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Is It Ever Okay to Call Something 'Gay'?

By Madeline Holler |

thats so gay, racist jokes

No, no, that's not OK.

Mary Elizabeth Williams asks over on Salon whether it’s ever okay to call something gay. You know, like that  movie was “so gay” or that car is “so gay.” Her conclusion? Nah. For the most part, don’t use it.

She’s got some sort-of exceptions, which are not nuanced, so don’t act like it’s complicated and everyone’s trampling on your rights and freedom of speech. There are ways to call something ugly or weak or unflattering or awkward without calling that thing “gay.” Gay, for decades now, means gay. These days (finally!), that’s not a bad thing.

Your kids need to know this, too. (National Coming Out Day seems like a fine time to talk about it.) There are plenty of other words kids can work into their vocabularies in order to degrade movies, games, toys and their peers.

Parents can talk about some alternatives, especially if your kid is a heavy user of “gay” and it’s nominal counterpart “fag” and “dyke.” Words like boring, stupid, inane, implausible, ridiculously easy, an insult to my intelligence!, jerk, passive-aggressive jerk, know-it-all and simpering fool come immediately to mind. Also? Asinine, because it sounds a little dirty. But I’m sure you have your own personal favorites.

I, personally, swear like a sailor, and I also have a pretty robust vocabulary. I’ve never believed that the two are mutually exclusive. But not since my own misinformed youth have I used “gay” to degrade something or someone. (I cringe just thinking about it.) And my kids couldn’t imagine using “gay” as a way of expressing something negative.

Also on the no-fly list? Retarded/retard. Anything racist. And I’ve begun to wonder about the word “lame” (would love your thoughts on that).

And pity the NFL fan within my earshot who talks about a defensive line in “skirts” — 5-minute mandatory lecture in front of the big screen on how there isn’t anything inherently weak about women.


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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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23 thoughts on “Is It Ever Okay to Call Something 'Gay'?

  1. Gretchen Powers says:

    What if someone who is actually gay or bisexual uses the word “gay” like that? Is that like how blacks can use the “N” word? Do tell…I know this bisexual guy and…

  2. JR says:

    Great piece — I totally agree on all points.

    As for me, I really think “lame” is fine. The word has long been in use to mean “feeble” or “insubstantial.” Whereas the very recent use of “gay” and “retarded,” as derogatory terms are definitely associated with homosexuality and disability, respectively.

    I can’t think of any disabled person who would refer to him or herself as being “lame” in this day and age. I don’t know; maybe somebody with a disability could convince me that using the word is derogatory to the disabled, but I can’t quite convince myself.

  3. Good point, JR. Seems worth thinking about. And Gretchen, that’s exactly the circumstance the Salon writer brings up (and the exception I referred to). She says she holds her tongue in those instances.

  4. Gretchen Powers says:

    Well, they are actually kind of nuanced. I think everyone needs to lighten up and be in a “spirit of the law” thing, personally. I wouldn’t use the term because I wouldn’t want to sound like a 13 year old boy, akin to Beavis and Butthead (same with retarded) but, would I call someone else out for doing it? No…

  5. Would you call your kid out for doing it, though? Even if he were a 13-year-old boy?

  6. Treespeed says:

    I like Louis CK’s take on the idiocy of this imagining that correcting the language will somehow correct the problem.

  7. Gretchen Powers says:

    My kid, yeah…I’d call my kid out for sure. That’s my job.

  8. Sarah says:

    I would definately call my kid out for it. I’ve called two of my teenage nieces out for it just this month.

  9. Gretchen Powers says:

    Re the Louis CK thing…I think there’s a difference between saying something is “so gay” and calling someone a “faggot” both are not great…one I think it way worse…I get where he’s coming from, but he’s a grown man. Kids don’t understand so best to teach them to just be nice. Why the need to call names at all?

  10. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    @Treespeed: I caught Louis CK’s series on FX channel this summer, a show written, directed and produced by him. There was a scene early on during a poker game with his comedian friends, where Louis CK asks a gay comedian if he was uncomfortable with his use of “fa***t” in his comedy routine. His friend responds, “When you use it on stage, I can see it’s funny and I don’t care. But are you interested to know what it might mean to gay men?” He goes on to explain the history of that word, and how, for a gay man, it has probably been shouted at him by one person, or a group of people, maybe while he was being beaten up for who he is. And when someone straight says it, even in jest, it kinda brings “all that back up.” It was an interesting scene to watch. I’d say some people, by way of what they paid and continue to pay to society, by way of inequality, deserve not to hear certain words used by the general populace. And if someone wants to use certain words, they damn well better be educated to the full meaning of such words, including how those words were used to hurt. That’s how I intend to teach my children. Then, with that knowledge, they can decide whether they are going to use that word, loaded with all the hate and hurt it carried historically, or if they’re going to make a different choice.

