Recently, if you were trawling through the Tesco's website looking for a gift you would have come across the perfect present. A "gay best friend". The sales pitch for the product described how "you've had the man bag and the iPhone … now get your very own gay best friend". I'm not sure if I have the time or the inclination to go into the concept of placing a gay man in the same category as a bag or mobile phone, or the fact that this blow-up gay man can go "shoe shopping" with you. The message is, it is OK. Gay men can be useful. Use them.
More disturbing was that the word was modified to G*Y. Now this got my attention. It is clear that gay is still seen as a naughty, disgusting and inappropriate word. Couldn't this word be spelt out properly, to mean "homosexual"? Apparently not, as that would put it on a par with "sex", "penis", "sauna" and, gosh, even "anal". Here was a paradox. A product that I presume had some vague intent of promoting equality and understanding was being sold with the actual word being obscured, as if it was something that shouldn't be uttered out loud or displayed in print.
When I was coming out, to even utter the word "gay" took me a long time. Such was the shame and the fear in equal measures. Even now to proudly proclaim the word in some places would encourage looks and whisperings. For me, at 34 years of age, this is of little concern. My point, however, is obvious yet necessary.
For someone to proclaim they are gay is a statement, a declaration that they are inclined to sleep with a member of the same sex. With this has always come stigmatisation. A sense of "design fault". There has been a huge development in the 50 years since the word gay acquired its primarily homosexual meaning. In the '60s it became legal to be actively/openly homosexual, yet being gay was still frowned upon and not really spoken about. In the '80s the Aids epidemic struck, whilst at the same time gay men became more politicised and energised about their rights. Suddenly, being gay was seen by homophobes as aggressively activist and promiscuous and diseased. Now in 2013 gay means proud, unashamed, open, human. Within 50 years the connotations of the word have evolved to slowly rest in their rightful place. There is a disjoint, however, between the adult world and that of the world our children are occupying. I can walk around London or into my local pub in Cornwall and have no concern about being openly gay. This is not the case for young people. Within UK schools and on the streets and even in homes, "gay" is used as one of the meanest and most savage and effective forms of insult. With it still comes the sense of wrongness, moral disgust and repugnance. Immediately the child is pushed to the perimeter, a social outcast.
From a very early age children are allowed to use gay as a way of describing something inherently wrong, as in "err, that is so gay", or "oh stop being so gay", or "God, that film was so gay".
A few months ago I attended a teachers/education conference at the Barbican organised by Stonewall. Through the various seminars I attended I picked up one recurring theme: teachers and heads of schools were more than often not backed up by local authorities in their use of homophobic language. If it was anti-religious or race, the matter was rightly dealt with, and quickly. Homophobia? ... not seen as such a big deal. But… IT IS A BIG DEAL. An astonishing 23 per cent of young gay people attempt suicide (Crisis figures).
This is not a small statistic, this is an epidemic, but still we find teachers not wanting to tackle homophobia. Whether they lack the power, the empathy or they have an overriding fear of parental reaction, it isn't good enough.
Young boys and girls are growing up with the assumption of being gay as defective and unworthy of friendship, love or generosity. When the tackling of language has proved so powerful in the case of racial equality, how can we sit back and allow this to carry on in modern society? The fact is, in Britain, being of gay sexual orientation is still seen as a choice, and it is still "a bit wrong".
One still reads in newspapers, "Jo Blogs ADMITS to being gay". Being gay is still lightly poked at even on shows such as Strictly Come Dancing. The notion being... oh, this is a bit uncomfortable, someone has alluded to something homosexual so let's make up some jovial banter to cover it up and make it acceptable. There are puns used on that show that were floating around when Frankie Howerd was on television. Race, religion, gender, disability are not grounds for mockery, so why is being gay? We are ridiculously behind the times in this country. Dare I say it, we're … seriously uncool!
The good news is these concerns are a mere hangover in the context of a gay rights movement that is really astonishing and exciting to be part of. To be gay now is to be open and proud and most importantly to be oneself. Britain is the most fantastic country to live in. We have such a rich, limitlessly inspiring diversity of life.
I get saddened, though, when I see that we as a country are failing our children within education. We are failing them if teachers don't immediately clamp down on homophobia and the negative hijacking of language. We are failing our children if we don't allow them to grow up in a nurturing educational environment of acceptance and love for everyone. We are limiting our children if government cannot see it needs to ensure stricter guidelines and the required legal muscle to make this happen.
Education Secretary Michael Gove attended the conference I mentioned above. I put it to him that the derogatory use of the word gay should be addressed. I am pleased to say his reaction was attentive and encouraging. Let's see words turn into actions, Michael.
And it can be done. Language is the key. Reclaim the language and change will be imminent. It has been proven time and time again.
School heads can be given the power, via local government, to set out national guidelines for schools. What's difficult about that?
The irony of course is I write this for the paper that prints the very worthy "Pink List" this week. The debate on why the list must be called "PINK" I leave for next year…
Will Young is a singer-songwriter and actor. He won the inaugural 2002 series of 'Pop Idol'