Bullying Cyberbullying Featured LGBT — 12 October 2011
Why is it not ok to say: “that’s gay”

A few years ago, a fifth grade teacher came to me and said she had something she needed to speak to me about. She was upset about the language her students were using in class, on the playground, and in the hallways. One of the students in particular seemed to have a very difficult time not using  a certain phrase. She had used it so often that now everyone in the class was using it on a regular basis. The teacher was afraid of the backlash we might have if we addressed it in class, but she also feared the backlash we may have if we did not address it. Since the entire class had taken to using the phrase, she wondered, would it be appropriate to address everyone? She had already spoken to the girl individually, but she refused to stop. The teacher was hoping that by addressing the entire class, it would hit home before parents had to be called, as her family worked for the school system and tended to be a little overprotective.

Whenever she thought something was ridiculous or not to her liking, the young lady in question would say: “That’s so gay!” Now the entire class thought nothing of saying “that’s so gay” to anything and everything. Our concern was, how many of these fifth grade students actually knew the meaning of the word? Did they understand the two uses of “gay”?  Were we opening a can of worms if we spoke to the class? Were the other classes having this issue? If we spoke to one class, would we find ourselves having issues in the other classes? The young lady spent a great deal of time around teenagers and young adults appearing in plays. She seldom hung out with kids her own age. We were fairly certain she knew the meaning of the word, whether her family would believe it or not.

Time to confer with the principal. In this day of litigation and helicopter parenting, sitting down with the principal to discuss an issue such as this can be quite a complicated matter. After reviewing all the particulars, she put in a call to the school board’s attorney. She wanted to make sure that we addressed everything completely and in a manner which would not cause us undo grief. The attorney gave us some guidelines to assist us in addressing the issue. He stated that he felt that we definitely needed to address the class(es) who were using such language since it is a violation of the Code of Conduct. He like us, did not believe that most of them knew what they were saying. We couldn’t go into both meanings of the word, as homosexuality is not covered in family life education in fifth grade, but could state definitely that it is insulting to use the word and there will be consequences. The principal and the attorney both decided that I was the best one to address the class. Lucky me.

We decided to sit with the teacher and script what I would say. I didn’t want to come off as a disciplinarian, but a kindly counselor talk probably wasn’t what was needed either. I am not a gooey, cuddly counselor. I am fairly straight forward and honest. I absolutely will not make excuses for a child, but rather expect them to take the consequences of their actions and then we’ll talk about it. That’s not to say I won’t pull a crying kindergartener into my lap and calm them down, but once I’ve done that, it’s make a plan and back to class. In this case, being honest and straight forward had to be carefully worded. I need my job, can’t risk losing it by saying the wrong thing to the wrong group of k ids.

I start out by telling the class that I have overheard them using language that I do not approve of and that it must stop. I pull out the Code of Conduct and we review what the consequences are for foul/inappropriate language. The kids are still looking at me quizzically, except for the young lady who brought the phrase into use. She appeared to be well aware of what I was talking about. I write the word “gay” on the board and ask if anyone can give me a definition. One brave young man (the Sheriff’s son) raises his hand and says that it means “happy”. Yes, it does I tell them. I ask if it has any other meanings. Not one hand goes up. Ok, that’s what I figured. They either don’t know or are not about to tell me that they do.

On to my second point of the meeting. The word is not nice when used like this. It can be seen as an insult to some people. I am sure they don’t want to insult anyone. Twenty-six of the twenty-seven heads shake “no”. One girl raises her hand to ask the other meaning. I refer them to their parents as defining inappropriate words in school would be, well..inappropriate. I go on to inform them that the principal has stated that anymore use of the phrase “that’s so gay” will bring consequences. The individual using said language will go immediately to the office to phone their parents and inform them of what they are saying. We discuss some alternative phrases such as “that’s silly”, “that’s lame”, “that’s ridiculous”, etc.

With older kids I could have gone into to language usage and saying what you mean, but there was no way to do that with ten year olds who had little or no idea what they were saying. I do know that quite a few went home and asked their parents the meaning of the word. I received a few phone calls from parents thanking me for stopping the language and for allowing them to explain it’s “other” meaning. Some of the kids came back to me and told me that their parents explained it and how embarassed they were. Our young lady…she had to phone home.

So, why is it so bad to use the phrase “that’s so gay”? For starters, it’s an insult to the homosexual community. When you use “gay” instead of “stupid”, you are implying that you feel gay people are stupid. Whether you approve of homosexuality or not, you cannot allow children to be disrespectful. Using this phrase would be equivalent to saying “that’s so lutheran” or “that’s so german”. We would never let children or anyone else use those phrases, so we cannot allow “that’s so gay” either. Allowing it shows a lack of respect for others and encourages bigotry.

The second reason we cannot allow this phrase to be used is that it could possibly hurt the feelings of one of the students in the class who may have a homosexual parent, sibling or other relative. Allowing children to insult classmates family members is wrong. It is bullying. You want to develop an environment of respect for all people where using hurtful language, teasing and put downs are not permitted.

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About Author


After 16 years in the classroom MaryAnn Byrne became a nationally certified counselor and a licensed professional counselor, specializing in child and adolescent therapy and relational aggression. In 2007, MaryAnn became a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention trainer/consultant. She currently works as a school counselor in both elementary and middle school. Additionally, she supervises Olweus programs at the middle school level. She frequently conducts workshops for private schools, Girl Scouts and professional development for the school system. MaryAnn earned her master’s degree from Virginia Tech in counseling, pupil personnel services as well as a B.S. in special education and early childhood education from Radford University.

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