Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gay is Not An Insult

This Monday we had our first middle school youth group meeting of the new program year. There were eight kids there, in grades 6-8. Due to some struggle with being heard over multiple conversations going on, I decided to quickly insert "Rules of Engagement" into our plan for the night. We looked over the youth covenant that hangs on the wall, and then tried to lay out some practical rules for how to follow the more general thoughts of confidentiality, support, respect, etc.

One I made sure was up there was "gay is not an insult." I've noticed through Facebook pages and overheard conversations that kids in this town--like many across the country--use the word "gay" to insult each other. It usually has very little to do with sexuality at all; it's just a generic way to tease someone, and it's often used among friends, usually as a synonym for "stupid." However, I absolutely refuse to have that occur in my youth groups, and I think it's especially appropriate to spell it out as our church begins the Open and Affirming process.

A couple minutes after I'd written that rule on the notepad, after we'd gone on to add another couple rules amidst much joking and horsing around, one of the kids (who clearly had not been paying attention) looked up and said, "But gay is an insult."

I paused a moment, and said conversationally, "No, we shouldn't be using that word to insult each other." He pushed a little harder, saying politely, "But it is." So I replied, "Not in here it's not." "He seemed a little confused, and said, "No, there's another meaning to it."

It finally dawned on me that he wasn't trying to argue values; he actually had heard the word used that way enough that he concluded there were just multiple meanings. One meaning refers to sexuality; the other means stupid.

This shouldn't have been news to me. I had a similar experience in middle school. The word we used was "queer"--but with the local accent, it sounded like "qwaih" (as in, "you're wicked qwaih"). It wasn't until I went to high school that I realized what we had been saying. On a break home, my sister used that word, and I called her on it. I asked her how to spell that word. (Let me just say that my sister is extremely intelligent). "Q-U-A-R-E," she replied. That was logical--that's what you'd assume if you took the accent away. I corrected her, we argued, she looked it up in the dictionary. Bingo. We'd been using a slur without even realizing it. As far as I know, she never used that word that way again.

I realized this was a great learning opportunity for these eight kids. I quieted the others down, and gave a short explanation as to the history of why that word was used as an insult, and why we shouldn't use it that way. They seemed to get it. I felt a little bad for putting that one kid on the spot, but I thanked him for saying what he had so that we could talk about it.

I plan on bringing the topic up again later this year, because I think it's a really important subject worthy of some quality time.

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