Why it pays to play it straight with homosexuality

In playgrounds all over the UK children are using the word 'gay' to mean stupid or unfashionable. Karen Goddard reports on a worrying trend
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The Independent Online

One day, driving along my usual back-road route to Ipswich, I approached the sign for Clopton and noticed someone had written the words "is gay" after the village name. The fingers responsible for this graffiti probably belonged to a child for whom the word "gay" was a synonym for "rubbish".

One day, driving along my usual back-road route to Ipswich, I approached the sign for Clopton and noticed someone had written the words "is gay" after the village name. The fingers responsible for this graffiti probably belonged to a child for whom the word "gay" was a synonym for "rubbish".

It was worrying. I've noticed "gay" is an increasingly popular put-down with primary school pupils and it saddens me to hear them bandy the word about without understanding the implications of what they are saying.

Most children have a vague idea of what the post-Enid Blyton notion of "being gay" means. My children's moment of enlightenment came courtesy of Robbie Williams. According to the lyrics of the song playing on the car radio on the way home from school that day, "all the best women are married and all the handsome men are gay".

When asked, I explained the meaning of gay, at length, to my carload of children, whose responses ranged from the bemused and interested to the self-conscious and embarrassed. The girls were most taken with the idea – and who can blame them? At their age, the prospect of shacking up with a snotty-nosed boy is nightmarish.

Despite sensible, liberal-minded parents (among whom I like to include myself) doing their best to explain homosexuality openly and honestly, the term has become debased and is used to describe everything from a bad football pass to an unfashionable item of clothing. Youngsters are left confused as to whether "gay" is good or bad.

But what can teachers do if they hear a child in the playground use "gay" as a term of abuse? In an ideal world, they'd explain that since there is nothing wrong with being gay, the idea of using it as an insult is nonsense. But because of the infamous Section 28, preventing schools from promoting the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship", many teachers are loath to embark on a discussion for fear of breaking the law.

Jonathan Charlesworth, a project co-ordinator who works with schools on the issue, takes this type of name-calling seriously. Speaking at a conference organised by the National Union of Teachers, he highlighted his concern that "gay" had become "the ubiquitous insult", hurled around indiscriminately in schools everywhere.

"That is so gay!" is taken to mean rubbish, stupid, broken, unfashionable, dumb or sad. Young people deny the insult has anything to do with sexual orientation. But, whatever the connotation, the over-riding message is that gayness is something with which they don't want to be associated.

Undoubtedly, the negative use of "gay" is harmful to children – to those living in a "gay household" and to those unsure about their own sexuality. But what about the teachers?

Heterosexual teachers don't realise how often they reinforce their sexual orientation, says Charlesworth. They wear a wedding ring, talk about their spouse in class and relay stories about their children. Gay and lesbian teachers don't feel able to do this.

"Teachers provide young people with the most influential role models they have outside the home," says Charlesworth. "Almost every school in the UK has a gay or lesbian teacher – if virtually none of those teachers are confident about being "out", what kind of message does that send to pupils? It's this: to be gay is something to be ashamed of."

The writer is a parent who lives in East Anglia

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