How 'gay' became children's insult of choice

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Yeah, I'm going 'there'... again. Because I think we need to deal with
the latent homophobia that our culture pretends doesn't exist.


By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

The word "gay" is now the most frequently used term of abuse in
schools, says a report. How did it get to be so prevalent and why do
children use homophobic insults to get at each other?

full text linked below

What's latent about the homophobia in our culture?

In school different=bad. I'd guess that calling somebody gay is the most 'different' a tweenaged-
teenaged mind could think of, hence using it as the insult of choice.

School is a terrible place, built to train citizens to go to a place they
hate for 40h a week. I wish it were different, maybe shock collars would help?

PS: I still think a bike can be described as gay (there's a golden oldie from the VUL Forum

The latent aspect is that these children use the word but believe they are not homophobic when
doing so. This is pretty much impossible. One might as well suggest you can say the word black
and think of the colour white. Our brains simply aren't wired to achieve that kind of mental

If you continually use the word 'gay' with negative connotations, it is impossible to not have that
negative connotation exist in your mind on a subconscious level. Very straightforward stuff.

Ah, I don't equate self-delusion to latency. I don't think the homophobia is at all latent,
regardless of what the homophobes think of themselves.

It's latent if it's a young child who doesn't understand sexuality. Over time they equate gay with
bad, not understanding the connotations. When they do become old enough to understand, the
attitude moves from a latent to a sub-conscious one.

The more important point is that even as adults, this early wiring of our brain to equate a word
with a value judgement is very, very hard to overcome.

--> It's latent if it's a young child who doesn't understand sexuality. Over time they equate gay with bad, not understanding the connotations. When they do become old enough to understand, the attitude moves from a latent to a sub-conscious one. <--

You make that sound like direct findings from a properly performed study, rather than just personal conjecture.

I don't believe it, especially when I hear young gay people using the term, "gay" to describe a pair of ugly shoes.

I may say, "those shoes are dear", with the meaning that the shoes are expensive, while also saying, "oh, look... a deer", to refer to a four-legged animal at the side of the road.

Same word (... to the ear...), but completely different meaning.

Just because my mother used "dear" to describe all sorts of expensive things all through my young childhood, does not mean that I automatically think wild animals are very expensive.

"You make that sound like direct findings from a properly performed study, rather than just
personal conjecture."

I'm basing that statement on what linguists and psychologists have discovered about the
human brain and how it processes language and thought. If you grow up associating a word
with a certain meaning it becomes 'hard-wired' to an extent within your brain to have that
meaning. As an aside, that's why it's easier to learn other languages as a child and why you
need to be able to 'think' in another language to be able to speak it well as an adult.

The dear/deer example is spurious at best. For starters, they're spelt differently and you've
learned that... probably at a fairly young age. They're/there/their incidentally is a great
example too, when someone uses the wrong spelling, our brains experience a momentary
disconnect and have to adjust to figure out what is really being said) Also, neither use of
dear/deer is a value judgement. It wouldn't surprise me at all that if you said, "those shoes
are dear." to someone with English as a second language, that they might assume they are
made of deer hide.

I recommend Robert Cialdini's book "Influence" as a good starting point if you want to know

An excellent article from someone with a first-person perspective to offer.

Full text linked below:

Undesirable effects come with the negative use of the word ‘gay’

MONDAY, FEB. 11, 2008 @ 11:14 PM
When I talked to my boyfriend about an annoying situation a few weeks ago, I was careful
not to use the word “gay” pejoratively. My boyfriend once argued that the pejorative use of
the word is the reason young gay boys are afraid to come out. Furthermore, its use implies
that being gay is bad.

Quite frankly, he has a point. Our generation has been misusing “gay” as a general term of
disparagement. While political correctness seems cumbersome at times, it’s necessary.

... it still all sounds like personal opinion. But I'm not about to go on a tirade to try and talk anyone who's already convinced otherwise... it'd be a complete waste of my time. So I'll leave it at that.

haha. Too funny. Yeah, it's my personal opinion... that I arrived at by learning how language
influences thought and how early exposure to certain types of language colours our judgement. I
could probably provide a link a day for the next year as proof of those two FACTS.

