You Can Call Me “Fag”: American Teens Don’t Find Offensive Slurs Offensive

What’s in a word? Does the use of words like “fag” and “dyke” and the phrase “so gay” contribute to homophobia among young people? It’s pretty taken for granted that they do. But are slurs really such a big deal, or are there bigger issues we need to fix first before going after the language? GLSEN clearly believes the former, as they have a specific campaign, Think B4 You Speak, dedicated to ending the use of the aforementioned words and phrases. (You’ve seen their commercials featuring Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes, haven’t you?) Whether it’s working or not, people are taking notice, both inside and outside of the LGBT community. The Special Olympics has recently started its own “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign dedicated to ending the use of the word “retarded,” and it uses a lot of the same tactics: Internet pledges and petitions, commercials featuring celebrity endorsements (including Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter, who plays Becky on Glee), and guides for students on how to start the discussion. Clearly, language is an issue that a lot of activists across the social justice spectrum think is important.

via fighthomophobia.tumblr.com

Yet, for many teenagers, these slurs may not be as serious as they are to the adults behind these campaigns. An Associated Press/MTV survey found that a majority of American young people are not bothered by the use of offensive slurs by their peers:

Fifty-one per cent of those polled said they see slurs on Facebook or MySpace but most (57 per cent) say these are due to people trying to be funny.
Only around half that number believe people who use slurs hold hateful views.

Just a third of young people saw words like ‘fag’ and ‘slut’ as seriously offensive.

That’s quite a lot to tackle. Most people are automatically going to see this as a bad thing — that these kids are not getting the message that GLSEN and the Special Olympics are trying to send, that language matters and can hurt people. Another possibility is that there’s so much of it out there these days that kids have become desensitized to it. On the other hand, at least some of the kids telling us that they’re not affected by the language are those who it’s intended to hurt:

Of those who are gay, or have a gay friend, 36 per cent find the word ‘fag’ offensive online, whereas just 23 per cent of others did.

While there is a significant difference there, it’s still a minority of gay students and allies (though I have some issues with them lumping in allies with kids who are actually gay, and would like to know how the individual numbers differ) who are bothered by homophobic language. When so many kids are being bullied for their actual or perceived sexual orientation, but they aren’t too bothered with homophobic language — maybe these kids are telling us that GLSEN is missing the mark. Maybe language isn’t the problem.

It reminds me of this Dan Savage video where he is asked to give his opinion on the subject of anti-gay slurs. When I heard him start to say that such language-policing is wrong because he, a gay person, likes to use “fag” and “so gay,” I was all ready to disagree with him on this. But then he said this:

As adults we have a responsibility when kids use “That’s gay” to put it in their heads that that’s a little fucked-up…But the occasional “That’s so gay” in a high school that has a Gay-Straight Student Alliance and openly-gay kids who are not being tormented and bullied, is pretty small beans. But, a “That’s so gay” in a school where gay kids are being brutalized, it becomes another kind of brutalization.

It hit me because it reminded me of my own school days. I went to a high school that was like the first example Savage gives: Most of the kids were supportive of gay rights, and the minority was not a very vocal one. There were lots of openly-gay kids (and at least one openly-gay teacher) and even same-sex couples, who were able to be just as obnoxious in their hallway make-out sessions as the straight couples. We had a Gay-Straight Alliance, and it was respected — but it didn’t have that many members, because many gay students didn’t see why we needed one. (In fact, a large number of the members when I was there were bisexual or trans*, two groups that were less understood and accepted — the exceptions that proved the rule.) Of course, even high schools like mine were still full of immature boys who loved shock value and who enjoyed slinging around homophobic words, but in an environment where gay kids were accepted and empowered, we could just laugh in their faces.

Contrast that with my middle school experience, where hearing every single kid throw “gay “around as a  synonym for “stupid” was just one more reminder that being gay wasn’t okay on top of being surrounded by fundamentalist Christian classmates, their parents, and even teachers who loudly and explicitly opposed gay equality. All things considered, I’m going to have to say that I agree with Savage on this one, that offensive language is a problem when it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, when it’s the cherry on top of a mountain of crap that gay kids are forced to endure. They’re like Dementors — slurs need an environment full of hate and fear to be powerful. When gay kids are happy and accepted, those words shrivel and die, and aren’t that difficult to defeat.

via thinkb4youspeak.com

Another thing that Savage says that resonates with me is about context — knowing the difference between a bigot who really means the word and an ally or member of the group who is just joking around. That’s something that the survey indicates kids understand: “The poll found that 54 per cent of young people see the use of the words in their own social circles as acceptable because ‘I know we don’t mean it.’ But when asked the question in a wider context, most said such language was always wrong.” I know plenty of queer people who are fine with their straight friends calling them “fag” and “dyke” because they know their friend doesn’t mean it and is poking fun at the stereotype rather than at them. I’ve even heard similar statements made about friends using racial slurs. But the same people would never hesitate to call out a true hater using those words to condemn those groups.

But part of the problem, and the reason I’m not comfortable completely dismissing the importance of language, is that you can’t always control the context. You can’t always know who else is listening besides your friends. Others could hear it and think you do mean it as a slur and be offended. Still others might actually be bigots themselves and take your use of offensive words as evidence that people out there agree with them. This is especially true online, the area where this study focuses. Who can tell whether YouTube comments full of slurs are being made by people who actually hold such despicable attitudes, or people merely mocking bigots? Nobody knows, least of all the bigots they may be trying to parody. It’s Poe’s Law at its worst.

And while gay kids may not have as much of a problem as adults think with anti-gay slurs, the survey found a bigger gap between African-American kids’ perception of the n-word compared to all kids, which suggests this isn’t universal:

“More young people (44 per cent) said they would be “very” or “extremely” offended if they saw someone using the word ‘nigger’ online but 35 per cent said they wouldn’t be too bothered and 25 per cent said they wouldn’t be bothered at all.

However, 60 per cent of African-American young people said they would be offended if they saw the word directed at someone else.

