Dear Consulting Room
I was on a camping holiday recently with my wife and two kids. There was an evening BBQ at the campsite and all the families joined in. We were the only same-sex couple there. Some boys of around 10 years old were playing together near us, wrestling on the grass. One of them who was watching jibed his friend, shouting ‘stop being so gay’. They were within earshot of their parents who didn’t react. I wanted to say something to educate him but felt I couldn’t; I didn’t know the kids or their parents who were nearby and was afraid I might cause a row. I have been in this situation before in the local playground and both times I felt uncomfortable. I hate hearing this casual use of ‘gay’ as an insult. I owe it to my children and myself to stand up for our family, but how can I do that in a way that is respectful?
My respect to you for wanting to stand up to this! Sadly as we know from the evidence collected by Stonewall, the use of the word gay as a pejorative term is endemic in our schools and communities, not just by young people but also very worryingly sometimes teachers and adults. I also regularly hear from young people who feel that some adults working in schools condone this use of language by not challenging it.
We also know that many young LGBT people and those with LGBT friends and family find the use of the word gay to describe something as being uncool or without worth extremely hurtful (not surprisingly). In my work I liken it to the use of the ‘N’ word and explore how they would feel about using the ‘N’ word to describe, say, a pair of trainers, a haircut or a missed goal in a football game; quite rightly, the reaction is without exception ‘of course we would never do that’.
From here I point out that the word gay can be used to describe something as happy or carefree (fine, use it) or to describe two people of the same sex who love each other (fine, please use it respectfully) or that it can be used to describe something as rubbish, uncool or without worth and that this has the potential to hurt people and make them want to damage themselves. Then an agreement needs to be reached, once the learning has taken place, that the pejorative use will no longer be tolerated.
Many people use the word gay in this way without considering that it can appear homophobic or that it has the potential to hurt and therefore wherever possible we need to be challenging it.
Consulting Room expert: Shaun Dellenty
Shaun is Deputy Headteacher of Alfred Salter Primary School, Southwark, London and founder of Inclusion For All, a charitable organisation which runs trainings and conferences to prevent LGBTQI bullying. Shaun speaks regularly about his work for many organisations including Stonewall, the National College of Teaching and Learning, the British Film Institute, NSPCC, Amnesty International, the Church of England and TEDx.