  11. Linda says:

    I don’t use terms like that and don’t allow the children to either. I’d certainly correct any other child or adult using derogotory terms in my presence.

  12. lazer says:

    what a gay blog post.

  13. Beth A. says:

    I’m not sure why the fact that people with disabilities don’t generally get called lame any more means it’s okay to use. Its first definition in the dictionary is unable to walk or having a non-functioning limb. That’s what it means, and the other meanings of weak or feeble derive from that – something lame is weak or feeble just as someone who can’t walk is weak or feeble. There are lots of words we no longer use – we don’t use crippled for people who can’t walk, we don’t call people with Down Syndrome mongoloid, we don’t call African Americans colored. For that matter, people with intellectual disabilities no longer call themselves retarded. But if those words do get used, we still know what they mean, and they shouldn’t be used as derogatory terms. Most of those words, including gay and retarded, have other commonly used meanings as well, so the fact that lame can mean other things shouldn’t exempt it.

    To me, it’s pretty simple. If it’s a word used to describe a person, you shouldn’t use it as a derogatory term for something else, because that derogatory meaning reflects back onto those people.

  14. PlumbLucky says:

    Beth A. wins with her last line of commentary – if it could be used to describe a person, don’t use it. Makes you look like a Butthead (or a Beavis) if you do.
    Best use of the term “retard” in a nuanced and implied way ever? Family reunion – there are some tweenage boys playing near several of us, including my cousin who has Downs. One of them loudly informs her that she plays volleyball “like a retard”. She cooly looks at him and says “…at least I have an excuse” and continues playing. Cue roars from all adults in earshot. (Her Dad taught her that line as a verbal self defense as she’s a little older than me and thus grew up when it wasn’t always taboo to call something “retarded”.)

  15. Gretchen Powers says:

    uhm, any adjective can be used to describe a person…try again!

    (I do like your plucky cousin’s story, though, and generally agree with the tone of being nice)

  16. PlumbLucky says:

    Hmmm…an adjective used to describe either a person or something about that person over which said person has NO control? My cousin is a hoot and a half…quite the cut-up disablities or not.
    I’d say “don’t say something that you’d be afraid your Mom would hear you say” but there’s too much evidence that that isn’t necessarily the best scale to judge by (the Petkovs in Trenton, MI, come to mind…)

  17. Linda says:

    Really? So people shouldn’t day, “This roofing product retards the growth of moss.” Or “That bird has a lame wing?” Sorry, that’s completely stupid. It reminds me of an online argument I witnessed once where people where enraged because someone used the word “niggardly” and some people where to dumb to understand what it means. Words have different meanings. Certainly, be respectful, but taking whole words out of the lexicon seemns extreem and shortsighted.

  18. Linda says:

    *”were”. damn I had a lot of typos earlier. :/

  19. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    Language evolves. And context matters. Did the lexicon suffer the loss of “dumb” to describe a person who could not speak?

  20. Gretchen Powers says:

    The last three comments don’t make a whole lot of sense. You’re trying too hard.

  21. bob says:

    If you’ve personally had gay sex with said thing, then sure, it’s OK to call it ‘gay’.

  22. Sarah says:

    I’m a little torn on this, surprisingly, as I am both gay and a middle and high school teacher. Sure, I police using the words gay and retarded as synonyms for stupid at work. But, as others have pointed out, lots of words we routinely use as perportedly innocent substitutions have similarly disturbing origins: lame, dumb, “that sucks” for starters. Language evolves. When does the new meaning transcend its origin?

  23. MonicaBielanko says:

    Here’s my question regarding the use of gay. I don’t like to use it to call something stupid… but what if something is stereotypically gay, such as a clothing item or bedroom decoration etc… Say, for example, my husband asks if I like the pink shirt with sparkles he’s wearing and I say “Eh, it’s a little gay.” I’m not saying it’s ugly, it’s just not his style… you know what I mean? Is that stereotyping or because we all know what I mean when I say the shirt is a little gay, is it a legit thing to say?

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