Overall, it’s hard to tell for certain whether to see this study as a good or a bad sign. Maybe we should just let the kids tell us.


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Rose is a 25-year-old Detroit native currently living in Austin, TX, where she is working on her Ph.D. in musicology. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime News Network.

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96 Comments

  1. This reminded me of an incident with my little sister last week. When referring to someone she thought was incredible stupid she said “Ugh, he’s such a fag!” and when I gave her a stern look she said… Well… you know what I mean, not *that* kind of fag. So, yes, interesting article.

    I also want to note that I have been reading awesome shit on Autostraddle for a good long while now and this is, drum roll please, my very first post. Thank you, thank you very much.

  2. Great article, Rose, super spot on. My high school sounds really similar to yours. It was a safe environment for most queer kids in terms of outright bullying, but there still were those circles that you knew just wouldn’t be accepting. But a lot of the time when someone used a slur, people kinda just ignored it. Like, they wouldn’t encourage the use of it, but they didn’t discourage or look down on it either. Even friends and allies would do this. Not that they weren’t 100% supportive, but just maybe they didn’t know how to call the person out or something? It was probably because they didn’t want to be given crap for ‘over reacting’ or whatever.

    Again, really good article. You perfectly put into words what I try to get across when I try to explain this to people. From now on, I’ll just show them this, haha.

    • Aw, thanks!

      It sounds similar to my school, except that at my school, there were a ton of kids who would look down on people for saying “That’s so gay” and especially “dyke” and “fag.” It was just that the kids who used those words didn’t really care what those people thought of them, usually dismissing them as “too PC” and fancying themselves as “rebels.”

      Also, even the kids who used those words generally weren’t huge homophobes – like, they knew gay people and didn’t bother them about it. Some of them were even supporters of same-sex marriage and ending DADT and other gay rights issues. They just had this weird disconnect when it came to language. To give an example, I remember one such kid who, when we were discussing politics, started talking about how he thought gay political equality was an important issue and it was just terrible that anybody opposed it, and then a few minutes later, when the topic turned to school pranks, he mentioned his “most epic prank ever” which turned out to be putting in a fake form to the school morning announcements that a (straight) guy he didn’t like was starting a “gay student union.” (This was his way of hitting on me, no less. I made it quite clear that I didn’t share his amusement.) Some people just don’t understand – or don’t WANT to understand – that social justice begins at home.

    • I’m going to have to agree with you. Where I’m from, it’s meant offensively and taken that way. Growing up, we had a lot of homophobia and I got to be the first out one in the school. It was absolute hell and I fought it tooth and nail but…well, things are different now. It’s only been ten years but it makes me happy to see that the LGBT community at the very same school is so much better. It’s strange, the differences in being young then and now…

  3. I love how this study asks a bunch of non-gay ID’d kids whether they find the word ‘fag’ offensive??!! Context and the background of the person hearing the slur is everything. And the only person who really gets to decide a slur is offensive is the specific group which has been oppressed by that slur. This is a stupid study whose conclusions ARE offensive. And Dan Savage, sad to say, is no more than a media whore advice columnist, NOT a spokesperson for queer/trans youth.

    • I don’t think Dan Savage is a spokesperson for gay/trans (especially not trans) youth, I just found that his words jived a lot with my experiences. But in general I kind of have trouble with the whole idea of “spokespeople,” since even an actual gay, bi or trans* youth is still just one person and doesn’t speak for the whole group. I’ve heard opinions from teenage/young adult LGBTs ranging from “I think those words are hilarious and use them with all my friends, gay or straight” and “I never want to hear someone say ‘That’s so gay’ again as long as I live.” When there’s such a range, how can any one of them speak for all of us?

      Anyway, thanks for your comment. I also had a problem with the way they didn’t make much of a distinction between members of groups and their supporters. Like, I know some allies who are very bothered by homophobic language, but that’s still not the same as being the target of it. Likewise with some of the other slurs – I would have liked to see a difference between how boys and girls felt about the word “slut,” or how kids with disabilities vs. other kids felt about words like “lame” and “retarded.”

  4. Honestly, I think gay people owning the homophobic language might be a good thing. It takes the power away from it. It’s like you wanna call me a dyke, ok yep I’m a dyke. So what? I think there’s something powerful in taking hate language and turning it around with powerful connotations.

      • i read the rest of the comments and noticed that commenters were saying they don’t mind being called gay/dyke/fag. i might not mind getting called what i am & proud to be, but maybe i should mind. a slur is a slur, right? should we be demanding more respect? i wouldn’t stand by and let someone call another an ethnic slur, so why am i/we so willing to let people use homosexual slurs?

        • Well, in answer to your first question, yes intent does matter. In fact it’s the only thing that matters; a close friend jokingly calling you a dyke is nothing at all like some random stranger hatefully doing the same.

          Hell, I can’t remember the last time I heard dyke used in a derogatory way. More often it’s used as a joke or even by lesbians just describing themselves. And that is undoubtedly a good thing.

          Similarly many black people don’t mind at all if a black friend calls them a nigger but obviously flip out if a white person does the same. They’re able to discern the different intent, and it’s something gays seriously gotta get better at doing.

          And so, no. A slur is not always a slur.

          • “a close friend jokingly calling you a dyke is nothing at all like some random stranger hatefully doing the same.”

            I completely agree, and from what I read in the comments, it was that commenters didn’t mind when it was in a derogatory way. That is where I can’t compute, my brain shuts down and won’t let me understand how one could not be offended by “that’s so gay”. No matter how funny or not offensive someone is trying to be, it is still perpetuating and reinforcing a negative stereotype.

            This is actually a scenario that just played out between me and a good friend. She has been saying “that’s so ‘gay {redacted boys name]’ for years when something is wrong or awful. When I came a long and questioned her about it she explained it had nothing to do with gay = bad and she does not have any homophobia going on (which I totally agree with, she’s a huge ally/open-minded). It basically was an inside joke with the guy it was named after.

