Study on “That’s So Gay” Says Words Can, In Fact, Hurt You

Chances are you’ve been witness to at least one person rolling their eyes and asking what the big deal is about calling stuff “gay.” They’re just words right? It’s just slang! If kids, teens and adults can say it without a second thought, why are you making a mountain out of a mole hill? Well actually, sometimes they’re a little bit more. Even though they’re “just words,” hearing little indignities on a regular basis makes life difficult, in quantifiable ways.

Researchers at the University of Michigan wanted to know how those three little words affect LGB students. Is it just an insensitive expression that holds no meaning or does it actually have consequences? Woodford et al. theorized it could cause LGB students to feel othered, anxious and reluctant to come out of the closet, which would negatively affect their physical and mental health. They surveyed 2605 students on their health, comfort, sexual orientation, gender expression and experiences with hearing “that’s so gay.”  Using self-reported sexualities, the researchers focused on the answers of the gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents.

As it turns out, hearing those simple words can be an issue. Hearing insults in your everyday conversations isn’t as easy to brush off as we want to believe. LGB students that frequently heard “that’s so gay” tended to feel left out, have headaches and experience dietary problems. In fact, a 2011 study echoed the problem, “showing that ongoing stigma and social inequality increase stress and reduce well-being for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.” It doesn’t seem like the issue will be going away anytime soon, as almost 9 out of 10 LGB participants in the University of Michigan study had heard it in the past year. On the bright side, another study published this year found that people were less likely to use the phrase if they knew more LGB people.

Saying that words hurt can make one even more of an outsider. When Rose wrote about teens’ flippant use of gay slurs, some Autostraddlers were annoyed that people used “that’s so gay” while others were annoyed that people thought its use was an issue. It’s difficult to discuss because peoples’ experiences are so different, but it seems that the science shows that while the phrases seem insignificant, but they add up.

Via the Microaggressions Project

The team at the Microaggressions Project want to show just how easily those phrases accumulate in our everyday lives. “Microaggressions” are those everyday sayings “that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative … slights and insults” towards marginalized groups. Although the term was coined to look at tiny instances of racism, it has been expanded to include the other types of bigotry you experience every day. While a lot of people ignore the intolerance hidden in tiny slurs, a lot of people can’t. The project serves as a bulletin board, collecting overheard phrases that “create and enforce uncomfortable, violent and unsafe realities onto peoples’ workplace, home, school, childhood/adolescence/adulthood, and public transportation/space environments.” Instead of outright shaming people for making slights, it gives viewers the chance to see how othered people navigate seemingly everyday conversations. Although people may not “mean it that way,” it doesn’t negate the fact that some listeners still hear it that way.

Via ‘That’s So Gay’ Needs to Go Away

Maybe this’ll be a different school year where students actually learn something. Think B4 You Speak has over 421k fans on Facebook pledging to make a difference and erradicating It. ‘That’s So Gay’ Needs to Go Away has eleven days left on Indiegogo raising funds to create a poster and T-shirt campaign.  Other groups are looking to start gay-straight alliances at their schools and some are succeeding. Hopefully 2012 will be the year “that’s So Gay” is erased from the curriculum.

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Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 140 articles for us.

53 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    Who is Woodford et al.? The linked article is by Chonody et al., and they surveyed 851 students (reporting on 767), not 2000+.

    I am a linguistics professor and I believe that this is just another case of polysemy, which is very common in natural languages. So the word gay has at least two meanings, one being ‘homosexual’ and another being ‘lame’ or ‘dumb’. Oh guess what? ‘Lame’ also means ‘lacking the ability to walk’ whereas ‘dumb’ means ‘without the capacity of speech’. Is it offensive to those people to use such words?

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      “Is it offensive to those people to use such words?”

      Um, yes.

      From :
      ‘“Lame” is an ableist word. It’s an ableist word because it assumes that having difficulty walking is objectively bad, and that therefore, a word which is used to describe difficulty walking can be safely used as a pejorative to mean “this is bad.” Using “lame” reinforces ableism in our culture by reminding people that disability is bad, and that it’s so bad that it can be used as a shorthand code to talk about bad things in general. Incidentally, the related “lame-brain”? Also ableist. Just so we’re all clear on that.’

