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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Playground putdowns have always been cruel. Kids will pick on other kids for wearing a certain backpack, being polite to a teacher, well, pretty much anything. And now there is one universal insult. That's so gay. If you're wondering what a backpack has to do with homosexuality, well, a lot of kids who use the phrase say it doesn't to them. Gay is a generalized insult with no connection to sexual preference. But some kids are also taunted and bullied for their sexual preference, real or perceived. And many teenager's parents and teachers find the anti-gay implications of the phrase unavoidable and offensive.

If you deal with this as a parent or a teacher what you do when you hear a kid say, that's so gay? Give us a call 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on the TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program the surprising results of an economic study of prejudice against women playwrights. But first, that's so gay. And we begin with Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California Berkley. His latest book is "The Years of Talking Dangerously." And he joins us from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Nice to have you back on the program.

Professor GEOFFREY NUNBERG (Linguistics, University of California Berkley School of Information): Nice to be back.

CONAN: And gay many years ago transformed from meaning jolly to become a synonym for homosexual. When did it change again into that playground pejorative?

Prof. NUNBERG: Well, it isn't easy to say. It's tested as far back as 1987. Probably around the mid '80s which is not that much longer, not that long after it was mainstreamed as a word for homosexuals and the homosexual community.

CONAN: And how far - when did it first - start - in the '80s, late '80s it started becoming that playground insult?

Prof. NUNBERG: That's as far back as anybody's been able to trace it. It probably gained steam in the '90s and in the last 10 years. So it's much more common now than it was back than. But very early on after gay became the acceptable standard name for what we now think of as the gay community, it was transformed into this word that means lame, unpleasant, stupid, sometimes disgusting, whatever.

CONAN: And uncool in general.

Prof. NUNBERG: And uncool, generally uncool.

CONAN: And is there - is it said with consciousness that this is related to homosexuals?

Prof. NUNBERG: Well it depends who's using it. When you're talking about kids on the school yard, probably young kids don't even realize that there is a connection when they first hear it. After all, kids even now don't become aware of homosexuality and - sexual orientation until they're in third or fourth grade. And kids as early as first and second grade are using this.

That said, it's a little disingenuous for people to say, oh, well this just happens to be a word for uncool or stupid and really has nothing to do with the fact that this same word is used as a name for people with a certain sexual orientation. Boys use it more than girls, unlike stupid. If it's used to people it's used more of boys than of girls. So it's a boy-boy insult. And it has in that sense a lot of the properties of old insults like fag.

CONAN: And I wonder does its connotation change as kids get older?

Prof. NUNBERG: Well I think as kids become aware that this is not simply a word for stupid but also the name of a particular sexual orientation, they can't help but make that connection and realize that in some way there is an association of these properties with gay people. And in a way what it does -it's an interesting development linguistically because unlike insults that use the old fashion pejorative and disparaging names for groups, this one takes what had become the official positive name for their group but invests it with all of the negative stereotypes that were associated with that group and then broadens it so it just means stupid or lame.

CONAN: Here is an email we got from Elizabeth in Hercules, California. The title that says, that's so gay, that's so yesterday. My high schooler used that expression eight years ago. I work in the high school and kids don't use that expression anymore. It wore out like most frivolous expressions. If it matters the expression referred to when one was so into their own thing, he or she didn't care what the group felt. The group response that's so gay was a way of saying, you are so individual. I guess at least in Hercules, California.

Prof. NUNBERG: It may very well be. One feature of words like this is that like all adolescent slang it varies enormously from one part of the country to the other and one group to the other. All the more so because it's also connected to attitudes about sexual orientation which obviously vary a lot from where I'm sitting in San Francisco to other parts of the country. In some places it's got a very strong homophobic implication, in others that may be kind of bleached or washed out. And other words are being used in the same way.

You start to see things like, that's so homo, used in exactly the same way on blogs for example, to talk about things like software as if there were no implication there as well. Some people actually spell gay with an h, ghay, as if to say well, this isn't the same word at all. Something like what rappers and hip hop people started to do some years ago when they started spelling the N word in the plural with a z, a z in the end, as if to say oh, this isn't the same word.

CONAN: This isn't the same word. 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. We're talking with Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkley. And what do you do when kids in your class, if you're a teacher, your kids if you're a parent, use the expression it's so gay? Ana(ph) joins us on the line from Merced, California, not too far away from San Francisco.