What are you basing your personal opinion on again? Oh yeah, an irrelevant anecdote about your
Mom. Yep, I'm the one with a closed mind alright.

As an aside, I find it curious that someone involved in developing the language of rules would so
easily discount the impact language has. What's one of the first things in the ulty rule book? A
caveat that players aren't intentionally cheating. What's the point of that if not to make us view
our opponents in a certain light?

Coo By Coo

Well, I think that Gay is used so much becuase its so easy to say. (I myself don't like the term since its not harsh enough to describe people. I prefer idiot.)

Gay is just easier to say since its only a one syllable word. People who use words like "gay" are only capable of using one syllable words, so I sympathize with them. We, as educated people must give these people something better to work with.

How about f*&k as a description? We use it for everything else.

For Example:

Person A: (does something stupid).

Person B: Hey Person A, you're so f*&k!

Now, lets create a day so we all can celebrate this new decriptive word.

Mmmm. Let's call it Let's all say f*&k day! That would totally look good on a T-shirt.

Now, back to the moral of the story. If you want to change something in society, you must replace it with something better.

The word "gay" is so 80's.

For the files:


(Internet, slang, pejorative) An alternate spelling of gay meaning ineffectual, unsatisfying, unfulfilling, stupid, untalented, and so on. Equivalent to the slang meaning of lame.

Usage notes
The spelling is typically used to differentiate the meaning of "lame" from the homophonic meanings of "homosexual" or "happy," so as to retain the pejorative meaning, without the "happy or joyful" misinterpretation.


deer/dear <==> gay/ghey (spurious argument? ... I don't think so)

When I hear someone saying "those shoes are so xxxx", I've always envisioned "ghey". Perhaps it's my brain's way of knowing the statement has nothing to do with sexuality, but rather to do with being lame. That was the parallel (/example) I was attempting to make earlier with deer/dear.

I completely agree that, given society's rampant dislike of the word "gay"(i.e., ghey) in this context, it absolutely shouldn't be used in this context. However, I don't believe that people, children on the playground included, are using this word in this context to mean anything sexual either.

I suppose I was originally drawn into this thread as a reaction to the initial statements suggesting that the use of the word implies homophobia, and the original articles suggestion that the use of the word on playgrounds seems to always suggest a gay-related insult.

Yes the word shouldn't be used. No it isn't always used in a homosexual context. Yes, journalists often spin a story to make it more sensational regardless of the truthfulness of the facts. Yes, people with 'personal agendas' will often use these imperfect journalistic works to support their claims when it fits. No, I will not always react badly to this. Yes, I will attempt to refrain from commenting in the future unless over coffee. No, I will not be successful.

... carry on.

P.S. Sometimes I think rainbows are gay. And bikes.

The 'ghey' usage is very, very new. And came about precisely because people wanted to
differentiate their (supposed) non-homophobic use of the word. Classic example of
Shakespeare's "the lady doth protest too much". In other words, attempting to differentiate
the expression really just solidifies the impression that the person is exactly what they say
they're not. If you weren't uncomfortable with it, why not stand up for your right to use the

It's about as effective as suggesting that a sentence that read "and then I joo-ed him down"
wouldn't be an ethnic slur.

Dear/deer is not a value judgement. So, comparing it to ghey/gay doesn't work. Both words
have the same meaning for some people.

Further, you still are not addressing the fact that children's brains aren't fully formed and the
associations they make at a young age are very likely to stick with them. That's why baby
racists grow up to be adult racists. That's why you can't think of the word red and see the
colour blue in your mind's eye without a specific effort.

"However, I don't believe that people, children on the playground included, are using this word in
this context to mean anything sexual either."

I'm sure they are not. Not at least until they are pre-pubescent boys and then I think it often
has both meanings. Once again, the problem is with the associations formed that we carry with
us into adulthood. I've yet to hear an argument from you Mortakai that disproves my contention
that the definitions we grow up with stick with us. It's when additional definitions are added, esp
when the original one is a negative value judgement, that we have problematic subconscious
associations. If you didn't read my second link I think you should. The writer there specifically
outlines how the use of the word gay on the playground negatively affected him as a young man
on the verge of coming out. I doubt it's an isolated example.

I'm not going to address adolescent brain development, because I don't have empirical evidence or knowledge to do so without making something up or attempting to be sensationalist.

