Stonewall argues that the phrase has a harmful effect on young lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s education and well-being. Yet the initial findings from my interviews with 40 gay youths from four universities suggests a more complex picture, with no clear agreement on what the phrase means or its effects.
Consider Joe, a 19-year-old gay student at an elite university. He said: “I think it breaks down barriers between the straight and gay community. . . . I use it a lot.” Similarly, Neil, gay and age 18, said: “I don’t find it derogatory in any way, probably because I say it as well.”
How are we to understand a phrase that older people find homophobic, but many younger people do not find offensive and even use themselves? We can only get to an answer by listening to the voices of young people and trying to understand their perspectives.
My interest in the phrase “that’s so gay” developed when I researched straight male students at sixth form colleges, ages about 16-18. These young men had openly gay friends, supported gay rights and condemned homophobia.
Yet several of them would also say “that’s so gay” when frustrated. Given that labeling these students homophobic would be ridiculous, it was vital to consider how they were using this language and the reasons why.
All of the men in my research insisted that they did not intend to be homophobic when they used the phrase. For them, gay had two distinct meanings which they were able to distinguish between – when it refers to sexual identity and when it refers, separately, to something being “rubbish.”
Importantly, linguistic research supports their claims. Language has evolved and “gay” means something different to younger generations in particular contexts.
I argued that straight men’s use of phrases like “that’s so gay” could only be understood by three key factors: first, the intent with which it was said; second, the social context (homophobic or otherwise); and third, the effect it had. In other words, if there is no evidence of harm, it is difficult to argue that it is damaging.
When it comes to language use, context is all important. “That’s so gay” can be homophobic if it is said with negative intent or within a homophobic environment. But when it is said in settings where sexual minorities are out, proud and socially included, and heterosexual men are friends with their openly gay peers, it takes on different meanings. In such a context it is not homophobic.
This argument was supported by the narratives of many of the 40 young gay people in a study I am undertaking with colleagues at Durham University.
Most participants have argued that the context of the phrase determined their opinions of it: it was the manner in which it was said, along with their relationship to the speaker, which influenced how they heard the phrase.
In the debates about “that’s so gay,” it is important to recognize that gay youths also use the phrase. This was a recurring theme in the interviews, with Fred stating: “I say it all the time, it’s how you say you’re pissed off.” Others had more doubt, with Lee commenting: “I don’t like it, but I also say it.”
Only a minority of participants – less than a third – thought that the phrase was homophobic, and even fewer said that they never used it. Most of the young gay people in my study felt “that’s so gay” would only be homophobic if it was directed at a gay person, and with negative intent.
So there is no easy answer to whether “that’s so gay” is homophobic. It depends on the age of the people saying and hearing it, the intent with which it is said, and the context in which it is said. The meanings and effects of the phrase will also be different if it is aimed at a person or used as a more general expression of frustration.
There is also a clear generational difference, with younger people having markedly different understandings than older people.
Mark McCormack is a lecturer in sociology at Durham University.