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        I think that was kind of his point. These are words that while they may have the same hurtful connotations to some people if you go back far enough, for the most part are only looked down on by a very small minority of people these days. You don’t see NEARLY as many groups trying to fight the uses of words like ‘dumb’, ‘lame’, ‘idiot’ etc (at least for the reasons of being offensive based on hurting people who fall under the category of their original meaning. I think the point he is making has to do with the fluidity of language, and how the word has gotten to a point where for some younger people it truly has another meaning that is unrelated to sexuality, even if the original split was related to trying to offend. I’m not saying that it’s a good thing, (or that I necessarily agree) but I think that:s the point he’s trying to make. I would say that if we let its use continue, maybe in a decade or two we’d be at that point, but I think right now even if people say it means something totally different, I don’t think it really does yet… we’re still (relatively as far as the evolution of language is concerned) pretty close to the ‘change’ of using it as a slang, and I sitll think it carries strong connotations of being a derogatory comment on sexuality, even if it’s not meant to. But for people arguing about the ‘ablelist’ connotations of words like lame or dumb, I totally disagree. At this point you’re just holding on to something offensive that is not even close to what people are thinking when they use the word anymore. The majority of people proably don’t even know the original meanings of those words.

        Also…come on. Not being able to walk is objectively bad dude. Ok ok… at least objectively worse than being able to walk. If you can walk, you can do everything that is possible to do without the ability to walk, plus more. Taking away an ability doesn’t say anything about what kind of person you are, but it’s going a little PC overboard to act like all else being equal, not having the ability to walk is objectively just as good as being able to walk…

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          Except that not thinking about the connotations of what you say actually *is* unacceptable once you know it does hurt people.

          As a parent of autistic children, I flinch whenever someone uses the word ‘retarded’. Am I supposed to be understanding, every time it hurts me, that they didn’t mean it that way, and just let it go? Or should they perhaps be a little more thoughtful in their choice of words (especially after it has been pointed out to them that this is hurtful)?

          It’s just another case of privileged people dumping on those who don’t share their privilege and getting butt-sore when it is pointed out, because the embarrassment hurts their feelings and self-image.

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      I’m pretty sure that most insults have doubled meanings, if you look back far enough. The word idiot for instance comes from Athenian slang for someone entitled to vote but who doesn’t (punishable by exile). Just because some linguist decides that a word is distinct, does not mean that it is functionally so.

      Also, they’re not exactly saying that someone or something is being carefree and joyful, so there’s a pretty clear etymological link.

    • Thumb up 3

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      So are you implying that nobody should take offense to the word “gay” when it means “bad” in these contexts, because it no longer means the same thing as “gay” when it means “homosexual”? That seems like a pretty prescriptive stance for a linguistics professor. From a descriptivist point of view, there are still plenty of people who DO associate the two – sometimes quite intentionally – and therefore it is still offensive.

      If there were nobody making the association gay=homosexual=bad anymore in our society, I could buy your polysemy argument, but that is clearly not the case.

  2. Thumb up 6

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    Gay also used to mean happy. English is liquid and evolving. I understand that, but ‘gay’ has been claimed by LGB community way before it started being use negatively (I think? Can anyone confirm this?)
    So while I accept that English is evolving and words can mean more than one thing, I don’t believe that this shift has occurred completely independently of homophobia. I remember in jr high some kids were calling things “10%” because 10% of people are gay. Come on.
    And even if your intentions of saying “thats so gay” aren’t homophobic, it has homophobic connotations. Just pick a better word, yo. It’s not that hard.

    And I think a lot of people would say that using ‘lame’ ‘dumb’ ‘retarded’ etc. is offensive to disabled people.

  3. Thumb up 11

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    the only time it is acceptable to say “it’s so gay” is when you literally mean “homosexual”
    like, the secret circle, or merlin or teen wolf, if I say they’re gay, I mean because they are ridiculously homosexual.

