Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"That's So Gay" & Other Insults

Creative Commons photo by antisocialtory
Actor Jason Alexander, formerly of Seinfeld, recently called the sport of cricket  "a bit gay."

Hi comments ignited a controversy on Twitter, with some of his followers saying that they found his humor offensive. Alexander didn't get it. At first.

But neither did he mean to offend anyone, so with some friends, Alexander set out to determine why what he said was so offensive. This is what he found:

...we began to realize what was implied under the humor. I was basing my use of the word “gay” on the silly generalization that real men don’t do gentile, refined things and that my portrayal of the cricket pitch was pointedly effeminate , thereby suggesting that effeminate and gay were synonymous...

The problem is that today, as I write this, young men and women whose behaviors, choices or attitudes are not deemed “man enough” or “normal” are being subjected to all kinds of abuse from verbal to physical to societal. They are being demeaned and threatened because they don’t fit the group’s idea of what a “real man” or a “real woman” are supposed to look like, act like and feel like. 

That's where Alexander's world and mine crossed. We've both seen the incredibly small boxes our boys are expected to inhabit, boxes that accept football, for instance, but reject dance. (Unless, of course, you're Donald Driver.) We've both come to realize that language has power, and that it's important to consider the multi-layered meanings of our words, lest we broadcast messages we'd rather not send.

Throwing around the word gay, in any kind of derogatory manner, is not OK in my book. (Yet, it's the one of the most common and harmful insults that boys hurl at one another.) But for the purposes of this blog post, let's ignore the word gay, and get down to the implications underneath, the ones that have nothing whatsoever to do with sexual orientation.

Alexander realized that his joke was built on the assumption that real men don't do gentile, refined things. Think about that for a moment, because those are the unspoken assumptions that shape and limits our boys' worlds. Our boys learn that it's OK to rough house, tease and tackle, but that it's not OK to take tea. And they learn that failure to conform to those standards --failure to suppress any gentile or refined desires -- will result in social ostracization.

That's not OK. I want my boys (and yours) to know that's it's OK to be loud and active, and OK to get dirty. But I also want them to know that it's OK to pursue "gentile, refined things." I want to expand our definitions of "real man," so that none of our boys feel forced to act, speak or behave in certain ways to gain social acceptance.

So today, I'd like to say thank you to Jason Alexander. Thank you for taking the time to carefully consider your words, and thank you for issuing an apology that encourages each of us to confront the ugly implications in our words and deeds.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I always cringe at "gay" or "retarded" being used thoughtlessly as insults. Any suggestions for better words?

    BTW he meant "genteel." "Gentile" means not Jewish.

  2. Wow Jennifer, I fell on your blog today. We have 4 boys ourselves and one little princess.
    We seem to be on a similar page on how to raise boys. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Anonymous 1 -- You're right: Genteel, not gentile. As for other words, I found this at the website www.thinkb4youspeak.com:

    Instead of “that’s so gay,” try…
    ludicrous ridiculous foolish silly goofy laughable childish senseless pointless useless meaningless tired weak. pathetic sad wretched feeble mindless tedious dull boring monotonous unfashionable outdated behind the times outmoded passé weird wacky odd bizarre strange curious peculiar unusual outlandish
    way out eccentric quirky unconventional wild original annoying maddening irritating grating bothersome frustrating

  4. Anonymous 2 -- Glad you found me! I hope you come back often.