            So. I conceded and started saying it as well and basically we would say it in each other’s company and that was that. Over the past 2 years, each time she (or even I) would say it, it wouldn’t sit right. I stopped saying it for the most part. It would grind at me when she would say it, and so I recently brought it up to her. Even though, neither of us had ill-will, kept in between us, and are queer and a queer ally, it just wasn’t appropriate. It made me think of people/teens saying “that’s so gay” and how I don’t approve of that, but here I am saying something essentially the same.

            /PSA

            I don’t know. I just took the GRE and learned a ton of new, more interesting words that could be used in place of something as imprecise as “that’s so gay.”

    • Who cares if we “take ownership of words.” If someone is calling me a dyke, I know exactly what they mean. They are belittling me, disparaging me, and telling me I’m a lesser human being. Just because me and my lesbian friends use the word dyke doesn’t change that. Black people use the n-word with each other all the time. If I call a black person an n-word to their face they are still going to be offended. And by the same token, if someone calls me a cracker, it won’t mean shit to me because I’ve never been oppressed or treated as a lesser human being for my race.

      • They’ll be offended because you’re not black. Seriously, how hard is that to understand?

        Also, if we ‘take ownership’ of these slurs, diminish their effect and power so that their use causes people less or no pain… how is that not a good thing? You’d rather gay youth get hurt by those slurs?

        • Um, a) that was my point. Black people will be offended because I’m not black. Just like I don’t want straight people calling me a dyke. b) My other point, which you apparently missed, is that we can’t diminish the effect of these words. As long as gay people are treated as second-class citizens, words used to set them apart (words that have a history of bigotry) will hurt. If you notice what I said about cracker, that word has no power because it doesn’t represent anything oppressive. As long as gay people can’t get married, can legally be fired from their jobs, and considered weird or perverted or whatever other nonsense, words like “fag” and “dyke” will hurt. Me and my gay friends using the word “dyke” isn’t going to change that. I say to you: “Seriously, how hard is that to understand?”

        • So to connect the dots again to compensate for what I interpret as a lack of reading comprehension on your part: I do not think we can diminish the hurtful power of these words so I think the best course of action is the discourage their use and let people know that, whether they realize it or not, calling stupid stuff “gay” or calling people fags is unacceptable.

        • So… you agree with Dan Savage, then? You just have a higher barrier of entry: he’s cool if the immediate environment is a safe space, you’re waiting for a safe world.

          And, you know, no need to flip out. Your first comment wasn’t as clear, and your second clarified a lot of things. Breathe for a sec.

    • Sometimes I wonder if “owning” a slur is really the best thing, when I think about it, it may even be self-demeaning.

      You probably wouldn’t be able to smile and call yourself other more generic insults and still feel like a self-respecting person.

      (why yes, I am a fucktard and proud of it)

      • I agree about the self-demeaning. Such as being queer/gay and saying “that’s so gay” when talking about something negative.

        If we call ourselves dyke, f_g (sorry this one makes me cringe so hard), or whatever, it’s not necessarily demeaning because it’s not an insult- it’s a word. I can’t even say/type f_g because it’s not mine to own or reclaim. I feel at peace with dyke though…but the negative connotations are still embedded in my head because I remember describing my outfit as “dykey” to a friend in a disparaging way a while ago. So I think I can definitely see how owning a slur or a charged-up word or phrase can be self-demeaning.

          • Yeah, and it seems like “dyke” is increasingly becoming more of a positive term among lesbians; at least, that’s how I see/hear it most often today, although maybe that’s because I’m more sheltered from homophobia than I used to be.

            That being said, tangent-time: it irritates me to no end when some straight people use that same argument to defend their derogatory use of “so gay.” Usually, when a previously-neutral term becomes a slur, there’s a movement away from the neutral use of it. Look at the way that, for example, we no longer use terms like “idiot,” “moron” or “imbecile” to describe people with below-average IQs; in fact, using them that way, in their original definitions, would actually be offensive. You see the same transition occurring now with “retarded,” with some people trying to replace it as a clinical term with terms like “intellectually disabled” or “mentally disabled.” They feel they’re fighting a losing battle against the appropriation of the r-word as a slur, so they’d rather just remove its association with the mentally disabled and let it evolve into a synonym for “stupid.” However, I don’t see the word “gay” declining in use at all as a term for people who are homosexual. And one part of that is that while you can hear “retarded” cropping up everywhere these days the phrase “so gay” continues to be just as confined to kids and teens as it always was. I never hear adults say it, even young adults who used it when they were teens. Even people who couldn’t care less about offending people stop using it because they don’t want to sound immature.

            I know that’s not what you’re saying at all, I was just reminded of that. That seems to come up pretty much every time someone condemns “that’s so gay” in a non-LGBT space. My best guy friend is a moderator for a popular Pokemon messageboard and when the site decided it wasn’t going to tolerate “That’s so gay” anymore, a bunch of people started whining about how “language evolves!” Yes, it does sometimes, but not always.

  5. The survey seems to have been of HS kids in general, which to me makes the results a little less meaningful. If queer kids in high school didn’t mind the slurs, then fine. But I think it’s very likely that more than a third of them find the use of these words unacceptable. I know they hurt my feelings in high school, even though my high school was pretty gay-friendly.

    • Yeah, but how long ago were you in high school? The meaning of words changes over time. And as someone who just graduated from high school this year, I have no problem believing that a third of gay teens have no problem with said slurs, and am frankly surprised that the percentage isn’t higher.

      The more I think about this the more confused I get with people’s reaction to this. Other than some extreme exceptions, I hardly ever get offended by the use of slurs. What’s the point? You likely can’t do anything about their views, hater’s opinions should NOT matter that much to you (they shouldn’t matter at all, really), the intent is infinitely more important than the words used and most importantly, true homophobes are a slowly but surely dying breed. I ask again, why the hell do their opinions matter?

      • This poll includes the very kids who use these words on a constant basis. Please take note that a higher percentage found the N-word offensive. I’m so happy words don’t offend you, but for the gay kids who already feel judged, bullied or invisible, hearing that language casually in the school halls is a power negative reinforcement.

