Teaching Feminism: “That’s So Gay”

Welcome to Teaching Feminism, a series about equality in the classroom. Teaching feminism is about so much more than teaching girls. We need to teach all of our students to respect everyone, no matter what. Teaching feminism talks about just that. Have your own story about these issues? Share it here.

As it says above, teaching feminism is about more than teaching girls, and it’s about more than teaching about women’s rights. The feminist movement intersects with all sorts of movements for two main reasons. First, when we teach about feminism and women’s rights, we’re teaching about oppression in general, and so we can also talk about the fight for civil rights, LGBTQ issues, animal rights, disabilities, etc.

Second, women are many things besides just women and, as such, issues such as those listed here — and many more — intersect with feminism. Therefore, when we talk about teaching feminism, it’s really about teaching tolerance and equality. In my classroom, anyway, we talk about all of these issues, especially when my students tell me something is “gay” or “retarded.”

When my students walk in to class, the very first thing they see on the wall is a big poster (pictured above) with green and black lettering detailing all of the words they could say instead of “gay.” The first time one of my students says, “Miss, this is gay,” I direct them to the poster and have them choose a word to substitute. Sometimes, I’ll go a bit further and tell them that this assignment doesn’t like assignments of the same gender, so it is not, in fact, gay and they should therefore pick a word that means what they are trying to say. The students always get a good laugh out of that, but my point is made: don’t use the word “gay” to mean something undesirable. Doing so only hurts people around you and makes you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

I follow the same rules with the word “retarded.” Recently, my students and I have also had quite a few conversations about not using the term “illegal immigrant,” as well. The message here is important: what you say matters. When you use words like “gay,” “retarded,” or “illegal” when you are talking about something undesirable to you, think about what that means to someone who is gay, mentally retarded, or undocumented. Often, these students are the ones who sit silently by, feeling beaten down by the way students use these words so callously, not even giving a second thought as to what they really mean or who they are hurting.

It is important, though, that we go about these lessons in the right way. Every year, one of my students will bring up the fact that a writer is gay. Another student will inevitably call out, “You can’t say that word!” Each time this happens, I make a point to tell my students that they can say these words when they are using them properly: in discussions of sexuality, disability, or when talking about an illegal activity such as stealing. They need to understand that it’s not the word itself that is offensive; it’s how the word is used.

Related Stories:

14-Year-Old Launches LGBT Book Project

NBA First Professional Sports League to Address Anti-Gay Language Among Teens

Tracy Morgan Apologizes for Joking about “Retarded Kids”

Photo Credit: Ashley Lauren


Karen Howard
Karen H5 years ago

Rod M, You’re right that “Words only hurt if you let them.” However, when you’re young and impressionable, you don’t have the filters grownups have. And your friends can (and do) use words in ways to deliberately hurt, degrade and belittle you. If people have to THINK about what they’re saying and how it can affect others, this world might be just a little better.
Bravo to teachers who show their students there are other ways to express themselves.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

just something people pick up. lets focus on treating each other right and the rest will follow

Kellyanne M.
Kellyanne M5 years ago

I have never understood what " That is so gay" is supposed to mean. Whenever I hear someone say that I always ask what in the heck they are talking about. Admittedly I do get the that is retarded one because when I grew up retarded meant the actual definition of the word.

Wendy Schroeder
Wendy Schroeder5 years ago

When I hear that I think I'm listening to someone who is used to being around people like him/herself. Often, you pick up words from people you spend a lot of time with without thinking about if it cold hurt someone. Sadly, in the future it will be a new negative world that will be the new slang. What needs to be pointed out is when you put down people you hurt their feelings more than you think you do.

Rowena Thornton
Rowena Thornton5 years ago

As for the 'chairperson' business, I find that silly. There's nothing wrong with 'Chair' but equally, there's nothing wrong with 'Chairman' or 'Chairwoman' depending on the gender of the person in question. I've often heard of men being 'Chairman' but women being 'Chairperson'. Why do we women feel the need to deny that we have a gender?

Regarding the usage of the word 'gay' I agree entirely with the sentiments of the article. I'm not gay but I find the derogatory usage deeply offensive. I have no problem with the original definition of gay as 'happy' or the current one as 'homosexual' because these terms are neutral. But 'gay' meaning 'stupid/pathetic/shameful/nasty' etc. is absolutely unacceptable.

Rowena Thornton
Rowena Thornton5 years ago

"Why does it need be "FEMINIST"?, or "CHAUVINISTIC"?, or anything but learning to treat everyone as we would like to be treated?" - Jim F.

Well said. I think it's high time the word 'Feminism' was replaced with the word 'Egalitarianism'. I am all in favour of gender-equality but see 'Feminism' as a misnomer. The various definitions of feminism on here (e.g. Sandra L's) are quite correct but it seems to me that one can share these enlightened and liberating opinions without needing to resort to a term which is, frankly, loaded with negativity (and even sexism).
I refer simply to the word 'Feminism' and not to anything it is supposed to stand for when I say this.
To me the term seems to imply superiority of women when, supposedly, what we are all wishing for and aiming for is equality of the sexes. Yes, so men in general have treated women in general terribly for centuries, but that is no reason to try to beat them at their own game, or at least to appear to, as the word suggests. Women have proved themselves to be just as capable as men and we've shown we can be independent and strong without having to resort to the nasty stereotype that, for better or worse, the word 'feminist' often conjures up.
For this reason I am loath to call myself a feminist but I will always call myself an egalitarian and believe very strongly that whilst gender should not be ignored, the differences between the sexes are largely irrelevant.

As for the 'chairperson' business, I find that sil

Heather G.
Heather G5 years ago

"It is NOT aimed derogatorily at people in the event or the Olympic movement by any stretch of the imagination" No, it's aimed derogatorily at people who are GAY!!

Janet McGillacuddy

"I make a point to tell my students that they can say these words when they are using them properly".

So that means that we can revert back to the real meaning of gay, which is happy & carefree and not homosexual then does it?

Huber F.
Huber F5 years ago

oh well, this article seems way to rough.. Dont know whats the way out of this growing pass time.

Huber F.

Mari Garcia
Mari Garcia5 years ago

Rod, grow up. As a lesbian, pagan, bi-ethnic, over-weight woman, if I recieved a nickle everytime I was called a name, I would be rich. You are wrong, stop fighting for the sake of fighting. I said you were being a moron, not that you are a moron until you continued on with the same nonsense. You points are stupid and moronic, just stop. Hate speech is basing an attack for something they can't help, meaning the are being insulted for the way they are born. You are willingfulling beinga moron, not hate speech. I am personally attacking you for your non-sense, not for the color of your skin, gender or gender expression, religion, age. I am not saying, "Typical old Christain fool, too stuborn to see past his moronic ideas". That is hate speech, not "stop being a moron".