  4. Thumb up 1

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    I’m not going to lie, I have a habit of saying “that’s gay” and when my brothers or family members say it I’ve learned to not care. I’ve had people who will say “that’s so gay” in front of me and then they’ll give me that look like “oh shit” and I tell them it doesn’t bother me. It probably has to do with the fact that I live in a household where my family makes jokes, that sometimes can be hurtful but they don’t mean it, so I’ve learned to not care. Family members call me a faggot, my little brother signs faggot, and I don’t make a big deal about hurtful jokes because it turns into “if you can’t take a joke don’t make jokes” Of course my jokes are never anything “bad” but I guess I’ve grown a tough skin. I should start enforcing them to choose a different adjective but one less fight is always better…

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    And yet how many times have I heard non-trans members of the gay community use the term “tranny” (both as a way to make a hipster or putdown joke about trans women, but also to use as a synonym for trashy or ugly and as a way of diminishing the womanhood of any woman they don’t like). And I’ve heard umpteen people explain to me “oh, it’s not offensive, I know trans people who use that term,” “words only hurt if you let them hurt,” “I like the word faggot, why are you so sensitive?” and “it’s a term that’s being reclaimed.” If I ask them if it’s okay to call a trans or gender variant youth who’s 12-13 years old a tranny I’ve actually had someone explain to me “it’s a way of bringing them into the LGBT community.” (??!!) I just want to also clarify that lots of persons (including myself) who were routinely called ‘faggots’ or ‘queers’ when they were young are not gay but were some form of gender variant or trans, so it’s not just about being GL or B.

  6. Thumb up 2

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    Ah, this gives me fond memories of my previous workplace. I agree that hearing “that’s so gay” can really fuck with you, especially if you’re in the closet, and in a hostile workplace.

  7. Thumb up 6

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    When I was in high school, I led a Drama Group for kids in Year 7 and, you guys, I cannot tell you how much I heard kids saying ‘fag’ and using the phrase ‘that’s so gay.’ Obviously, it really bothered me. So, I began to threaten them with visits to the teacher but that didn’t work. Eventually, I told them I was gay and that hearing them flippantly insulting homosexuals genuinely offended me. Then they stopped. Anyways, what I was trying to say is that it’s easy to throw ‘that’s so gay’ and other insults around when the people you’re insulting remain faceless. There needs to be more LGBT visibility, especially in schools.

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      so, would you say that the kids use of “that’s so gay” and “fag” actually lead to a beneficial learning experience? they were forced to really think about those words and what they mean, which they probably hadn’t before.

      the expressions i use are often very controversial, but they also often spark debate.

      the discussion you had with these kids wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been so flippant; and it’s an important discussion. had these kids been secretly homophobic, no progress would have been made.

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        I suppose it did lead to them learning something… At the time, I was living in Bangkok and when I told them I was gay as a kind of last ditch attempt to get them to stop using derogatory words, they began asking me questions about being gay. I clearly remember one girl looking at me wide-eyed and going ‘but isn’t being gay illegal in Thailand?’ (Its not). I’m pretty sure that I’m the first openly gay person many of them have ever met.

        So yes, the kids use of “that’s so gay” and “fag” did lead them to a beneficial learning experience. However, I wasn’t a proper teacher (I was in my last year of high school and doing it for extra credit) so educating them about homophobic slurs should not have fallen on my shoulders. The teachers should have been the ones to call them out for it but they never did. But I do hope that I helped to at least broaden their minds a little bit.

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          it’s definitely unfair that educating people about homophobia falls on anybody’s shoulders; but that’s the reality, so it’s a responsibility we all must accept. believe it or not, you made a significant impact on those kids’ lives, and you very likely steered at least a few of them from becoming homophobic adults. well done.

  8. Thumb up 4

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    I’m really glad this has actually been researched! Sure, on the grand scale of discrimination, “that’s so gay” isn’t a big deal, and many of the people who say it don’t think about it at all & would be horrified to be described as homophobic… but it does contribute to an unwelcome environment. They are, whether they mean to or not, assuming that no-one around is gay (creating an othering effect) and equating gay with bad on some level (don’t give me that “language evolves” bullshit, they *are*). A joking insult is still an insult.