        I was never bullied in high school whatsoever. But I heard the way kids spoke to other kids in the hall, when they didn’t consider if anyone gay could hear them or not. I heard them call things gay, homo, fag and dyke and it was a reminder of how they view me, even if they never bullied me to my face.

        History has taught us words are very powerful. How special for you that you’re impervious to the power of words. The rest of the world isn’t has lucky.

        • Agreed. The first time I heard the words “lesbian” and “gay” was in a negative context which I think impacted on my later reluctance to really call myself a lesbian, even though my Mum sat me and my sister down after school that day and reminded us how awesome my gay uncles were.

          I also recommend scrolling down to read the comments at the bottom, because there’s lots of reminders and funny anecdotes about how “that’s so gay” can really mean sugar and spice and everything awesome.

      • This is awesome – I for one am glad to see that kids are less and less gay vs straight and more and more gay positive vs what’s your problem? (I got that from Cynthia Nixon’s GLAAD acceptance speech, thankyouverymuch)

        But another relevant question is, where did YOU go to highschool? And high school students in what parts of America (assuming, that the study was done only on American schoolkids) took part in this study? And does that extrapolate to youth elsewhere in the world? probs not.
        Words still matter to lots of kids living in areas where people are still not gay positive, and don’t necessarily have the support system they need to let words roll off their back.

        And even if they did, as I did – my mom always told me not to let people’s insulting words matter to me so much – I would come home crying and lock myself in my room because of bullies, and this was in elementary school way before I grew a back bone or even knew I was queer) and up until as recently as 4 years ago I’d think in my head “HOW THE HELL DO I DO THAT?!?!” How can I take the meaning out of the words and not let them affect me? I’m still, actually, trying to figure that out… I’m sensitive

  6. I think context is very important. If someone is reclaiming a form of hate speech, then in theory I’m okay with that, but at the same time, certain words will always make me flinch. However, I use various forms of the word dyke to describe myself all the time. If someone who was not LGBTQ called me a dyke, though, I would probably slap them across the face with a fish.

  7. I have a bisexual friend who practically disowned me for using the word faggot… In order to refer to my girlfriend. In fact I think I call her fag or faggot more than I call her by her real name. Amongst my group of amazing queer friend (who bisexual friend is separate from)gay, homo, fag, faggot are words we use to refer to each other all the time. It’s great, it feels great, it’s funny and it’s inclusive. By taking a word used so often by people trying to offend us and flipping it around, it feels empowering and fun.

  8. I don’t have a problem with slurs towards myself. Call me a dyke, call me gay, whatever. What? Do you want a special award for pointing out the obvious?
    I think the real question is why we care what haters really think anyway. Seem to me their slurs are a no nonsense easy way to figure out who to stay away from. Haters can hate all by them selves over there and I’ll be over here having a nice life thank you very much.

    • “I don’t have a problem with slurs towards myself. Call me a dyke, call me gay, whatever. What? Do you want a special award for pointing out the obvious?
      I think the real question is why we care what haters really think anyway. Seem to me their slurs are a no nonsense easy way to figure out who to stay away from. Haters can hate all by them selves over there and I’ll be over here having a nice life thank you very much.”

      /topic

  9. Yes, people who are using the word “fag” and “gay” as replacements for negative words might be trying to be funny, but someone can be trying to be funny and still be offensive at the same time (ie. dead baby jokes).

    Personally I think I’m ok with words like fag and homo as long as the person using them is also queer. I feel like the overuse of these words is kinda weird anyhow, since I don’t go around referring to fellow Asians as “chink” or fellow women as “cunt”. But maybe I’m just a prude.

  10. Both myself and my very much lesbian girlfriend use the terms “that’s so gay”, “thats hella gay”, “gay shit”, etc…. More often than not we take a moment to giggle at the irony of it, but it is something we use like lots of young people our age. It’s a dirty habit, just like cussing or picking your nose or chewing your nails, and like every dirty habit you must be careful lest it slip out in front of mixed company. Many members of our community are offended by it, and they have every right. I can be offended by it if it comes from the wrong person and it seems like there’s some hate behind it or they’re just being grossly familiar. And I am one of those “radical” non-heterosexuals that prefers the term “queer” when referring to my own sexuality. I think this does show a trend though- everyone, including members of the community that these slurs are intended to target- care less and less about hateful language. I believe it’s because it’s been reappropriated, some believe it’s because members of our community have been socialized to accept it. I think the real test will be how I’ll feel when I have kids and they start using such words.

    • When I was growing up, (in the hick parts of the South) my semi-rascist Grandpa/mom/various other family members would occasionally make a comment about those “queers”, “queerios”, if they saw something on the news about Pride somewhere, say. I never heard anyone else, even my few gay friends around me, really say the word until I started reading Autostraddle, so I thought that it was a derogatory term. (Apparently it only is when used by old people?)

      On the other hand, me and my friends have always called each other “fags”, and “that’s so gay”. Now that I’m older I try not to do this in mixed company so that people won’t get the wrong idea (and never around gay people whose sensibilities I don’t know.) It’s just not that big of a deal. Personally, I really don’t care if you call me a dyke or a fag, as long as you don’t say it with hate. And then you can definitely tell, you know?

      And I have since modified it to “that’s so gay – and not in a good way” to avoid offending people.

  11. I am part of the LGBT community, and I’m not really sure how I feel about this. I kind of feel like using any of those words is wrong, but at the same time the normalization of them for some, maybe, has lessened the hurtful impact of them. maybe. but a slur is still a slur should normalizing them even be ok? Idk.
    someone can call me whatever they want, it’s their own hatred and ignorance that will come back to them in the end.

    • Ditto about the allies. There are friends OF the community, and then there are friends who’re IN the community (you know, those people you always assume are gay because they’re always with the gays and they know what’s up). I wouldn’t outright dismiss this study if they included the latter but not the former, but slapping an ally sticker on any old friend of the ‘mos and asking them to speak for the queers is just silly.

