Stonewall, a leading gay rights charity, has issued posters to schools across Britain as part of a campaign to challenge the misuse of the word ‘gay’ by young people. With the clear slogan “Gay: Let’s Get The Meaning Straight”, the campaign aims to shed light on the meaning of the term, and issues guidance for its usage.
Fronting the campaign is Will Young. He argues that the word ‘gay’ is currently “the worst insult” used by young people. However, when the perpetrators of the action are young children with no intent to cause offence, how far is this true? Frequently, children are using the term with little understanding of its actual meaning or of the gravity behind the word, and are using it in a way unrelated to sexuality. Whilst it is crucial that schools tackle homophobia, it should be taken into account that there is a difference between children using the word offensively, and their use of it without harmful intent and among friends in the school playground.
Children may also be repeating terms they’ve heard through the media, and their use of the word may simply be their way of experimenting with new knowledge. In this respect, the use of the word gay can quite often be harmless, and serious action is only necessary in extreme occasions. Realistically speaking, children are simply not capable of the same level of logic as adults, and it is not right to judge them by the same standards and condemn all usage of the word gay.
This campaign appears unnecessary when focusing on the transformation of the term gay throughout the years. Its original meaning was ‘carefree’ and ‘happy’, and nowadays the term is ascribed to homosexual people. Is it not thus possible to state that, for young people, the word has acquired a new meaning that is unrelated to sexuality? They view it as a word that can be used to describe objects or activities negatively, and not as a term that meant to cause offence.
Another key issue encountered with this campaign is that it is highly doubtful that some witty, bright posters will tackle homophobic feelings and prejudices among young people. It seems much more important that young people are able to freely discuss these issues, rather than being told that a word is simply banned in the playground. Pupils in schools need to understand why certain words can be construed as offensive, and only through understanding can such issues be prevented in future. Stonewall’s campaigners point out that there is extremely high levels of suicide and self-harm rates among gay teens, and they believe tackling playground language could help. It’s clear that something must be done about this, but the problem is too deep-rooted for such a solution. Limiting the use of ‘gay’ in schools will not solve problems and will only serve to further isolate gay youngsters from their peers.
Stonewall’s campaign could be detrimental through discouraging children from using the term and making it a taboo-like subject. Although it is positive sign that organisations and staff are trying to challenge prejudice and homophobia in schools, there is a need for an approach that further involves students and doesn’t scare them away from discussing homosexuality. The campaign mentions the role of parents in changing the culture of schools. Such discussions need to begin at home, as in many cases children emulate the attitudes of their parents. Any instructions or guidance provided by school must be reinforced by open and positive discussions at home, or else we will never move forward. Therefore, the problem is too complex to simply be dealt with by distributing posters across schools; it is one that requires an open dialogue between parents, students and teachers in order to be solved.