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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008, 13:04 GMT
How 'gay' became children's insult of choice
Teenage boy being bullied

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

The word "gay" is now the most frequently used term of abuse in schools, says a report. How did it get to be so prevalent and why do children use homophobic insults to get at each other?

Every generation of schoolchildren has them, the playground put-downs that can leave a pupil's reputation in tatters among their peers.

For the current generation, "gay", "bitch" and "slag" are the most frequently used terms of abuse, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

They are used by children of all ages, from nursery school upwards. But the worst offenders are secondary school pupils, says the teaching union.

Gay (83%)
Bitch (59%)
Slag (45%)
Poof (29%)
Batty boy (29%)
Slut (26%)
Queer (26%)
Lezzie (24.8%)
Homo (22%)
Faggot (11%)
Sissy (5%)
Source: ATL
The most popular by far is "gay". Of the teachers interviewed, 83% said they heard it being used regularly and much more than its nearest rivals, bitch (59%) and slag (45%). So how did it achieve this dubious honour?

The word has had many meanings over the centuries, often sexual, says Clive Upton, professor of Modern English Language at Leeds University.

"In the early 19th Century it was used to refer to women who lived off immoral earnings," he says. Around the 1970s it was claimed by the homosexual community as a descriptive term for their sexual orientation, now its most popular meaning. By the 1980s it was finding its way into schools as a playground insult.

"Every generation grows up with a whole lexicon of homosexual insults, in my day it was 'poofter' or 'bender'," says slang lexicographer Tony Thorne. "They were used much more because they were considered more offensive than 'gay', which is more neutral.


"It's only in the last four years that I've documented it being used so much by young people. It's what we call a 'vogue' word, which is a fashionable word."

One reason for this increase in use could be because "gay" has partly lost its sexual connotations among young people, he says. While still pejorative, for the majority of youngsters it has replaced words such as "lame".

"I have interviewed scores of school kids about this and they are always emphatic that it has nothing at all to do with hostility to homosexuals," says Mr Thorne, compiler of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. "It is nearly always used in contexts where sexual orientation and sexuality are completely irrelevant."

The ATL survey seems to say otherwise, lumping it in with clear insults such as poofter and batty boy. But Katie, a 12-year-old from Colchester, knows it in different context. A bad pair of trainers is much more likely to be called "gay" than a person, she says.

"It's used as more of a way to tease a friend rather than have a real go at someone. I wouldn't call someone 'gay' because I know that's sort of bullying them."

Terms such as 'batty boy' are clear homophobic insults and much more straightforward to deal with
Teaching assistant

The use of "gay" in this particular way was first recorded at the end of the 1970s and developed among US high school students, says Mr Throne. It's not only youngsters in the UK who have recently adopted it, the same has happened to the German equivalent, schwul, he adds.

This mutation of the word is one reason why using "gay" as in a pejorative sense often goes unchallenged. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles caused controversy in 2006 for his casual use of the word. He said he'd used it to describe something as "rubbish" and was backed by the BBC.

"The word has what we call multiple coinage and that's the problem," says Mr Thorne. "While teenagers are generally using it to mean 'lame' it can separately be used as a homophobic term of abuse."

It's this ambiguity that prevents some teachers from tackling pupils who use it in a negative sense, says ATL. They are afraid of "blowing trivial matters out of proportion".


"It's tricky because it's often a casually throwaway remark and said without any obvious malice," says Deborah, a teaching assistant from Essex. "Terms such as 'batty boy' are clear homophobic insults and much more straightforward to deal with."

Bullying in the playground
Every generation has abusive words

But while "gay" may have changed for some, it is still being used as a means of bullying, as are many other homophobic insults (see table, above). Last year, the Westminster government announced the first guidelines for schools on how to deal with homophobic bullying.

Gay lobby group Stonewall says 65% of young gay people experience homophobic bullying. And many who aren't gay also get labelled as such.

"It's a form of peer group control," says psychologist Helen Cowie. "Boys have to be masculine and macho and anyone who isn't must go along with it or face being bullied. It's a form of bullying that domineering people seek out vulnerable people and school age is a time of emergent sexuality which is itself a vulnerable time."

Fellow psychologist Ian Rivers says the potency of such words is in the fact they "go to the very core of who we are". Yet sexual orientation is also invisible.

"It's not about your heritage or your race, it's not about things which someone can see." So it can't even be challenged, he says. "How can children demonstrate that they are heterosexual. There's no effective recourse and this is what makes it so effective as a bullying tactic."