  12. I’d agree about the context, although I guess I’ve been socialized to flinch at all offensive words, however used.

    Basically, I made a point of dramatically calling out kids who used “that’s so gay” etc when I taught middle school, because it made a point to the kids who might be offended/hurt by them.

    And because even if no one was offended that particular time, it made it very obvious to al the kidsl that I (and all of the other adults in the school) was not going to let anything hateful go on. I don’t think a school could get to the point of having a culture where homosexuality isn’t a big deal (if that’s not where the community starts from..i.e. if the sixth graders don’t all enter with that attitude) without first making it a big deal.

    I do not make a point of calling out my gay male friends who refer to each other as “faggy,” and every now and then I refer to myself as “dyke.” Because that, while lacking in taste, is sometimes hilarious.

  13. I’m a bisexual teenage girl, and I find all of those words offensive. I can’t even bring myself to use them as jokes ‘cos they make me uncomfortable to say. I have a special problem with slut/whore/ho/etc because slut-shaming bothers me so damn much (fuck yeah I’m a (safe, ethical) slut, but where do you get off insulting me for it?). It’s so ubiquitous and it’s almost unconscious when people do it. At least with homophobic or racial slurs, people will agree with you when you said “wow, asshole” but I get slut-shamed and my friends just say “well… yeah… maybe you shouldn’t be so easy.”

      • I hate the hypocrisy (one of my friends cheated on her boyfriend with me, and she calls me a slut… nice, bro). I have a sort-of-mostly-open relationship with my boyfriend and he touched my boobs on the first date (no, I didn’t “let” him, it’s not a privilege he has to earn, I’m actually into people touching those) and he and I have wonderful kinky sexyfuntimes (though no penetrative sex… yet) and I’m super pleased with it, thanks guys. I like fucking.

  14. The thing is, isn’t this a poll of all teenagers? So presumably all the straight kids who use words like “fag” and “that’s so gay” are the ones in the poll saying it’s inoffensive? I actually had a heated conversation with a friend about this once. He insisted calling stuff gay wasn’t offensive because wasn’t meant to disparage anyone specifically and he doesn’t literally mean homosexual. I insisted that when you live in a world that has made it clear gay is not OK, hearing “that’s so gay” is hurtful and every gay kid knows, whether meant to literally mean gay or not, the phrase derived from mocking homosexuality. Basically, it’s not up for a straight person to decide if a gay person should feel offended by language that disparages gay kids. My point was, whether he thinks it’s offensive or not, it is offensive to other people and I would think the desire to not hurt people he cares about would trump his need to be able to call shit gay.

    I think it’s very telling and more problematic that the majority thought anti-gay slurs weren’t offensive. It shows this language doesn’t bother them not because no one finds it offensive, but because maybe they don’t care about the plight of anti-gay speech. How does the word “nigger” poll? Yep, people will even be offended I didn’t type “the N-word,” that’s how conditioned we are to know it’s wrong. More kids had a problem with that word and a stronger problem with it. Clearly, they know racism is wrong. But homophobia? Who cares.

    There is an obvious a context difference — I feel like that isn’t even part of the discussion. We know what is meant when we talk about slurs. Ironically saying something is so gay as a gay person when you literally mean camp, flamboyant — you know, gay — is different than the straight kid saying extra homework is “gay” or his friend is being gay for not wanting to go out. To quote Queen Latifah from the song UNITY: “Now everybody knows there’s exceptions to this rule/Now don’t be getting mad, when we playing, it’s cool/But don’t you be calling out my name/I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame.” Boo-yah.

    Also, I still think Dan Savage sucks.

    • “To quote Queen Latifah from the song UNITY: “Now everybody knows there’s exceptions to this rule/Now don’t be getting mad, when we playing, it’s cool/But don’t you be calling out my name/I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame.” Boo-yah.”

      That was ah-mazing. *high five*

    • “The thing is, isn’t this a poll of all teenagers? So presumably all the straight kids who use words like ‘fag’ and ‘that’s so gay’ are the ones in the poll saying it’s inoffensive?”

      Nope – if you scroll up, you’ll notice that they did separate out the numbers for gay kids and allies and found out that it was still a minority of those kids who were bothered by that language.

      • Yes, I see that part now. I guess I skimmed past that. I’m still skeptical that it says kids who are gay or have gay friends. How many times do you hear someone say racist shit and then say, “I’m not racist, one of my best friends is black.” A “gay friend” may actually be a “gay acquaintance I don’t know much about or care very much about.” So I agree with your comment above — we need to know who they polled, where, the wording of the survey, etc. to really gleam anything meaningful.

        I also think this poll is a little weird because it’s about seeing these words online. It’s not clear the context — are these words appearing on their own Facebook wall, or are they just seeing other people they don’t know using them? One look at YouTube comments for, well, any video will have a slew of racism, homophobia and misogyny. Usually I don’t care because it’s extremely apparent the people using the words are a) fucking idiots b) losers with literally nothing better to do and c) cowards who would probably not dare say it to someone’s face in real life.

        Regardless, I still think it is troubling, not comforting, that more kids found the N-word very or extremely offensive while most said anti-gay words were not a big deal. To me that says homophobia (or heterosexism, if you wish) is still a more acceptable form of discrimination than racism. Look at the laws of this country and you don’t need a survey to tell you that, but I think a lot of people are interpreting this survey incorrectly, personally.

        • Yeah, it would be one thing if they only grouped in allies – still problematic that they think sympathizing with gays is the same as being one, but not quite as bad. But being willing to befriend a gay person doesn’t say a whole lot. It basically says that you’re not Fred Phelps, but I’ve known plenty of people who were opposed to gay equality, whether political or even cultural, who still had gays as friends.

          Still, I do think straight kids with gay friends are way more likely to be at least somewhat supportive of queer equality than not – and studies have shown that knowing gay people personally is a big mind-changer – so I can’t imagine that that explains away the number entirely.