ANA (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

ANA: Thanks for having me. I have a few gay brothers and when I got married 16 years ago I asked my husband to stop using the expression that's so gay, and he did. And now we have four children we've adopted and they're African-American and two of them are in elementary school and I do hear the expression that's so gay from them even in third and fifth grade. It seems young for that kind of thing. But I try to tell them that they wouldn't appreciate someone saying that's so black when they find something unappealing. But I don't, you know, I think there is a limited pattern that parents have to control what their kids say when they're away from home. So, they don't say that around me anymore but I'm not sure that I'm making that much of a difference when they're at school.

CONAN: And Jeffrey, I guess, is there an aspect of the taboo to this that makes it attractive?

Prof. NUNBERG: Oh, surely there is. And I think it's a tricky business. I think the last caller is absolutely right in taking this as sort of as they say a teaching moment and using it to open up these questions and get kids to talk about them. I think an effort to suppress it or to forbid it can work particularly in this case, can work out the other way because there is then a temptation to think of it as a bad word or a dirty word. And in fact there are cases of kids being sent home, a kid in Louisiana being sent home from school for saying his mother was gay because that's a word he should never use.

There were kids in Utah who were thrown out of high school for wearing a t-shirt, these were gay kids, wearing T-shirts that said homophobia is gay, or homophobia is so gay, which is an ironic use. But again, this is a dirty word, you shouldn't use it, it shouldn't be allowed on school grounds. So, I think if you forbid the word you're apt to associate it with other epithets that really are unpleasant or disparaging terms and it's best just to raise it and talk about it.

CONAN: Ana, thanks very much.

ANA: Joining us now from our bureau in New York is Eliza Byard, she is executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. And it's nice to have you with us today.

Ms. ELIZA BYARD (Executive Director, Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network): Great pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: And for the last three years you've been involved in the campaign to discourage kids from using the phrase that's so gay. And do you think kids know what they're saying when they say it?

Ms. BYARD: Well, I think the whole issue of consciousness of its meaning is really interesting because students will say they don't know, they don't associate it with actual gay people. At the same time, many students when pressed will say they won't use it when someone they know to be gay is nearby. So, certainly in the older grades I think there is a consciousness of that connection that leads people to be more circumspect about it.

CONAN: And is it more - you know, I was going to - don't mean to be judgmental, but is it worse when it is used consciously or sort of when it's sort of unconscious, I mean that it's just become this sort of acceptable, universal pejorative?

Ms. BYARD: Well, I would say the main thing to me here, GLSEN has been tracking school climate around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in K-through-12 schools for many years at this point, and consistently when we survey LGBT students themselves, they report they hear it all the time and it bothers them.

So for the students who are most affected, who may well be invisible to their peers, it has an impact, and I think no matter how it's meant, it's important to point it out to people, that you are having an effect on those around you, even if you can't tell it right at the moment.

CONAN: Geoffrey Nunberg, I wanted to get back to you for a moment. You mentioned that shirt that some gay kids wore, saying homophobia, it's so gay. There is an aspect of gay people trying to take back the word, as indeed they have, at least in some respects, with the word queer.

Prof. NUNBERG: Well, I think that's right, although I'm not sure take back, or reclaim, as linguists sometimes say, is exactly the right idea because this, after all, was a word that originated in this meaning within the homosexual community and became part of mainstream American English when the rights and status of that community began to be recognized.

So I think it's more a question of gay people using the word in an ironic sense. Well, I can get away with this, or I can invest it with these stereotypes, and it's also used by - you hear it used by straight people who, as if to say I'm so hip and my attitudes are so obvious that I can use this word without any imputation of homophobia, in something like the way that hipsters in the 1950s could use black English expressions like man, on the assumption that nobody would think that they could possibly be racist.

But it's always a tricky business, and with all language, particularly with words like this, context is everything.

CONAN: And as you suggest, the old expressions, hateful expressions about ethnic groups and indeed racial groups, they are widely not used these days, or at least only in very specific circumstances by some insiders. Homosexuals are fair game?

Prof. NUNBERG: Fair game in what sense?

CONAN: In the use of the word gay.

Prof. NUNBERG: Well, every group has certain words that it uses in an ironic way, what we call reclaimed epithets. I think what's interesting about this one is that this isn't an epithet but rather a positive name that's been - it's being used as if in the voice of somebody homophobic, in an ironic way, in a very complicated pattern.

It's something like the way you hear gay people, and sometimes others, talking about the gay. Rachel Maddow uses this to make fun of - Kitt Bond spoke at a Palin rally of Obama's excessive sympathies for the gay, and Rachel Maddow starts it - the gay, like the measles?

CONAN: Geoffrey Nunberg, thanks for your time today. We appreciate it.

Prof. NUNBERG: Thanks very much for having me.