    So if I hear someone say it, they may be a perfectly nice, accepting person, but I can’t know that. I can’t psychicly draw the line between someone likely to call things gay without thinking and someone likely to genuinely be disgusted by homosexuality. So if I hear it, I won’t come out to them and won’t get close to them.

  9. Thumb up 10

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    It definitely comes down to exposure. All of the people around me began to make a conscious effort to stop saying “that’s so gay” once they met me. Yes, there were still others who thought it was “no big deal”, and I don’t really know how to explain the hurt to them.

    I think “That’s retarded” hurts me more though. But once again, exposure. My sister has autism so I’m very conscious of cognitive and physical impairments. If a person is only LGBT without a developmental delay, we can be offended and stand up for ourselves. Unfortunately a lot of people who are “retarded” don’t even realize they’re being ridiculed and think that others are laughing “with” them. If they’re not offended because they don’t have the cognitive capacity to realize the insult, is it still bad? I think so. I think people need to be conscious all around of the language they’re choosing.

    As a side note, all of my teachers through highschool would kick kids out of the room for using cuss words. In my entire life, I’ve only had one (grade 10 math) teacher who kicked a kid out for saying “that’s gay”, but not before she went on a crazy awesome rant about “How? Explain to me how that math assignment is gay. Is that piece of paper male? Are you having sexual relations with it? Do you take it out to the movies? How?” Yeah, a lot of the kids thought she was just crazy overreacting, but it meant the world to me, and it started a culture shift in the classroom. Unfortunately it didn’t expand past the classroom, because other teachers weren’t on board. But still, never piss off a very pregnant math teacher.

  10. Thumb up 2

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    Thank you so so much for writing this! I can’t believe how on par with my life Autostraddle nearly always is. The very day before you posted this, I had a huge argument with a close queer friend who uses that phrase quite a lot. She said she was “so tired of having this argument” bc apparently a lot of people had objected to her using that phrase, though she insisted she didn’t believe it was offensive as long as the person using it “didn’t mean it” and basically implied that anyone who was offended was just being an oversensitive wimp and needed to get a thicker skin. Because SHE wasn’t offended and also bc apparently she knows lots of queers who use it in a negative way (??). She lives in Georgia and I live in California, and the only thing I can think is that it’s a cultural difference, because I don’t know anyone who says that over here, and certainly NO queers who either use it or wouldn’t find it at least somewhat offensive or weird.

    She believed she could use it bc she’s queer, so it’s “okay”, while I think that’s worse, and actually just shows everyone else that it’s okay to equate “stupid” with “gay” bc hey even queer people use it that way! Then she said she was reclaiming “gay” which is idiotic because (as was mentioned here), “gay” was never used negatively UNTIL people started saying “that’s so gay”, and in fact meant “happy”, and it’s harder to be more positive than that. If anything, she’s “reclaiming” a phrase, and a phrase that I think is hardly worth the effort. She even compared it to the reclaiming of the n word, which I was just shocked about, because the n word and “queer” are obviously VERY DIFFERENT in history and use and wow. She eventually backed down from that. It was a very disturbing discussion.

    Eventually she ceded I had a point and she’d stop using it from now on, but I just didn’t get how anyone could not immediately respect the fact that at least SOME people find it offensive (I did even when I was identifying as straight) and therefore it shouldn’t be used. I love that in this article the same arguments/points are made as the ones I used, like that there are so many other words to use, and why limit yourself to something that doesn’t even make sense?

    Just… I really needed this. Some confirmation that I am not strange in thinking “that’s so gay” is both offensive and stupid. I just had no idea that OTHER QUEERS would think it’s okay to use negatively “as long as you don’t mean it”. So thank you so much, Autostraddle. This was very well timed, haha.