          Re the n-word: I don’t know that I agree that racism is a less acceptable form of discrimination. Today’s kids might recognize that the N-word is wrong, but they’ve come up with other words to replace it. For example, when I was in elementary and middle school, it was just as common to call something “ghetto” when you thought it was stupid or uncool as to call it “gay.” I think the N-word is seen as taboo just because it’s been drummed into us from day one that it is, not because kids today are less racist. If anything, the racism has just become sneakier.

          • Well, if I accept that premise, isn’t it relevant that racists hide it because they know it’s viewed so negatively, but heterosexists don’t feel the need to hide it? I think white people or those unaffected by racism are far more likely to stand up to racism than generally straight people will when they hear anti-gay slurs. There’s a threshold of acceptance — racism is less accepted than heterosexism. No one feels like they need to be “sneaky,” as you say, about anti-gay speech. Racists generally keep it to themselves. (At least in the part of the country I come from. Things change when get into different areas.) (I also reject “ghetto” as being a masked racist slur, but that’s neither here nor there, I feel.)

          • I’m just really hesitant to play the Oppression Olympics game and claim that any one oppression is more or less acceptable in our society. Because while I generally agree with you that “overt” racism seems to be less acceptable, every time I say on the Internet a POC comes to tell me that s/he still experiences very overt racism every single day, giving specific examples. So I’ve come to believe that as a White person, maybe I’m not the best judge of this since I’m generally not the target of racist insults. I’d also argue that one type of power racism has today that homophobia doesn’t is that so many people believe that it doesn’t happen anymore, which makes them less likely to identify and then fight against the many forms of racism which are still around.

            Also, while it is neither here nor there, I’m curious – why do you think “ghetto” is not a masked racist slur? Every time I have heard it used it is very clearly referring to Black (and sometimes Hispanic) poor people. The fact that it’s also conflated with class doesn’t remove the racist aspect of it; people don’t use “ghetto” to describe something that is associated with poor Whites. Maybe I’m also looking at it through my hometown’s complicated racial history; many middle-to-upper-class White suburbanites in the Detroit area look down on and take great pains to distance themselves from the predominantly lower-class, minority residents of the city proper. It was hard not to see the fact that my classmates thought of “ghetto” as an insult as related to their parents’ aversion toward the inner city and the people who live there. (Detroit is one of the most racially segregated metro areas in the U.S., so the suburbs are automatically associated with White people and the city with Blacks and to a lesser degree, Hispanics.)

          • Well, I can’t speak for Magic, but I, too, don’t think “ghetto” is a racist-term. Where I live, there are a lot of low-tenement housing units, and it’s not at all restricted to ethnicity. It’s a class thing. When we used “ghetto” in Jr High, it referred to something that was junky or sketchy (or poor, if it was a person), like “Omigod, those shoes are so ghetto! Look at how worn they are! They’re totally falling apart, gross.” So, yeah, okay, it’s definitely a classist term, but no racial connotations were there.

            Ghetto has more political/classist connotation (for me) than racial, because the groups of people in ghettos were ethnic minorities within a more homogenous city. Not inherently Latino or African-American.

  15. One of my dear friends just came out as bi like three days ago. We ended up at a gay bar last night. On our way back in (we left momentarily when he got cold feet haha), he remarked, as a synonym for stupid, “that’s so gay.” As a Marine, born-again Christian, and someone who grew up really conservatively, it makes sense that that was the language he was used to. But he *immediately* caught himself and went “oh, crap, I probably shouldn’t say that anymore.” I was so proud of him. =)

  16. This reminds me of a really interesting thing that happened to me about a year ago. I was sitting in class with a friend of mine (who’s also gay) and he yells across at me something like “OI! DYKE! GET YOUR ARSE OVER HERE!) Now, I have no problem with being called a dyke (as long as I can discern that there’s no unfriendly sentiment) and I refer to myself as one, purely because I dislike the word lesbian, anyway, this *straight* girl jumps to my ‘defence’ and starts berating him against ‘calling me a dyke because it’s so offensive’ I honestly just laughed at her, which was probably a bad reaction, but then had to explain to her a) that I can defend myself, and b) that it was okay for him to call me that.

    Anyway, the point of this rambling post is that people need to think about context before they speak.

  17. I would agree with the idea that the intention used behind the word is what can make it offensive.

    However, anytime I hear someone use “that’s so gay” or “fag” I still flinch a little bit. It sticks out like a huge red flag to me. On a personal level, I’m not at all offended, because I generally know the person using it well enough to know they don’t mean it in a derogatory way.

    But, I think it’s important to remember the specific people that these terms have the most effect on. I’ve been 100% out and open about my sexuality for years, and have a good amount of self-confidence. But, especially in high school, it’s the kid standing in the hallway behind you, who’s been internally fighting with him/herself about their sexuality that these terms will have the greatest effect on. Even if it’s not consciously recognized, terms like “that’s so gay” really just foster internalized homophobia in our society.

    I think there is something to be said about queers owning the words themselves, however. Being able to show your confidence in yourself and your sexuality can be a huge comfort to those who’ve yet to come out. And when you own words like dyke/fag/gay, we can turn it around and give those words a very positive connotation.

  18. I believe it’s morein the context the person says it in. Though I can see why people find it offensive. However language is always evolving and no word really means what it use to. It’s linguistics. Each word holds a different meaning for example as an African-American I can tell you Nigger is different from Nigga. With the first being a word I hate even typing, but the latter being a word that can be synomonous with friend. And you will hear a lot of older people talk about how the younger generation shouldn’t use the word etc. But times change and I believe you should remember the past but not stay stuck in it. HA I can remember a lot of times when people have said something and after the fact being pulled away and told why I should find that offensive and me being confused as to why this word mattered so much. The same with words like “fag” “homo” etc. It’s really hard to police words. It’s one of them agree to disagree things. And society and what you are use to hearing. But this is just my opinion seeing that I was taught “the truth ain’t no rumor” meaing when people call me dyke etc. I’m just like -_- took you long enough to figure it out. And living in the south you hear a lot of N-word references but you have to choose your battles. Ahhh language is a tricky thing…

  19. Using the word gay in replace of a negative work is (retarded).

    Come on. Being called gay or dyke because you are queer is different than calling something negative gay. Call me gay all you want, but if you happen to say that the rules at the library are gay? Grow some more brain and expand your vocabulary. Odds are there is a more appropriate word out there.

