Why Kids Think the Word “Gay” is a Swear Word

We have come a really long way in this world. I often hear teachers pride themselves on stopping students in their classroom from saying, “That’s so gay!” as an insult. It was not all that many years ago when this was a commonly used phrase, when teachers themselves could often be heard using this phrase, and it would be hard to find any teachers who would even think to stand up and stop kids from using it.

And that is something to celebrate.

But I am writing this post to let those who read this know that I do not believe that it is enough.

I do not believe that it is enough anymore to tell kids not to use the word gay as an insult because what has started to happen is that kids have started to believe that it is not okay to use the word gay. Ever. Kids have started to believe that saying the word gay, in any context, is a reason for them to get into trouble at school. And the problem with that is, if you think of the other kinds of words that kids will get in to trouble for saying at school, they are all words associated with negative things. Bad words. Swear words. These are words that will get you into trouble. And now, many kids also believe that words like “gay” and “lesbian” and “transgender” are words that will get them into trouble.  We have unintentionally created a situation where kids think that the word gay is a swear word.  Kids have started to believe that gay is a word that does not belong in a classroom, that does not belong in schools, and that must mean that there is something wrong with the word and therefore something wrong with people who are gay as well.  We have, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps very intentionally, erased people who are LGBT from our classrooms, especially in the lower grades.

There is a moment from my own classroom that sticks out so vividly and that illustrate this current problem so perfectly. Several years ago, before I had come out to my students, I was reading to my students Patricia Polacco’s book In Our Mothers’ House. The book tells the beautiful story of a lesbian couple and their three adopted children. The family is pictured on the cover of the book and as we were looking at the book, before beginning to read it, I asked the kids to tell me what they noticed about the family on the cover. Now, in my classroom, as in most elementary school classrooms, when you ask a group of kids to share what they notice, hands shoot up before you can even finish asking the question.

But not on this day.

On this day, at this moment, hands were slow to go up. I can only guess that the kids noticed that there were two moms in this family right away, but they were unsure of how to put that observation into words. And then one boy raised his hand and I called on him.  His name was Andrew and he began to talk and he said, “Well, I notice that there are two women in the family. I think that they are. They are…” He seemed stuck and he looked around the room and then he looked right back at me and up into my face and he said, “I don’t know if I am allowed to say this at school.” And I looked at him, somewhat in disbelief, and asked him, “Are you wondering if you are allowed to say that you think these parents might be gay or lesbian?” And he nodded.  And I knew.  In that one moment, I finally realized that all the years of me telling my students not to say, “That’s so gay!” had left them feeling unsure if they were allowed to say the word “gay” in school at all.

Because here is the problem. While Andrew had heard many teachers tell students, many times, not to say the word gay as an insult, he had NEVER heard the word gay used in school in any other way. He had only ever heard his teachers tell him NOT to say gay.

He had never heard a teacher read a book that had a gay character in it and then use the word gay in a discussion about the book or about the character.  He had never heard a teacher talk about victims of the holocaust and also include the many gay and lesbian victims that Hitler murdered.  He had never heard a teacher talk about civil rights struggles and talk about the gay and lesbian leaders of the fight for gay civil rights.  He had never heard a teacher talk about the supreme court cases dealing with gay marriage. While studying government and talking about the rights of the states versus the federal government, he had never heard his teachers bring up the current debate over gay marriage to illustrate the point of what happens when different states have different laws on things like marriage. He had never heard these things because his teachers, INCLUDING MYSELF, were afraid to say the word gay in school.

And if we, as teachers, are not saying the word gay in a positive way in school, then we can’t expect our students to do the same.  If we, as teachers, are not using the word gay in the way it is okay to be used, then our students won’t ever know that the word “gay” itself is not bad or wrong or a cause for trouble.  If we, as teachers, are not talking about people who are gay in the same way that we are talking about who are divorced or hispanic or have blonde hair, then we are not helping our students to see that being gay is just one part of who a person is.  And we owe our students more than that.

Even now that I am out with all of my students, I don’t often use the word gay or lesbian to describe myself. I talk about my wife, Carla (though even saying, “my wife” is something that I have only recently felt okay saying in class).  I talk about how our daughter, Millie, has two moms.  But I still feel a little bit like I could get into trouble myself if I were to use the word gay or lesbian with my students. I recognize that this is irrational. I recognize that I am doing EXACTLY what I am saying that we shouldn’t be doing. I recognize that I should be the one to set the example of using the word gay or lesbian in a way that shows that is a positive part of who I am. But the fact is, I don’t. Because I, too, am afraid and uncertain. I, too, don’t want to be the only one. That is how strong these messages are. That is how pervasive the don’t say gay mentality is.  And that is why we must try harder to change it.

And one of the best ways that I can think of to change this current way of being and current way of thinking is to work to integrate LGBT issues into our school curricula.  I know that is easier said than done and that is why I believe we need to talk about it. We need to learn from each other and we need to lean on each other. We need to see how it is already being done and dream of how it could be done even better.  We need to come together to make it so that our students understand the difference between using gay as an insult and using gay to recognize who someone is.

So this week, on Thursday, February 19th at 8pm CST, #LGBTeach will be discussing how to effectively integrate LGBT issues and people into our school curricula at all levels. Please join us, please share this post and please help us to make our schools a more inclusive place for everyone.

5 thoughts on “Why Kids Think the Word “Gay” is a Swear Word

  1. Pingback: Links I Loved Last Week: A Round-Up of Online Reading 2/15/15 | the dirigible plum

  2. I tutor and just today I had a student say to me, “someone said a bad word” and I said I didn’t hear a bad word, and he said “they said gay. gay is a bad word.” And suddenly everything you write about here came to mind, feelings about how inappropriate it would be right then to admit to him that I am gay, and if he feels that its a bad word, whether that means he feels the same way about people who are gay. And on and on,

    Thank you so much for writing this, I want to see about bringing this up to some of the staff at the school. I know there are some that would be open to hearing your insight.

    • Thank you SO incredibly much for leaving this comment. It is so important that we realize how kids see the language we use and don’t use. I can’t even imagine how tough that moment was for you. I remember before I was out, those moments would tug at my heart so much. I remember a time a student was being teased and called “gay” and I so badly wanted to share with him that I am gay, but I didn’t. It is just so hard.

      I hope that your staff is open to listening. It is the only way to start. Please let me know if I can ever help in any way.

      Thank you again for sharing.

  3. Such an important post, thank you! I remember realizing, with great gratitude for the insight, what a confusing and heartbreaking message it is that we send to kids every time we shut them down by telling them not to say the word gay. Now, I approach the situation calmly and evenly. I often say conversationally, “Did you really mean to use the word gay? Because I think you meant this or that. And that’s the word you should use instead. Of course, if you meant to use the word gay because this person really is gay then that’s the word you should be using.” And I smile. Then, I find natural and real moments to use the words gay, lesbian, and transgender in context so I accustom their ears and their hearts to the truth. Finally, I do my best to model this approach for other teachers who most likely have never thought twice about it. Oh, and one more related thought…I have also occasionally had to teach colleagues how to respond when students approach them and ask them if I am a lesbian. (I guess it is more comfortable to ask another teacher rather than ask me directly.) I coach them to smile and say, “Yes.”

  4. Pingback: This Work. It is Lonely. | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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