The Big Gay Out, the largest gay pride event in New Zealand, was held again this year in Auckland early in February. John Key was in attendance, as he has been for the past six years, and gave a short speech on his support for the Marriage Amendment Bill.
However this year Key wasn’t quite met with the warm welcome he found in previous years. This probably isn’t surprising considering that last year he was widely criticised for announcing on radio that his colleague was wearing a “gay red shirt”.
The term got picked up and turned into a social media campaign, which promoted an unofficial Gay Red Shirt Day on Keys birthday. Hundreds of people around New Zealand, as well as kiwi’s overseas and even well known actor Sir Ian McKellen, posted pictures and videos of themselves wearing red shirts as a reminder to people that the word “gay” does not mean “stupid”.
Some didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Philip Patston wrote: “I’ve been known to say things are “gay” myself….the meaning of language changes. Gay hasn’t always meant homosexual and queer used to mean odd. Now, gay is another way to say something is not for you – I’m not sure that’s a moral or ethical sin.”
Key himself said that he picked up the usage from his children and was using it to mean “weird.”
The thing with language is that it’s all about context. I might also say “that’s so gay” as a tongue in cheek comment to a gay friend. It’s not necessarily in the best taste, but if I know them well then they’re likely to understand that I’m being facetious.
What I wouldn’t do is say anything like that to anyone I didn’t know well. I wouldn’t say it on national radio and I certainly wouldn’t say it in an official capacity as the leader of this country.
Most importantly I think, I wouldn’t say it in front of a group of young people.
It might be okay to poke fun at something in the company of adults who are secure in their identity, but I can only imagine what it must be like for a teenager – just figuring out who they are, still coming to terms with their sexuality and gender – to hear the word gay used as a derogatory term and a put-down. I wouldn’t want to model or encourage that. Growing up is difficult enough without making teenagers feel like it’s unsafe to express who they are.
With our extraordinarily high youth suicide rate, you would think that this would be something that our Prime Minister would be more sensitive to. Whether it’s used to mean weird, stupid, unwanted, out of place or undesirable, there is no hiding from the fact that when used this way “gay” is somehow a bad thing. Call me sensitive, but I really think that this is a message we could avoid passing on to our kids.