. And we all must be open to the possibility that we participate in inflicting harm on marginalized groups despite our best intentions.