  20. The thing about “being careful not to let it slip out in mixed company” is that by doing so you’re acknowledging that the words have MEANING and (and that the meaning can be taken out of context and therefore context has meaning also but STILL)

    And the thing about people not really meaning the words they say to offend anyone in particular reminds me of this joke by my all time fav Sarah Silverman: That’s so gay! … uh, I didn’t mean gay as in “homosexual” I meant gay as in “retarded”! HAH!

    So yeah, words have meaning and you can use them in a joke like the above as a straight lady and still get shit for it (she’s gotten SO much crap for making jokes about racism, sexism and as in the above homophobia from people who need the joke explained to them and take all the funny out of it, it’s not even funny!) So when people say that is so gay, or so retarded, and they actually mean any or all of the words written in that GSA poster above – then it is equating the word gay and retarded to all of those words, it’s saying gay means all of the above (ludicrous, asinine, pathetic, annoying, etc …)

    I think the way to “take the word back” and let people, not just allies but all people use it, would be to have a new poster asking exactly what do they mean by gay:

    Did you mean: ludicrous, asinine, pathetic, weak, annoying, bogus?

    OR did you mean: those birkenstocks are so typical of the lesbian fashion? or wow, she’s really bringing the mullet back, that fashion week lady…. or wow that lady with the flannel shirt, skinny jeans, ear lobe expansions, asymmetrical hair cut, leather cuff, and sensible shoes (chucks), reading autostraddle on her mac book at the coffee shop is really piling on the stereotypes, huh? (ok I’m describing myself here)

    OR did you mean: I just literally was witness to people who appeared to be of the same gender engaging in homosexual sexual activities in front of me, that made me feel uncomfortably hot.

    OR – did you mean: Awesome, Hip(ster), Cool, Radical, inspiring, hard working, impressive, interested in human rights, chooses words carefully, I kind of wanna be like that person – I’m having a do-be-do dilemma, fashionable, intelligent, hilarious, hot, sexy, informed, has swagger.

    Why are the other options not offered as options for the word gay? why do we continue in our fight to change the way people choose their words, only offering up the negative connotations we know are already assumed of “gay” and “retarded”?

    When a straight, white male co worker was having to peel 4 Qts of Garlic (while I picked leaves endlessly) and he said “man, this is so gay” My response was “Well, I don’t know if this is the most homosexual activity I’ve ever partaken in, but I’ll try and see how to incorporate it, and let you know how it goes” I laughed, I made him feel dumb for using words incorrectly, and guilty because he thought he hurt my feelings and called me later in the day to apologize.

    Cause when gay people refer to each other, ourselves, the things we do as dykey, or faggoty, or soooo gay, we usually mean awesome. That, I think, is the difference.

    • “When a straight, white male co worker was having to peel 4 Qts of Garlic (while I picked leaves endlessly) and he said “man, this is so gay” My response was ‘Well, I don’t know if this is the most homosexual activity I’ve ever partaken in, but I’ll try and see how to incorporate it, and let you know how it goes'”

      I’ve found this response usually works pretty well. You can also do this with “dyke” – “You mean she’s a wall intended to prevent flooding? Wow, I didn’t know people were capable of that, that’s pretty impressive!”

      (Note – the response you will get if you don’t succeed in mortifying someone is “You know what I mean.” The proper response to this is to continue to play dumb – “No, really, I don’t know what you mean. Last time I checked, pencils are not living things, which you kind of need to be to have a sexual orientation” or “No, actually, I don’t, but I’m curious – what would a heterosexual sock look like? Or bisexual or asexual socks? You’ve gotta tell me!” – until it irritates them enough that if they don’t/won’t get that it’s offensive, they’ll at least learn never to say it again around you)

  21. This whole “study” bothers me. What was the sample size? The geographic region? The margin of error? Maybe I just missed all that info, but it seemed like a pretty glaringly obvious hole. I’m not going to believe that one vocabulary-challenged set of teenagers suddenly speaks for all teens, nor for all people as a whole.

    What this points to is the more troubling issue of crass language becoming “the norm,” which is not a good thing. What these teens are going to find are a lot more adults who don’t find their gutter-oriented brand of humor particularly funny. I don’t find it cute when I see teeny-bopper girls on t.v. calling each other sluts, bitches, and whores by way of greeting. As a lesbian, I wouldn’t find it humorous, ironic, or endearing if another gay person called me a dyke. And believe me, I have a sense of humor–it just doesn’t rely on the underwhelming crutch of ironic name-calling. I dislike the idea of a group taking back “ownership” of a word by using it repeatedly within their own group, then throwing a massive fit when someone outside the group uses it. That just smacks of double standards, and I’d much rather see an offensive term die completely–across all groups–than come back as some zombie word that’s okay in certain contexts, but not in others.

    Bottom line: I think this study is TOTAL BS, and I disagree with it. Interesting article, though.

    • The thing is that it’s not a “study,” if “study” implies serious scientific research. It was just a survey that MTV and the Associated Press did of young people about their attitudes toward these words. That’s why I tried to carefully avoid using the word “study” (though I see I slipped up once! darn!) because I didn’t want people to get the impression that this was more scientific than it was.

      • Well that makes all the difference then, doesn’t it? Because why would MTV or the get all scientifical and even write and word well their surveys and then really think about what the answers mean?

        But then MTV is gonna (literally) spread the word about it, in a way some real scientific researchers often can’t …

    • This. But one thing I will say, if it’s any consolation, is that I personally heard a lot less of that sort of talk in college and even less once I got to “the real world.” Props to you for at least trying to correct people though. Even if it doesn’t always work, still admirable, in my opinion!

