‘Gay’ in the negative – something to be reappropriated, not censored

by Craig Evans

Here’s a piece on the BBC news website that reminded me of some of Kate’s Sociolinguistics seminars in the first year:


The subject under discussion is the derogatory use of the word ‘gay’. The gay rights charity Stonewall are about to launch a poster campaign to discourage its use.

As a student of linguistics and thinking back to Kate’s seminars, this got me wondering about Stonewall’s plans and if perhaps their efforts to combat homophobic bullying could be better placed.

This is not to say that I think using the word as an insult is okay, but surely emphasising its terribleness just plays into the hands of those who use it to cause offence.

One of my first encounters with the word ‘gay’ in its derogatory sense was a few years ago. I was working in an office, and a gay colleague was actually using the word as a part of a mock impression: ‘that is so gay!’ he would say in the exaggerated voice of an obnoxious teenager.

At the time, I understood his use of the word to be because it represented the kind of slang that teenagers used. In this way it helped to conjure up the stereotype that he seemed to be mimicking. Looking back now, I wonder whether there was also an element of his mocking the type of thoughtless person who would use ‘gay’ in its pejorative sense without realising the implications of what they were saying.

For me, this kind of reappropriation seems far more preferable than calls for complete censorship.

Many young people probably use the word as a slang term, without realising how it is inadvertently perpetuating an idea that somehow being gay is wrong. I can also see how its acceptance can be used covertly to victimise and ostracise young gay people. But the answer is not to scratch off the scab while leaving behind the wound of ignorance and prejudice that will continue to fester underneath.

Words are tools for expressing ideas, and ideas are far more powerful than the words that represent them. Language is always evolving, teenage slang comes and goes, but censorship can elevate words to a position of power that they never should be allowed to have.

My suggestion to Stonewall is that they should put their efforts into reappropriating the word ‘gay’, perhaps through an advertising campaign where ‘that’s so gay’ could be applied to positive things associated with the gay community.

It’d be great to hear anybody else’s thoughts on the issue…


One comment

  1. It can be difficult to change perceptions – and sometimes trying to avoid words (basically, making them taboo) is the most appropriate way to do it. Not that I agree that words should be banned – but when it comes to changing perceptions and going against discrimination, this can be the only way to do it…

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