CONAN: Geoffrey Nunberg, with us from KQED in San Francisco, our member-station there. He's a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, the author of "The Years of Talking Dangerously."

We're talking about the use of the expression that's so gay. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We got this email from Nicole in Boise. I am almost 40 and remember saying that's so gay all the time. That was before PC times. My 10-year-old boys are not allowed to use this term.

They have been called gay, told that what they are doing is so gay. This term is not allowable in our house, same with lame, retarded, etcetera, or anything else that would offend someone.

If you deal with this as a parent or a teacher, what do you do when you hear a kid say that's so gay? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also go to the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, also known as GLSEN, the group behind the Think Before You Speak campaign. You may have seen or hear their public service announcements on television or on radio.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Philip, Philip with us from Sacramento.

PHILIP (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Philip.

PHILIP: Thanks for having me on your show.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PHILIP: So I'm a high school teacher here in Sacramento, California, and I hear it all the time, and usually when kids say that's so gay, I turn around and say, oh, then it must mean it's good, right? And then they say, no, you know what I mean. And I say, yeah, I do know what you mean. It's a good thing. I'm an out gay teacher, so they all know I'm gay. It's not a big deal, and then they kind of get all embarrassed. I figure that's a better way to take care of it because saying no to high school kids, the rebel thing comes up, and it just gives it more cache.

CONAN: I suspect you're right about that last part. I wonder, though, if your approach has had any discernable impact.

PHILIP: I think so. My kids are pretty - they're pretty comfortable with my sexuality. It's not a big deal. I also have a gay student in the classroom, so…

CONAN: But…

PHILIP: …easy with it.

CONAN: But do they still use the expression?

PHILIP: They do, and they'll look at me and say, oh, my bad, or they'll say, oh, you know what I mean. I don't mean it like that, and that's kind of - and then I say, oh, it must be good then.

CONAN: It must be good then.

PHILIP: That's kind of how we - that's how we deal with it. I'm not offended by it. It doesn't bother me.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

PHILIP: Sure.

CONAN: As you mentioned, Eliza Byard, there are people who are offended by it.

Ms. BYARD: Yeah, we - the concern is that this phrase is so ubiquitous in schools. You'd asked the question earlier about how common it still is. We find consistently, for the last nearly 10 years, 90 - more than 90 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report that they hear this phrase at school a lot, all the time, and I think of this - if you think of the whole context of homophobic language in schools, in a way that's so gay is kind of the broken window of a much bigger problem in the sense that if you don't deal with it, it sets a tone that allows other, more serious things to happen.

And as I'm sure you're aware, incidents of more serious verbal harassment, physical harassment and even physical assault directed at LGBT students are not uncommon in schools. The rates are unacceptably high. and when we began thinking about the Think Before You Speak campaign, we thought we're doing a lot to work with schools on policies and training to deal with the very serious incidents like the fact that 83 percent of gay students in school experience verbal harassment, very targeted verbal harassment.

We thought let's see what we can do about this kind of low-level, tolerated background noise of the use of that's so gay, which really sets the stage for other language.

CONAN: Let's get Chris on the line, Chris with us from St. Louis.

CHRIS (Caller): Hello, Neal, thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: Yeah, I'm a youth pastor in the Presbyterian Church, and I actually use the opportunity to become a teaching opportunity, and when I addressed the issue, I actually had a child ask, one of my students ask - that we're at church, it's okay to say something's gay, I mean it's bad because don't Christians hate gays?

And I used that as a fantastic opportunity to teach that not only is that an abhorrent opinion, it's an aberrant opinion, and actually address the fact that I myself have had same-sex relationships - I am currently married and have children - and to address all of those kinds of things and to bring it out into the open.

And I actually had one of my students say, well, you know, I'm gay, and it really hurts my feelings, and now I can understand that maybe, you know, God doesn't hate me because I'm gay.

CONAN: And Eliza Byard, I guess your campaign could be described as in a way an attempt to have a whole bunch of teachable moments.

Ms. BYARD: We certainly hope so, and we also want those moments to be humorous, and as you were discussing before, coming out and saying no, don't say - just say no, for example, probably isn't the best approach for this.

So as we develop the campaign, which really took a lot of time and thought - it only launched last October - we had to think about how can we do this in a way that gives students a chance to be like, oh, okay, maybe I am hurting someone, I better rethink this, rather than coming down on them very heavy-handedly. So that's really the approach we tried to take.

CONAN: And Chris, do you find that your efforts of these teachable moments persuades kids not to use it?

CHRIS: Absolutely. I think it's emerged out of two things: one, the fact that I have a genuine relationship with these students anyway; and two, the fact that these kids want to be very respectful.

