Chatting with friends yesterday evening, one fellow parent related that her 15-year old son (let’s call him Jack, which is not his real name) had been reprimanded by his teacher for saying, “you’re so gay” to a classmate. As a straight-A student and generally all-around “good kid,” Jack was genuinely surprised to be called to carpet as being homophobic. To him, it’s just a phrase that lots of his friends use to kid each other, and knowing Jack, I believe him when he says he and his friends don’t care whether someone is gay or not.

The lengthy discussion that followed revealed a range of opinions, even among us friends. Jack’s mother agreed with the teacher’s view that he should not use the term “gay” in that way publicly as it could be upsetting to and misinterpreted by others. However, she did not see as much of an issue with using the phrase in his close circle of friends, reasoning that even adults joke around with each other privately without meaning or taking offense. In any case, she felt the teacher was out of line to label Jack homophobic.

Another parent raised the question of whether this is an example of political correctness run amok. If the term is used by teens in a non-offensive context, why should adults step in and make it an issue? This parent raised examples of children’s dolls and books that had well-intentioned beginnings until adults identified the potential for offending minority groups and these ultimately were taken off of the market. He observed that there seem to be more and more things that we are not “allowed” to say in the name of political correctness, and indeed one could even be sued in some cases. For him, the pendulum has already swung too far.

My own view is that Jack should not use the term at all, even with friends. With so many words in the English language, surely there is a suitable alternative? At the root of it is the question of what did Jack mean by his comment, “you’re so gay”? If he meant that his friend was being “light-hearted and carefree,” then fine. However, if he was labeling his friend’s behavior as embarrassing or uncool, then there are better choices of words… or in his mind, does “gay” mean “embarrassing or uncool”?

As adults, it is important that we help young people understand that it is wrong to use as a pejorative a term that refers to a group of human beings. How do we feel about someone saying, “don’t be such a girl” to a man who doesn’t want to take a dare? Or “don’t be such a retard” to someone who disagrees with us?

Using these kinds of labels reinforces stereotypes and attaches negative connotations. Also, it can create the wrong impression about the user of the verbal shorthand, which is especially damaging in cases like Jack’s where his personal beliefs are inconsistent with the words he has used. Surely we can choose better ways to express ourselves?

What do you think?