  11. Thumb up 1

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    honestly, i call shit “gay” all the time. i also use a wide range of other “unacceptable” expressions such as retard, bitch, fag, and dyke (as well as racial slurs which are my favourite) without ill intent. i also know that the people i use these expressions with understand who i am and where i’m coming from – so even if they’re shocked, they’re not offended. and yes, i’m aware that these expressions can be very hurtful in certain contexts (context is crucial), and sometimes it’s beyond my control how somebody feels if they “overhear” me say this shit.

    still, there’s so much shit you can say or do to hurt people. and there’s so much that people have said and done to try to hurt me. ultimately, i’m the only person with any control over how i react to what people throw at me. for example, i was out for pride this year and at the end of the night i was standing at a bus stop talking to a trans man and his fiance – whom i’d just met. the gayest mother fucker i’ve ever seen comes walking up the street (i’d never seen/met/spoken to him in my life before this moment) and he calls me a “fat fucking slob.” why? because his life sucks…not mine. those words have no effect on me, because i have the strength and power to not let those words affect me.

    i’ve basically been “bullied” my whole life. fortunately for me, i’ve always also been confident and self-assured, so the bullying really only made me stronger. because when people face real challenges, they learn real skills. i learned that my emotional reaction to somebody’s bullshit vitriol is under my control. so really, i’m not going to tell people what they can or can’t say, i’m just going to control my own reaction to it. i know that’s hard for some people and maybe i’m a special case. but also, censorship is rarely the solution to a problem; and as we progress socially, expressions like “that’s so gay” will lose their negative influence.

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      Just because it doesn’t offend you when you use it and you idealistically live in a place in your bubble where you think social progression will make those words all right…it’s not. It’s just not. If I heard you say retarded, I’d start to scream in your face. There’s another word that you could definitely use to describe something, and just because “you don’t wanna” doesn’t make it okay. Sorry. It’s just not acceptable. And if you’ve been bullied, shame on you. You should understand that though it made you stronger, it probably broke you in certain ways, too. Just because you can control your reaction to someone saying “faggot” doesn’t mean anyone else can. Think about others before yourself.

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          The difference between us is that if I say one of those words, I apologize and/or correct myself, I don’t say it’s okay. I don’t go out of my way to say something I know will offend someone because it doesn’t bother me.

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          you’re right, i almost never apologize – although there’s no way you could know that, because actually you don’t know me. i could start making a list of things people can’t say, but it’s far too long. personally, i don’t accept that some people can say some words and others can’t, or that some words are more worse than others – because ultimately, this depends on your perspective. i might be an asshole, but i’m not a hypocrite. so instead of apologizing, i’ll accept the challenge and actually make people think/talk about things. and i believe even you have probably spent a bit more time thinking about how you use language.

          in any case, you’ve missed my point. we all say offensive things, and we can’t always know what we’ve said is offensive. i use shocking language, it makes people think. and you know what, everybody saying “that’s so gay” would take the power out of that expression much faster than if everybody just stopped saying it (because that’s not even a realistic possibility and bigotry exists in the absence of language). the more you tell people they can’t say something, the more power that expression will have.

          and finally, i was being honest, not trying to offend anybody. clearly that’s too late. but at the risk of sounding patronizing, i’d like you to consider something. i may have made you feel angry – but who is that anger hurting, me or you?

  12. Thumb up 1

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    I think I’ve mostly become desensitized to ‘gay’ as an insult, but I think that has a lot to do with coming out and realising that the people I know don’t mean it as a homophobic slur. It definitely used to upset me when I was younger though.

    My brother has recently begun attending a military school, and now refers to people he dislikes as ‘faggots’. When I tell him that’s not on, he tells me he can’t see the problem in calling people Scottish meat products. No. Just no.

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        They are a food, just a Welsh one, not Scottish. The sad thing is, I know he doesn’t really have any hatred towards gay people, he just seems to have no sense of the fact these things are hurtful beyond normal insults because of the oppression inherent in their use.

        Basically, he’s not malicious, just ignorant and a bit of a wind-up merchant, and someone who isn’t his sister needs to call him out on it.

  13. Thumb up 6

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    i hate it when gay people believe that anyone who doesn’t like “that’s so gay” or any sexist/racist slur is a big, snivelling, weak-minded baby.

    fun fact: humans have emotions. god forbid a human being has emotions! i can’t believe that people are now being shamed for hating words that are rooted in ignorance.