Donald Christie, professor in the Department of Childhood and Primary Studies, says "sexual orientation" is a source of potential vulnerability. "If there's an area of life that children themselves feel insecure about they're aware of their own vulnerability. The whole point of bullying is about identifying and accentuating weakness in others."

Ms Cowie has observed schools developing children as "peer supporters" to listen, mediate and support bullied children. But "boys have a "harder time" adopting such roles because the attributes are not seen as masculine.

"In one school we studied they were known as queer supporters," she notes.

Recalling her time as a boys' secondary school teacher in the 1970s, Ms Cowie recalls how "obsessed" pupils were with homosexual innuendo. "It didn't seem to matter what you read to the class they'd always find an gay innuendo."

Below is a selection of your comments.

In response to Doug and A Dawson. I'm a gay man, and as an adult wouldn't take much offence to hearing the word in the context of "uncool". Thats because I've grown up, accepted myself, and accepted there are idiots and bigots out there. However, consider a teenage boy or girl, just coming to terms with themselves and hearing the common term describing their sexuality - gay - being used as a synonym for something uncool, "sad" and disappointing.

But there's a problem - focusing on this issue of terminology might allow the issue to be painted as "PC" when there is actually a very real problem of true homophobic bullying in schools that goes untackled. Schools take the issue of race incredibly serious and have specific policies in place. Its now time to do the same for homophobic bullying.
David Phillips, London, United Kingdom

It's wrong to use it as a term for lame or rubbish, if someone was to use the "N" word in the same respect we would not hear the end of it.
Carl Lander, Ipswich, England

As a gay secondary school student, the word gay became increasingly less offensive even during the times when I was coming to terms with my own sexuality simply due to its saturation into playground language. I recall its use evolving around the same time as "gay" was starting to be used as a noun. "You're a gay" was a very common put down, and was not always meant to make a claim that a person was homosexual or otherwise. No doubt, a new socially acceptable casual word for "homosexual" will emerge in coming years once "gay" takes precedence as a negative term.
Terry, London

A large element of the reason, I'm sure, is the common, vulgar assumption that only rough, tough working class types are "real men", and that any male showing any sign of intelligence or interest in cultural or intellectual matters must be homosexual. Albert Steptoe used to deride any such person as "he's a poof", and I (from a working-class background but with a grammar school education, professional qualification and a university degree) have also encountered it myself, though I have never shown any sign at all of homosexuality. It's basically a fear of the different: if different in one way they must be different in another, easily mocked, way.
Ray Ward, London, UK

"It's only in the last four years that I've documented it being used so much by young people." Where did Tony Thorne do his research? I would contend that "gay" has been one of the most commonly used derogatory words in playgrounds for more like 15 years, maybe longer.
AJL, London

Whilst the term "gay" is certainly a popular one, I would like to question the homophobic nature of the insult. Having left secondary education only 20 months ago, school life is still very fresh in my mind. The simple truth is that whilst teenagers throw the insult around with careless abandon, none of them are actually homophobic - the word has essentially picked up another meaning. Those in the school grounds use it as an abrupt way of denouncing something as "uncool". I'll happily admit to using the term to describe things I am unhappy with, but I certainly have no negative feelings towards those of a different sexual orientation.

Yet another misunderstanding of the youth by older generations.
Doug, Hampton

Stupid justification for allowing homophobic anti-gay sentiment to go unchallenged. Try being a gay teacher or student and tell me "it doesn't refer to sexuality". Imagine you are a gay student and someone calls something gay, and you say "don't say that, because I'm gay and I'm not stupid". Guess what would happen to that kid?
Trent, London

I blame Ali G.
Mo, London

I am a secondary school teacher and hear 'gay' in a number of contexts every day. The vast majority of usage is totally harmless and it is up to teachers to keep ahead of the game and use common sense - teachers are often guilty of taking this word out of context and 'creating' a situation.
A Dawson, Hull

I suspect this is a reaction to the pushing of politically correct ideas on a reasonable population. The homosexual community adopted "gay" as a positive description. People come straight back and use it as a pejorative. The same has happened with the term "special" which comes from "special needs". This was coined as an unemotive description but I often hear it used by young people to question people's intellectual capacity. The currency of kids' conversation is often mean - and that's part of the rough and tumble of their lives. Children relish in the use of unacceptable terminology.
Peter, Stockport, UK

Teachers should be challenging and educating children. I wonder how a homosexual teenager or child feels about growing up "gay" (the term we all use) when the connotation of this among children is that it is second class and pathetic?
Chris, Welshpool

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