One of the funny things about being gay, as opposed to being a member of other socially constructed groups like ethnic minorities, is that most people who define themselves as heterosexual are not equipped with the “gaydar” that allows them to successfully identify gay people in public. As an out gay professor at UNC Pembroke, I recently overheard two young male students in the locker room of the university recreation center conversing quietly enough that I could not hear what they were talking about, until one of them raised their voice loud enough so I could hear him deploy the term, “that’s so gay!”
For a long time I have been aware of this term, and have often wondered what its exact meaning was, so, anxious to find someone who could finally invest it with some kind of specific meaning for me, I turned around very calmly, in a non-threatening manner, and asked these two students what the term “that’s so gay” means. Nonetheless, both were stunned, and quite obviously unaware that I was gay. Embarrassed, if not mortified, to have been confronted in such a way, they adamantly refused to answer.
So I asked another question- “surely this term has some meaning if you used it?” But all they were willing to do was apologize profusely and get out of the locker room as quickly as their legs would carry them, after I suggested to them that if they wished to continue to use such a term in public, they should make sure there were not any gay people present. But the fact that they were scared and embarrassed, like someone caught using racial slurs, was very revealing.
Their refusal to answer my question more than suggested that they were using the term “that’s so gay” in a pejorative sense. But it occurs to me that the term does not have to remain a put-down on par with racial epithets. One of the beauties of language is the way in which words and terms can change their meaning, sometimes in the flash of a moment.
For instance, in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney smugly deployed the term “Obamacare’ in an obviously pejorative sense, yet the President countered with “I like it,” for the first time making it his own, and beginning the process of investing it with the kind of positive understanding that the Affordable Care Act will undoubtedly one day enjoy in our society. The same can be done for such terms as “liberal” as well as “that’s so gay.”
As an historian, the term “liberal” is an eminently positive term, which summons up the goals and aspirations of the eighteenth century Enlightenment; freedom of speech, press, religious freedom, and the God given equality of all peoples, as enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, freedoms particularly beloved by contemporary adherents of the Tea Party movement, most of whom nonetheless use the term “liberal” in a pejorative sense. As our nation moved forward in history, the essential beliefs of ‘liberalism” did battle with the forces of “conservatism” to end slavery, make women first class citizens, create the welfare state, and champion a civil rights movement that has brought a wide measure of freedom and equality to racial minorities such as African and Native American, and other racial minorities.
The force of liberalism can also be identified historically as powering the gay rights movement, which began in the summer of 1969 with the Stonewall riots in New York City, as gay men and women fought back against their oppressors like the black freedom fighters of the 1960s.
This brings us back to the term “that’s so gay.” As a gay man, to be gay implies a number of positive attributes; an ironic sense of humor, a refined aesthetic taste in clothes, hairstyles, and the arts, as well as empathy for all peoples who suffer from abuse and discrimination. While conservatives pundits such as Ann Coulter deride the attempts of any groups who are not African-American to identify their struggles to achieve equality and justice as part of a larger historical civil rights movement, the GLBT communities and their supporters all over this country know otherwise, and make common cause with all peoples in this nation who seek full implementation of the ideals of liberalism that are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution.
Recently, a number of chapters of the NAACP, as well as countless Christian denominations all over this country have embraced gay rights and marriage equality as part of the historic American civil rights movement. Amid this particularly divisive election cycle, as the forces of conservatism seek to legislate discrimination into state constitutions and pass laws to disenfranchise voters, I remain heartened and hopeful. So call me a liberal, or describe what I do or how I act as “that’s so gay.” My answer will be the same as the President’s: “I Like it.”
Dr. Charles Beem is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.