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Don't call me 'gay' unless you mean it

At middle school, "gay" was the worst insult imaginable. The word was reserved for the most hated, unpopular and awkward boys and (occasionally) girls. It had no connection to sexuality. Even I, a "gay", used the insult frequently.

Once I got to high school the word had evolved. It wasn't just directed at the disliked and scorned pupils, but was used more selectively. Now the insult had to be deserved. The abused had to have some trace, however small, of "gayness": a voice with a tinge of campness, hands that flailed slightly from the wrists, or even too much time spent talking to girls instead of playing football. I'm proud that I escaped the insult through the whole of my schooling. I must have hidden it well.

Now, in the presence of my partner Brian, my 14-year-old sister tells me without batting an eyelid that McFly, Busted, or whoever else are not considered cool, are "gay". In front of her homosexual older brother and his boyfriend, "gay" is still a valid insult.

One boy, Graham, wasn't as fortunate as I was. He was teased constantly.

His crime was that he had what some might consider a slightly camp lisp.

But it wasn't the lisp that led to him being singled out. It was more that he smelt of urine and had the sweatiest palms in the school.

He was once pinned down in the changing rooms, while one particularly brutish boy sprayed deodorant into his mouth: "Eat that you smelly gay bastard." I witnessed it, but could do nothing without expecting the same treatment.

Graham was an easy target. For them, it was more fun to call him "gay" than anything else. It was the most degrading of all insults, depriving the person of any self-worth and destroying any remnants of pride.

I recently met up with my one remaining high school friend. He told me that everyone was shocked when they found out I was gay. I didn't act like it, I was informed.

Andrew, who went to our school, recently died of Aids. At school he was overtly homosexual. He walked, talked and acted like the girls and spent all his time with them. But the bullies left him alone. No one even called him gay, even though deep down, we all knew he was.

Perhaps we all knew that if we called him gay he might respond that yes, he was. So the bullies would have been stuck. Their best insults would have been brushed nonchalantly aside. And, as my 14-year-old sister and her friends could tell you, there really wouldn't be much fun in that.

Now I find it troubling to think that before we were able to consider our own sexual orientation we were being divided by the word 'gay'. That word led to more fights, more bullying and more fallouts than any other. Racist insults were a matter of colour, this was a matter of something far more arbitrary and difficult to pinpoint. What troubles me more is that, at a point at which I was coming to terms with my own homosexuality, the one thing I wanted to avoid at all costs was being called 'gay'.

Benjamin Leach Benjamin Leach is a reporter on South London Newspapers

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