The first time I ever heard the word gay, I was eleven years old.
Mandy Clarke walked over to my locker and asked me who my favorite Spice Girl was. Her hair was in sunbleached cornrows, complete with beads at the ends from her trip to Bermuda. I looked at her faint mascara and lip gloss, and all I could see were things I wanted to be. She was beautiful. She was tan. She was popular. I was surprised she was asking me anything. I answered.
(I mean, really, was there any other?)
Before I had a chance to ask her which one she liked, Mandy slammed my locker shut and walked away, proclaiming, loudly, “Baby Spice is gay!”
I was crushed.
That was my moment. My chance. We were going to have the same favorite, and, clearly, becoming BFFs was the next logical step from there. I was going to be popular, she was going to teach me how to do my makeup, and all of my preadolescent problems were surely going to be over.
I spent most of that afternoon upset. It wasn’t even until the bus ride home that I realized I had no idea what the word she had used meant. The way she had said it, I could tell it was a bad thing. Its exact definition seemed completely irrelevant.
I tried to figure out what it meant on my own. You know, context clues and whatnot. I came up blank. And in the pre-Google days, that only left me with one option.
I had to ask my mom.
The look on her face was one I hadn’t seen since the time I came home and asked her what ‘fuck’ meant (FYI, it’s something grownups do and you should never ever ever say it again for any reason, do you hear me?). It seemed as though this conversation was about to go just as well. She thought for a while, struggling with what she wanted to tell me.
“Well, Kate, that’s what it’s called when someone like-likes someone that’s the same sex.”
I was wholly unsatisfied. It just didn’t make sense. Baby Spice liked boys, she talked about it all the time. And wait a second, some girls don’t like boys? That was a thing?
My mom could see how much more confused that had made me, and she seemed surprised, almost certain that her explanation would have cleared everything up for me. She asked me where I had heard it, who said it, and why. I explain the Baby Spice Situation.
Instantly, her face loosened in relief. She smiled. She felt better.
“Hun, you’re right, Baby Spice probably isn’t really gay.”
“But then why would Mandy say she was?”
“Because sometimes when people say something’s gay, it means stupid.”
There it was.
There’s the obvious here. There’s the fact that that sentence wasn’t immediately followed by, “And that’s never OK to do because of x, y, and z.” To say so matter-of-factly that it’s just something people do sometimes implies such a personal acceptance of ‘gay’ and ‘stupid’ as synonyms. I understand her relief, though. I really do. To be fair to my mother, she has become much more tolerant and accepting, and I have never once in my life heard her use the word gay to mean stupid (other than explaining it to me in this situation).
At the time, I hadn’t had the sex talk yet (actually, I still haven’t, but that’s a post for another day). I mean, all she told me about my period was to never ever talk about it in front of boys (I still have a hard time telling someone I’m about to be with if that’s what’s happening). Here was a woman who hadn’t even talked to her daughter about sexuality and relationships in general, suddenly faced with having to explain a rather complex thing. It would spike anyone’s nerves. As I think back to this conversation, though, it strikes me more as a missed opportunity than anything.
Every time you shrug and say that something is just ‘something some people do’, whether you’re saying it to a child or another adult, you are making a statement regarding what you deem as acceptable. It’s up to us to make sure that that statement is truly the one we want to be making, and that it truly reflects the things that we believe. We have an opportunity as educated adults to educate the people around us. We do this not only with the things we say, but also with the things that we allow other people to say in our presence. Children are not born into any prejudice. They don’t pop out with preconceived notions of right and wrong.
It’s up to us to teach them.