The thing that I notice about the generation that I am teaching is that they want to serve other people. They want to be exceptionally respectful, not just for their own fulfillment but so that they can have genuine relationships with their own peers, and they just don't stop and think and realize.

And anyone who's called in and said or written in and said that this is no longer a problem is obviously not in touch with the generation. I live in a rural community, and in a more cosmopolitan setting maybe it isn't as big of a problem, but out here it's definitely one of the most major pejoratives used, along with other, you know, more specific things having to do with religion or race or anything, but it is the most ubiquitous, without question.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Chris.

CHRIS: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Here's an email from Brendan in Roanoke, Virginia. I see popular examples of homosexuals on TV presented in a gay-face style that almost makes homosexuals out to be weird or different by stereotyping homosexuality as flamboyant, i.e., "Will and Grace," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Does this stereotyping in pop media help increase the use of gay as an insult or a way to insinuate weird? What do you think, Eliza?

Ms. BYARD: I think it's a really difficult and fine line that often has to be walked. One thing that's very clear is that the more that there is gay visibility and the more that there are controversies, certainly on the front pages a great deal these days, those topics play out in school hallways with increased discussion and often increased name-calling.

I think the other thing that's kind of difficult about this, thinking about positive things that have been appropriated, in many ways the sort of campy, flamboyant gay style actually came about as a mode of resistance early on in gay culture, and so this is way, being campy, throwing things back at people, the idea of homophobia is so gay, for example, is a mode of resistance as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. That was very much a part of the Stonewall rebellion, a sort of campy throwing back in the face of authority of this kind of light-hearted, humorous, with-an-edge approach to how to deal with being put down so violently.

CONAN: Stonewall, the incident that happened in New York City 40 years ago, I guess this Sunday.

Ms. BYARD: That is absolutely right, a very big milestone.

CONAN: Let's get Michael on the line, Michael with us from Milwaukee.

MICHAEL (Caller) Yes, and I would just like to add that I think in a way it's a byproduct of progress, and sometimes you've got to take, you know, to the victor goes the spoils, you know, the good and the bad.

You know, there's been a very concerted effort to come out of the closet and make it more acceptable, and part of that acceptance is making fun of it, and you know, and those who choose to have that lifestyle need to develop a thicker skin, I do believe.

CONAN: We should lighten up, in other words?

MICHAEL: Yeah, you know, it's like I went to a predominantly black public school, and I had a friend named Richard Lewintowski(ph). He didn't necessarily listen to rap music or try to overindulge in a black culture, but our friendship transcended color, where he would say nigger or nigga, you know, what's up, Mike, my nigga, and I knew that even though that word was a racial epithet and, you know, 30, 40 years ago neither one of us would have dared say it to each other, the way he said it, and when I called him a nigga, it transcended that, and it meant love. You're my friend. You're my companion.

So I think that the newer generation is evolving that word to say that, yeah, you might talk with a lisp or have a thin wrist, and that's so gay, but I love you anyway, you know…

CONAN: So context, context is everything. What do you think, Eliza?

Ms. BYARD: Well, I think context is everything, and I think that kind of familiarity is also earned, and I think that it seems as if, Michael, you had a relationship with someone that really got to that point.

I think that the issue that we see in schools is that students in schools who are being targeted with this kind of language, beyond that's so gay, but that's so gay goes along with the ubiquitous use or other words like fag, faggot, efforts to target people - you know, 80 percent, more than 80 percent of LGBT students have experienced physical, verbal, sexual harassment at school.

And we see a correlation between those experiences and getting worse grades, actually skipping school because they don't feel safe at school, not feeling that they belong there, and not planning to go on to college. So I think that beyond the individual dynamic, when we think about how these words play out in schools, we have to think of the community dynamic.

The comfort level in saying that within an individual relationship might be earned. But within a community context in a school, really, there are ways in which the behavior that you see in schools gets in the way of the business of learning. And that's really happening in a very widespread way with homophobic language. And we certainly hope that we'll see some change and see that reduced.

CONAN: Michael, thank you.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Janette(ph). Janette with us from Lynchburg, Virginia.

JANETTE (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Janette.

JANETTE: I'm a high school teacher in Virginia and I just wanted to share how I deal with this in my own classroom. The students will say things like, oh, this book is so gay. And I'll say, what? It likes other books? Scandalous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JANETTE: And then they'll say, well, that's not what I meant. And so, I'll say, okay, well, why don't you choose a different adjective so that you can express yourself better?

