By Connie Chung, 17, Gabrielino HS (San Gabriel)
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Connie wishes that people would be more accepting of differences.

I had just survived first period and a droning lecture about the American Revolution. As I stepped out of class I saw a guy with a look of disgust on his face laughing and shouting to his friend, "That’s gay! You’re so gay!"

Some students stopped and laughed. Others just walked by like nothing happened. What else was new, I thought to myself, even though I was offended and ashamed that this guy thought calling someone "gay" was funny. But how could I blame him when people almost everywhere use "gay" that way?

Two years ago, I would have laughed along. I had no idea how offensive it is to use "gay" as a generalized insult. I was oblivious to the discrimination against gays and lesbians and how much it hurts them.

Using the phrase "that’s gay" to describe something as uncool or stupid is just another in the long line of ways that homosexuals are oppressed. Doing this creates an attitude that "gay" is wrong. Whether a bad CD is referred to as "gay" or people are jokingly insulted as "gay," it portrays the same negative message. A lot of guys are so afraid of being called "gay" that they can’t even hug each other.

Someone else’s pain changed me

My perspective changed a couple summers ago during Brotherhood Sisterhood Camp. Sure it had the fun swimming, hiking, and arts and crafts. But it was also a camp where teens from all backgrounds discussed social issues ranging from sexism to immigration. The passionate, angry and sometimes confusing discussion about sexual orientation and preferences left me speechless as I was exposed to things I had never paid attention to.

"I’m afraid to hug or even look at my friends because then they might think I’m hitting on them and not like me anymore," one girl cried.

This was a girl who I talked to throughout camp but never knew that she was bisexual. I still thought of her as the same fun, outgoing, say-what’s-on-your-mind type of girl that I met the first day. But I had changed. I realized how much people suffer just because of their sexual orientation. I never thought saying an itsy-bitsy phrase like "oh, that’s gay" could crush the feelings of another person. All it took was one guy with tears running down his cheeks saying "What have I ever done wrong to make all these people hate me?" Another camper responded, "People just don’t realize how much it hurts."

Illustration by Connie Chung, 17, Gabrielino HS

After hearing what some gay, lesbian and bisexual teens had been through, I was blown away. I felt guilty for having said "that’s gay" in the past. I had thought it was OK because everyone else said it.

Many people who say "that’s gay" as a substitute for something being "uncool" claim that they don’t have anything against gay people. But does that make it OK? Since going to Brotherhood Sisterhood Camp I’ve confronted a lot of my friends and family and asked them why they say it. It’s always the same old replies of "Chill, Connie, I’m just joking" or "Geez, didn’t mean it that way." Sometimes, I would get apologies like "Sorry to offend you" but then a lot of these friends and family members would just turn around and say it again. I thought about giving up. I didn’t see the point in fighting over a couple words, especially with the ones I cared about most. Fortunately, there were others who realized that some of the phrases they used thoughtlessly were offensive and wrong. Some of them even joined my cause. That was enough to keep me going.

But what does the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community think about it?

"I don’t think the term ‘offended’ does this feeling justice," said 18-year-old Sage Chung (no relation), former Program and Communications Intern for Asian Pacific Islanders for Human Rights, a gay rights group in Los Angeles. "It hurts like a paper cut. But by the end of the day, all the paper cuts add up into a big open wound."

Sage says society pressures individuals to fit into traditional gender roles. So women who show masculine qualities or men who show feminine qualities get ridiculed.

"A lot of guys use ‘gay’ as a way to display their masculinity," Sage said, "and to further establish [their] dominance in the group, basically, to fit in."
Sage said that people don’t always realize the message they send when they say "that’s gay."

"While many guys and girls use ‘gay’ to ridicule someone or something," she said, "others say it as much as they say, ‘damn!’ They don’t even think about what gay means or what it means to be homosexual."

Of course, something can be done. Sage said the remedy is for more people, especially teens, to be better informed about what it means to be LGBT. Gay and lesbian teens are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers and they account for up to 30 percent of all completed suicides among teens, according to an article in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Once when I was out with a group of my guy friends, they started picking on the shy, nice guy. They were joking about how quiet and "gay" he was. So now if a guy is nice and quiet, he’s considered gay?! Do gay people go around calling others "heteros?" It’s absolutely ludicrous.

I challenge all of you to tell others that phrases like "that’s so gay" continue to put others down. And when you do hear people use "gay" that way, make them aware of how demeaning it is. This has been my challenge for quite some time and I know it’s not easy to tell people to change the way they speak and think. Family and friends have said to me: "Oh, so you’re gay?" I tell them: "No, I’m just a person who speaks up for what I believe in."

Click here for resources for LGBTQ youth

You might think that adults and celebrities would know better, but last year then-San Francisco’s 49ers running back, Garrison Hearst said he would have refused to share a locker room with a gay ex-teammate who had recently announced his homosexuality. According to an article that appeared in Sports Illustrated, Hearst said, "Aww, hell no! I don’t want any faggots on my team." However, after realizing how much controversy he caused Hearst apologized, "Being African-American, I know that discrimination is wrong."

You don’t need to be some famous movie star to make a change. Last November at River Hill High School in Maryland, high school junior Stephanie Haaser could no longer tolerate the verbal and physical harassment of gay and lesbian students at her school. Inspired by transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson to take part in a non-conformist act, Haasar leaped on a table in her cafeteria, shouted "End homophobia now!" and kissed a female classmate to show the absurdity of her classmates’ behavior. (Associated Press, 03).

• The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) conducted a survey in 1999 of 496 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) students from 32 states. This survey found that more than 90 percent of LGBT youth reported that they sometimes or frequently heard homophobic comments in their schools.