I will say though, that for the first 2-to-3 decades of my life, "gay" had 2 meaniings: homosexual and happy. And "fag" had one meaning: homosexual. My brain very easily got past this supposed "locked-in associations" to add additional meanings (i.e., lousy and cigarette, respectively) and I'm able to differentiate the meanings in context quite easily.

Personally, I think it may be another case of PC taken too far.

And if by "very very new", you mean "more than a decade, then okay, but I think you'd want to qualify next time what you mean by the term. I've used the term in that context at least since the mid-90's.

One anecdotal account does not equate to an unbiased and properly performed scientific study. Yes, my grandmother had difficulty discerning by sound only whether a car was coming from the right or the left. And so was at increased risk of being hit whenever she attempted to cross the street. But this does not mean that this is the case for a statistically significant portion of the population or that cars should be banned. Oh wait, it's not a value judgment, so is not a relevant example. Or is it rather not relevant because it doesn't support your argument?

Just to note. I'm not talking about adolescent brain development. I'm talking about children
younger than that who are just learning language.

If you grew up hearing 'gay' used as a putdown and discovered you were in fact gay in the
sexual orientation sense of the word, how do you suppose that might make you feel about
yourself and society's view of gay people? Have you read that second link I recommended?
Please do.

Also, I've seen the spelling 'ghey' used to describe orientation by some folks attempting to be

"Personally, I think it may be another case of PC taken too far"

And there's the crux of it right there. Would you call a mentally-challenged child stupid? A
person in a wheelchair a gimp? Why can't gay people have the same modicum of respect?

Yeah, my mistake... I didn't mean adolescence... I know you meant much younger than that too.

We really could go on and on about this... and I don't have the time, and now not the desire, to continue it in print. I think we're discussing two separate facets of the topic and convergence will be incredibly difficult even without those constraints.

Seriously, I need to focus on other (more important to me) things than whether you have the ability to understand what I'm trying to say and/or whether I'm able to help that happen.

No offence, but I think I'm understanding just fine. I'm disagreeing however.


I'm a lot surprised that nobody has mentioned that only recently has gay been a synonym for homosexual. I'm a bit confused about what the actual argument is, so perhaps you can enlighten me what the core point you're trying to make is so I can decide if I agree or not.

Are you trying to suggest that the meaning of gay as you use it (homosexual) is the true and accurate meaning, and that other meanings are incorrect?

Are you trying to suggest that children need to have a more robust vocabulary so that they can taunt each other in more meaningful ways?

Or is the entire thrust of your thesis that for some percentage of the population that words can impact their way of thinking?

If it's the latter, then I wonder what your take on whether these children learn the term as meaning simply uncool (I suspect this is what they learn first, and also your arguments above seem to indicate this as well), and it's the latter use of the term to reference GLBT that comes later in life that is actually what creates that link? As if the term is already co-opted in their minds.

I honestly believe we as intelligent beings have enough capacity to distinguish homonyms from context, but that's just my opinion.

I would argue that our brains aren't as capable of making that distinction as we imagine. This is
based upon the reading I've done concerning how we process information, esp. language. I will
try to find links.

My core point is explained pretty well IMO by the article in the link I've provided below.

Excellent discussion of the subject on metafilter. Linked below.

I would add that it's my understanding that the use of gay as a putdown came after its
as a word to describe people who are homosexuals. So, it's evolution comes from a place of
discrimination and is because of that fact, always derogatory, whether the speaker intends it
be so or not, just as a reference to jewing or gyping someone is always considered a bigoted
of phrase.

These examples are far different from when youth appropriate other words and turn their
meaning around ie, cool means good, hot means good, sick means good, etc, etc.

If you are as old as me you might remember when eeny-meeny-miny-moe preceded
something other than 'catch a tiger' by the toe. To our young brains, we didn't really hear the
bigotry until it was pointed out. Didn't make it any less offensive. My parents put a stop to
that for good reason. I think letting kids use gay in the same manner needs to be addressed
as well. We can begin by setting an example.

"In a school environment where teenagers freely use pejoratives such as "fag" and "queer" to browbeat anyone seen as different, few students are brave enough to step forward and condemn the abuse, said Taylor."

Link goes to full text