Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Changing Insults

School age children can be childish, cruel, and thoughtless. It's a universal trait. So, it came as no surprise to me when The Rationalist related some of the "jokes" his friends at school were using. Typical 4th grade boy humor. Bathroom humor. Making fun of each other humor. Usually it's distasteful to me, but I don't really make a big deal about it. Kids will be kids.

Yesterday, as we were talking about school, he said that one of his friends was asking people if they were happy. If they said "Yes," his friend would laugh and say,"Haha! You must be gay! Happy means gay!" Another friend would tell someone to watch his upraised index finger, which he would slowly move from near his face to his crotch and then say the person was gay because they were looking there.

I asked The Rationalist what he thought his friends meant by their jokes. He said he wasn't sure; saying that maybe "gay" meant "dumb".

We haven't really covered heterosexuality with him, let alone homosexuality. I was pretty sure that he had no idea what "gay" meant....and he didn't. Needless to say he wanted to know what it did mean. He looked it up in the dictionary and asked what homosexual meant, giggling at the fact that sex was in the word, a word he knows usually provokes his parents into changing the channel when they hear it on TV and the kids are in the room.

I gave a simple response about boys "liking" boys instead of girls, but knew it wasn't a complete explanation.

I was disturbed by the whole thing, not just because of having to discuss it with The Rationalist, but because of the use of "You're gay!" as a bandied about insult.

A few weeks before I had heard one of the school's patrols bickering with another child and shouting "You're gay!" at him.

1. How did a term about a person's sexuality becomes a common insult for elementary school students? I know kids tease and say stupid things to each other....but how have things gone from "You're dumb!" "You're gay!"....not that calling someone dumb is acceptable.

2. It reminded me of this story about Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11 year old child who killed himself after constantly being subjected to these kinds of taunts.

I wonder whether the very prominent conflict between gay rights activists and cultural conservatives is somehow trickling down into our children's lives. It seems as if the rhetoric is creeping into their consciousness and becoming a weapon, an insult, and an epithet.

If elementary students, 9 and 10 year olds, are using these words then I can only imagine what middle school and high school students are saying.

How did we get here?


James Pate said...

I remember when I first learned what gay meant. Someone on the bus called someone gay, and he said something about sex with the same sex. He said he was sitting with a girl, so he wasn't gay. When I went home and asked my mom, she said it had nothing to do with who you sat with on the bus. Then she told me the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And I think my dad may have exposed me to the classic Leviticus and Romans passages.

DH said...

Wow. I worry about the Rationalist. His rational bent does offer some protection, as he does question everything he's told, but like any child, he is influenced by the crowd. I guess for now I should just be thankful that our boys still talk to us and tell us about things that happen. At least that way we can deal with the situations and try to help them learn how to deal with them.

Retriever said...

Been there, heard the same stuff. I hadn't realized they were saying all that in elementary school now...

In middle school boys it's usually just a reflection of tweens' intense anxiety about their own changing bodies and hormones starting to surge. Who am I, what is happening to me, I feel out of control, what if...When you don't know where your urges will lead you, easy to project onto someone else, to deflect any possible observation of oneself.

Around here, children are taught about heterosexual activities, safe sex, and homosexuality in icky clinical terms divorced from moral or romantic aspects in most public elementary schools this day. They are shown bananas and day-glo condoms before they have ever even got the nerve to kiss someone they think is cute. They are warned about stranger danger, and the possibility of sexual abuse. Not to mention AIDs and pregnancy.

And this generation of kids has in-your-face gay rights activism all around them at a time when the majority of kids are nervous about their own sexuality to begin with.

My generation felt the same physical and romantic and spiritual yearnings for that enticing other across the classroom, but it was a seemingly safer time. Nobody we knew had sex (or admitted to it). We studied sexual reproduction by looking at diagrams of flowers (one wit in my class said that you could remember Xylem and Phloem by thinking "sex up, flow down").

So, for example, for a girl or boy to have a crush on anyone, whether the opposite or the same sex, was not threatening, but rather added spice to life. If one longed to sit next to a particular girl one didn't wonder "Am I gay?".

I think there was actually more freedom then to express feelings of friendly and more physical attraction to other people, because sex was out of the question. Girls could hug each other without worrying that others might taunt them for being gay.

In my community (overwhelmingly white, suburban, straight married couples with children at home) there is a complete disconnect between what the kids are taught in school about the physical things some men do with each other, and what the people around them actually live out. So the boys taunt each other "That's so gay" as an insult.

It can be truly dreadful for those kids who actually are gay.

It is perhaps worse, tho, for heterosexual kids who are shy or phobic or as yet unattractive to the opposite sex. They are taunted as being gay with the nasty undertone that nobody of the opposite sex could possibly ever want them. Or if a kid dresses modestly and is still too timid to chase the opposite sex, they are called gay and perhaps wonder themselves if they are.

I used to tell my teen daughters that if they found that they were gay, they should make full use of the school support groups while I got used to the idea. But that all I cared about was that they love truly and be loved.

When, in fact, it became abundantly clear that they liked boys, but were too shy to pursue them, I realized that they were somewhat more isolated than the gay students, who at least had a group and a cause to unite them.

No longer a problem.

In the meantime, I have to regularly yell at my teen male kid on the autism spectrum for all the horrible ways his video gaming buddies (all also on the spectrum) from his school insult each other. Gay, douchebag, wimp, moron, retard,wack job, loser, etc. are typical insults. In their case, the anxieties are not only about developing sexuality, but also about the extent to which society will label them losers for not being neurotypical.

Many of us will remember in our own youth defending against hurtful labelling by either calling ourselves the name first, or by projecting and taunting another.

terri said...


Wow. How did you process those passages at a young age? I guess that's one way I could have handled it! :-)


So far the school system hasn't done any sexual education. I think they start this year with a very general discussion about puberty.

Our boys already know the basic things about boys and girls, pregnancy, and the biological differences. They even know it takes a cell from a man and a woman to create a baby.

We just haven't covered how exactly those cells get together! :-)

The Rationalist will be ten soon, so he's probably about ready to hear it, but The Intuitive is almost two years younger, so we've been holding off. The Rationalist is anything we tell him will soon make its way to his younger brother.

I'm not really dreading the conversation, but I know that it will be a game changer as far as protecting the minds of our kids. All of a sudden obscure references on the TV will make more sense to them and engender more questions, and conflicting messages.

I don't know If I am ready for it yet.

James Pate said...

It's odd. I knew some gay people even in my small town---a few gym teachers and a cousin. And my family was accepting towards them, especially since one of the gym teachers took her time to help me overcome a learning disability. I guess what we thought was that not everyone around us was following the right path, even if they may be nice people. That was the case for other things too. We didn't keep Christmas, for instance, but everyone around us did.

James Pate said...

BTW, good comments, Retriever.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think the word is generalising and starting to mean "dumb, foolish, general insult." Such things happened to "crap" and "suck." It will be decades before the suggestion of homosexuality disappears from it, but slang is the most volatile part of a language. Words lose specificity, so new words have to be used to get the point across.

If the Rationalist picked up that it meant "dumb" from context, he was likely mostly correct. That is likely how it is used in his circle, with only a portion of the speakers knowing the sexual origin of the term.