When Assignments Are Gay—And So Are You


I was sure I’d heard wrong. But, no, when I replayed our conversation, that’s exactly what he said within the first minutes of our consultation.  

“This assignment is just so gay.”

For a blink of an eye—perhaps more like three blinks—I tried to remember the last time I’d heard that too familiar phrase. True, outside the auspices of the various colleges and universities where I’ve studied and worked, I have infrequently encountered such language (and far worse), but such encounters have also been relatively rare.

I realized that the last time I could really recall hearing that phrase inside the academy was during my freshman year of college. While walking down the hallway of my dorm, I overheard a girl talking to my neighbor. It was the usual, casual kind of banter thrown back and forth between friends. Then, like a bubble of dialogue blaring its neon in a comic strip, that phrase came out of her mouth.

When I challenged her about how pejorative I found her use of the word “gay” to be, she dismissed my objection with a wave of her hand. I understood this refusal to mean that, in her eyes, the argument forming in the air like a Texan thunderstorm on the horizon had nothing to do with her. It had everything to do with me. I wasn’t just the one with a problem; I was the problem in this situation. Though a recreation from memory, her response could easily have been the justification I’ve heard so many times before and, less frequently, since:

“I mean ‘gay’ as in something that’s dumb. Not ‘gay’ as in a homosexual person.”

As you may have done when presented with a highly problematic statement of this kind, I thoroughly deconstructed what she said without leaving any etymological stone unturned. For good measure, I also offered several anecdotes about how, on numerous occasions, I’d personally heard not only things described as “gay”—as in dumb, as in stupid, as in [insert any number of negatives]. I’d heard people described in this way, too.

Though my memories of it are still vivid, probably because of how angry she and I got with each other, that particular conversation happened over a decade ago. That was also perhaps the last time I overheard or was part of a conversation where the phrase “that’s so gay” was spoken in an educational setting. Until, that is, the writing center consultation I am remembering now.    

This may be the moment when it would be appropriate for me to disclose that I am gay. Since nearly fifteen years have passed since I came out, I don’t often think of my sexual orientation as something that might need to be disclosed. As it isn’t hidden—which is a euphemistic way of saying that I am rarely mistaken for anything other than a gay man—I generally assume that people I encounter pick up on this facet of who I am.

So, to return: in the seconds after hearing “This assignment is just so gay,” I had a decision to make and I had to make it fast. I mentally created a list of pros and cons for saying something versus not saying anything:

Pros: This is one of those “teachable moments” where a conversation about connotation and denotation could take off at the speed of light. What he said, however offensive, could simply be insensitivity due to a lack of awareness or exposure (i.e., he may not know any lgbtqia people). If I don’t say anything, I may be uncomfortable for this entire consultation. 

Cons: This is one of those “teachable moments,” but what is the lesson to be learned and how should it be taught? What he said was offensive, but what might be lost if it isn’t handled properly? If I do say something, he may be uncomfortable for this entire consultation. 

My list, which continued for several more nanoseconds, also contained the nettlesome question of how to address what he said without disclosing my sexual orientation in the process. If I tried to talk about how using the word “gay” in that way is offensive to some people without disclosing that I was one of those people, the message might lose its force and not be heard. But, if I framed how and why saying something or someone “is so gay” is offensive because I happen to be gay and am offended by it, I might fail in the attempt to have him hear what I was saying.

Though you probably already know this, I was the uncomfortable one for the duration of the consultation. I didn’t address his careless comment at all. At the time, I rationalized my decision in terms of not wanting to risk ruining the consultation. A semester later, I’m not sure that staying silent was the right decision. I am also still trying to figure out how I will respond if and when I find myself in a similar situation again.

~John Fry