CONAN: Eliza Byard, it sounds like very much the approach you're using.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYARD: Absolutely. And, look, I think one of the things about school is they're learning environments. And so, to the extent that the conversation about this level of language can be kept in a way that's participatory, that's a learning moment.

It is different to say that's so gay, unthinkingly than to say, you're a faggot. And I think those things deserve to be treated differently. And I think efforts are more successful, like Janette's, when you really give a student a chance to learn without - I mean, you don't want them to lose face. You want them to get to rethink what they're doing. And I think humor is appropriate.

CONAN: Janette, thanks very much.

Ms. BYARD: And if I may say, Neal, I'm sorry, Janette, but it's also, humor is so gay. I mean, that's the camp tradition.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JANETTE: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. This from Leslie(ph) in Clovis, California. I've heard that's so gay from students since I moved from a more inner city to an inner city and suburban school as a second career teacher six years ago. At the first school, it was, that's so ghetto. I make it clear I will not tolerate this in the classroom. It seems to be less prevalent than it once was.

And we're talking about the expression that's so gay with Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, involved in developing the Think Before You Speak campaign over the last three years. It's been on radio and TV for the last several months.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Bobby's(ph) on the line. Bobby calling from Boston.

BOBBY (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thanks.

BOBBY: Hey, listen, I'm a gay personal trainer. I'm out to everyone, like, I don't know, you know, including you guys and very much loved at my gym. I teach and train and demystify to straight people, gay people, anyone in between, transgender, whatever. But I think we're rethinking this.

And it's cool to be gay. But you know what? When we say, whoa, that is so gay, it just - I don't think it has any connotation anymore to your orientation. And I think we're making a big deal of this. And I don't liken it to the N-word. Those are my thoughts. And…

CONAN: I wonder, Bobby, if you think - we were talking about context just a moment ago.

BOBBY: Yeah.

CONAN: Do you think it might come across a little differently in - as our caller, Chris, from Missouri was telling us, in rural Missouri than it does in cosmopolitan Boston?

BOBBY: Hmm, you know, I think as well in Missouri as in downtown Boston, I think people are more enlightened. And, you know, people will say to me, Bobby D.(ph), you know, it was like, you know, you're gay, what's it like? And, you know, someone will make a faux pas, you know, 20 minutes down the road and that same person will say, whoa, that is so wicked gay. And it…

CONAN: Well, that part is Boston, the wicked part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOBBY: You got me on that one. Uncle, I'll give you on that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOBBY: That is true. So I don't know, I think we're oversensitive to that. And I think that when we have conversations like this, it makes the divide larger, and that's my bigger concern. Listen, you know, Stonewall is an incredible, beautiful thing. And I'm very proud of who I am and what I am, and my parents are, and all my heterosexual friends, and all my gay friends. And I feel like I'm a leader in that area. But I don't know, I - you know, are we rethinking this? That's my question.

Ms. BYARD: If I may, Bobby, I…

BOBBY: Please.

Ms. BYARD: Well, the thing I come back to is that students are telling us it bothers them. I mean, before we took this campaign on, we were - coming from the viewpoint that this was a ubiquitous phrase used in schools, and we had the vast majority, more than 80 percent of LGBT students saying, yeah, it bugs them. And it seems like part of this bigger picture. So I think - and obviously, context is everything, relationships are everything. But when it comes to schools, the overall picture in schools is still that homophobic language, even the much more serious kinds…

BOBBY: Right.

Ms. BYARD: …are not being dealt with effectively. They are affecting students very powerfully. And we know that teachers are actually less likely to intervene when they hear homophobic remarks than some other kinds of remarks. So it just seems like an issue. Many students are very resilient, many can deal with hearing it. But in a situation where more than 80 percent says it bother them, it feels like a part of the picture that could be dealt with. But I agree with you, not heavy-handedly and with humor.

BOBBY: Let me just say one last thing and then you can, you know, I can depart. My niece and my nephew are 16 and 11. And they know that I'm Uncle Bob and it's a great relationship, totally open. And, you know, Nicholas(ph) has said to me, why can't gay people get married? Why is it uncool to be gay? Why do people hate gay people? And, you know, when - I have said to him, we've been gardening or they've been at my house on the Cape(ph) and I've had them on the windsurfer or something, when I'm training them at the gym…

CONAN: We're running out of time here, Bobby.

BOBBY: Bye-bye.

CONAN: All right. Bobby, thanks very much. Okay. And Eliza Byard, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. BYARD: Appreciate the conversation, and I certainly hope that everyone will stop to think before they speak. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Eliza Byard joined us from our bureau in New York, executive director of GLSN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Coming up, we're going to be talking about discrimination against female playwrights. It may not be what you think. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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