  22. I don’t mind being called a dyke at all (I kinda prefer it) but when people say faggot it crosses a major line for me. I think it has a lot do with how much hate can be verbally delivered with a word like that.

    I heard a gentlemen (term used loosely) in class retelling a story and in part of he goes, ‘What are you, a faggot?!’ with just the worst tone, and so much disgust. I could hardly believe it and was like… Would you please not use that word, it is inappropriate and offensive to many, including me CAUSE I’M GAY AS FUCK.
    Dude was quiet after that.

  23. I lived in the San Francisco/Bay Area since 2005. I could count on one hand how many times I’ve heard the word “faggot” or “that’s so gay”. Even then, I can’t even recall where I heard the phrases…and it’s been FANTASTIC!!! I do not miss those phrases!!

    I heard them all the time in high school and middle school. I hated it!!

    I like the idea/concept of calling people by their birth names or by terms of affection; rather than derogatory terms. That’s just me. 🙂

    • The last time someone yelled ‘DYKE’ at me was on Castro St. this year. And it was part of an altercation with an older (50-ish) gay man with a massive sense of self-entitlement. I kind of think of San Francisco as more of a gay paradise than a lesbian one, but maybe that’s just me.

  24. I am on the intent and context is everything side of the fence. The language policing has actually irritated me to the point where I don’t participate in almost any queer communities anymore, because the infighting can be so vicious and really does bad things for me mentally after awhile. (bonus points if you’re trans and other trans people tell you what you can and cannot call YOURSELF) I also wonder if this kind of language stuff doesn’t hurt instead of help. What’s the difference, at a certain point, between this and don’t say gay at all? Then you’re taking away a powerful thing for LGBT folk, especially LGBT kids in schools, which are their own little environments already. Or how about the fact that while overt prejudice has seen a reduction in America, subtle prejudice has taken over? Isn’t this focus on words, in some cases, only helping to hide bigoted thoughts and attitudes? Food for thought anyway.

  25. Interesting… well I don’t really trust any of those polls being as so many people are not included in them, myself included. I am offended by racial slurs and homophobic slurs. Of course context matters and who is saying them. When gay people use terms like fag, queer, and dyke it is often not meant to be offensive however when i hear my homophobic roommate use these terms it pisses me the fck off. Same with the N word. If it doesn’t apply to you, i’m gonna give you the side eye when you use it because i don’t know you’re intent.

  26. If people think the use of the words “fag” and “dyke” are ways of “trying to be funny”, i think they need to learn legitimate ways to be funny. Personally, i think the words are offensive and I feel like it is dangerous to say otherwise and throw around statistics where 57% of kids is called the majority–its only a bit over half. Statistics like this suck because clearly the surveys were NOT controlled. The “majority” that don’t mind could all be heterosexual in which case obviously they are not offended. If the words are deemed ok to be used by some people in some situations, its opening up the floodgates for them to be used by everyone in any situation, including legitimately hateful ones. Not Good…

    • “The ‘majority’ that don’t mind could all be heterosexual in which case obviously they are not offended.”
      I’m a little offended by this sentence, because it seems like you’re saying here that heterosexuals are never offended by homophobic language. That’s just flat-out untrue. Less likely to be offended because they’re not the targets, sure, but I’ve definitely met many who are extremely bothered by it. In fact, the first person who put it in my head that saying “so gay” was wrong was my very heterosexual mother. Kids would say it at school and she made it very clear to my sister and I that such language was not allowed at home and why.

      • True–this was an exaggeration and not meant to be taken so literally word for word. Believe me, I realize some heterosexual people do find the terms offensive (I have friends and family who definitely do…), but i can’t help but feel they are not *personally* offended in the same way. That was all i meant by it–not that they are not bothered by the words.

  27. I’m straight, and I used to toss the phrase ‘that’s so gay’ around all the time. It used to make me feel so awkward and really not that great about myself, but I was thirteen and pubescent and desperate to keep my friends and to be ‘cool’. (I was such a cliche.)

    Eventually I got less hormonal and just stopped saying ‘that’s so gay’ about anything. Honestly, I’m still not sure what my feelings about it are, but I know I feel really uncomfortable saying it. My younger siblings have started saying it, and if my parents don’t talk to them about it soon I’ll do it myself.

    But ‘faggot’? No. No way. I hate that word and I hate what it stands for and hearing it makes me all twitchy. Which, unfortunately, means I feel twitchy a lot.

    I have noticed that slightly older generations (those who have just left school or gone to uni, or even the oldest people at school) don’t say it at all. Maybe they do decide it’s offensive once they’ve got some perspective.

  28. Sorry for necro’ing this.

    But what if I really AM unpolitically correct? Despite living in a big city, there’s a very loose strings community that repetitively goes to certain events and knows this and that person. I wouldn’t say I was ‘friends’ with all these people, yet I have no problem using racially-offensive, sexually offensive jokes (and I’m black AND bisexual), and whatever else offensive.

    Words have as much power as you give them, and quite frankly I really WOULDN’T be offended to be called the nigger or fag because I just don’t relate. I don’t feel enslaved, I never was and never will be. None of my ancestors were, as far as I know. Holding on to the bad times is never good; even if we’re still in em.

    I’m sorry if it bothers you, and please be sure to tell me so I don’t continue to re-open wounds. But I like to say faggle, buttsex, butt pirate, knee-grows, and other silly things like that. I don’t feel cool, I just feel amused and free.

  29. As a 14 year old gay girl in High School, I certainly can say this article doesn’t speak for me. I know I was hurt when a girl I know (kinda a frenemy) called me a faggot a couple of months ago. I haven’t come out to her or any of my friends (I go to an all-girls Catholic school) but I think they kinda know. It’s just that one day, when we were talking about gay marriage most of my friends think everyone is equal but this one friend (the one mentioned above) said she thinks gay people are disgusting and going to hell. Words hurt, guys. You never know their backstory.

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