Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
June 21, 2005

Gay, in other words
By Bruce Vilanch

Gay, in other words

The most flamboyant, theatrical, outrageous things get noticed at pride, while the earnest and the ordinary get shunted off to an expo booth.

By Bruce Vilanch

“That is so gay” has become the latest formerly forbidden but now acceptable—like, totally—mark of social criticism among straight people. Not older ones—they still sort of harrumph when this sort of thing comes up. But younger ones adore saying it when they’re referring to what used to be called “nerdy,” “dweeby,” “wussy,” or, for those on the cutting edge, “random.” “Random” is right up there with “whatever.” “How random is that?” covers just about every social situation.

Some things that used to be described as random are now definitely allowed to be described as gay. A pink shirt by the designer called Pink from one of the stores called Pink used to be called random by those who thought it made the wearer look really gay. Now they say it looks gay. This is better than “faggy” or “swishy”—words gay people have not brought back to their bosom. But it is saying that, while the shirt may be attractive, something about it announces that the wearer is Different, and not in a positive way.

This is a nice, safe code for straight people. They’re not using a derogatory word, but they are making their opinion clear. In the mass of straight people’s minds, especially younger ones, “gay” means effeminate, epicene, or, in its broadest embrace, just plain weak. And yet every year right about now a whole bunch of us celebrate being gay. We take to the streets to announce how proud we are. This confuses many straight people. How can we be so proud of being so weak?

It’s time for a new way to describe ourselves, especially since so many of us also use “gay” in a self-deprecating, if sarcastic, way. A writer I know recently described something as “gayer than reading the new issue of Details in your leather chaps.” Another told me something was “as gay as a baton twirler in the pride parade.”

Yeah, I laughed too. And yet we all know that the word “gay” in those sentences is loaded with a certain view of homosexuality as a lifestyle, not a life, and not a terribly endorsing one—unless we all endorse each other’s kinks, idiosyncrasies, and choices. That is something that gay pride is supposed to do but rarely does.

The most flamboyant, theatrical, outrageous things get noticed at pride, while the earnest and the ordinary get shunted off to an expo booth. Flamboyant and theatrical things get noticed more in the nongay world too, but nobody would say that Mardi Gras is emblematic of all things straight. Yet the noisiest elements of gay pride are the ones that even gay people adopt as the expression of our truest selves.

Black people understand this problem. Hip-hop music is an expression of the young black experience, but it is so ridden with overtones of crime, misogyny, and violence that older black people are often ashamed of it.

Unlike black people we struggle for acceptance within our own families as well as society. And for acceptance within ourselves. “Gay” means we have won the battle, and that is the opposite of weak. We need a word that says that. Something random.