  14. Thumb up 10

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    True story. I was bar tending tonight and in a bit of a surly mood. One of my regulars retorted “that’s gay” to something or other. I heard it, flinched, and moved on. Later in the night, he asked how that made me feel. Surprised that this guy (an asshole, by his own admission) actually gave thought to this…

    I told him it hurt me when he said it. I know that he, personally, feels no animosity towards homosexuals, and I gave him allowance for that, but still. I told him that it could have an effect on people that hear it that DON’T know him, that don’t know what he means…and also it could make other people in the bar feel uncomfortable or feel threatened. You just have to be careful.

    Having said that, you know what he did? He told me he’d make sure not to use it again, to phase it out of his vocabulary, because he respects me. As simple as that.

  15. Thumb up 7

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    I think when you are confronted by a stranger/friend/coworker/whomever who says to you, “Please don’t use that word, it’s offensive/hurtful,” you should believe them. If you don’t agree with them, fine. But believe, acknowledge, validate. Why wouldn’t you believe them?

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      Not really. It depends who is telling you cause they could be an idiot or a weirdo, I’m not talking about this word I’m talking about one girl who when I was explaining how one girl I knew had just wanted to get pregnant from a young age and how that mindset needs to be changed she was like “your so judgemental” because she had assumed that I had made a judgement when said girl had actually told me, anyway this girl was an impervious little shit who had not even let me finish my sentance before playing the offended card. Another weird girl told me it was offensive to ask a guy his age, lol we are talking an older man and it really is not offensive to ask a guy his age he aint a women and funny how people like this don’t let other people speak for themselves instead decided to get “offended” for someone who has no problem with it. This asshole then said later on that day that religion was “a crutch” which again is highly offensive to some people as well as being a meaningless cliche that anyone with any philosophical and reflective thought qualities would not make the mistake of falling into. Sure criticize religions for when they tell people who is going to hell but dont say blatantly false and airhead stuff like “religion causes all wars” when materialism causes most wars and very few wars have been solely about religion and dont criticize modern day Christians for crusades that happened hundreds of years ago, because that is not their fault just like its not all atheists fault stalin was a mass killer.

      The short of it is hating people for something that happened centuries ago is dumb, and hating a group for something someone else in that group said or another subsect of a various group is dumb, the anger should always be at an individual or a particular sect and the anger should always be well researched as to spout of about someones beliefs as a reason for hating ALL people when in fact most of the “all” don’t believe such(whatever the such is) is terrible.

      Then their is the case of the “such” not even being such a big deal when compared to other “suchs” for example people who compare people opposed to gay marriage as the same as people who killed blacks is a dumb argument because that person most likely does not hate black people and its disengious to try and stereotype a person based on opinion as hating something, its a classic example of a persons beliefs of themselves not being so objectionable that someone has to bring in tangential and irrelevant grandiose wrongs to make a case more impressive because the original case was not, and is disingenuous in the extreme and is also insulting to Black/white/whatever group of really persecuted people, to compare their suffering to that of a group not really undergoing any “suffering” at all by comparison.

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    Why do you use terms like “thats so gay”

    IGNORANCE !! That is why, you are go better than brutal racist during black slavery. SERIOUSLY!

    Then why is it so widely spoken ?

    LGBT equality is still not an innate ‘privilege’ like you hetrosexuals out there.

    You shall be feeling a grave amount of GUILT for by using such terms you are denying fellow human being innate right to equality.

    Without you taking active responsibility for your language YOU ARE ACTIVELY CONDONING ABUSE and inequality on a global and national scale.

    Think before you speak. HOMOPHOBIA THROUGH LANGUAGE IS A HATE CRIME.

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      What you wrote> that’s so gay! Lol. Seriously their is a big difference between people using incorrect language and people being victims of slavery… Perspective and honest not a word associated with liberals. And Ps Immigration is a great thing, ya that’s a liberals mind “blown”. Thank god we only have a few nutty american liberal types in the uk, and far more spiritualist socialists types than whingey pc liberals… And Hate crime only refers to violent or in sighting to violence guess you don’t know law very well. If you don’t find the first line funny then that is a MASSIVE humour fail, then again your lot don’t get irony…

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