Thursday, December 16, 2010

What does gay mean?

I was taken all the way back to 3rd grade last night as I was reading a book to my son and the word 'gay' was used in a sentence. He stopped me because to him, the sentence didn't make sense. I cannot recall exactly what the sentence said but that doesn't really matter. Basically, someone described themselves as feeling gay. My son, who is ten, asked me why they said that. I had to tell him that gay used to have another meaning. It still does, in fact, if used the way it used to be and that it pretty much just meant that someone was happy.

He asked me why it changed meaning and I told him some words start being used by someone in a way they weren't used before and if it catches on and enough other people start using it too, then the meaning of the word can change.

He asked me when it changed and I didn't have an answer for him. Then I told him the story of the first time I recall it being used in the current most common meaning.

I was sitting in the lunch room at school and three girls sat down on the other side of the table from me. I played with a couple of girls, but I usually played with the boys and these girls were not the ones I played with. I sat there in my dirt covered sweatshirt and mud splotched jeans with my hair all tangled. The three girls began to giggle. Finally one of them said "Do you like girls?"

I looked up from my tomato soup that was in my little thermos and stared blankly at her. "What?" Two of the girls giggled again. "Do you like girls?" The one in the middle repeated.

"Sure." Hysterical laughter came from across the table. They began pointing at me. "You're GAY!" they shouted repeatedly while laughing and wagging their accusing fingers in my direction.

I had no idea what they meant. I had never heard the word before in any context but whatever it was, I knew they didn't like me because I was gay...whatever that was.

I went home and asked what gay meant. I was told it meant happy. I knew that wasn't right because it didn't make sense. There had to be another meaning. Or maybe I got the word wrong.

I asked my oldest brother instead. He gave me a very different definition than I had received earlier that evening and a light bulb suddenly went off!

The next day and for months following, I would hear "You're gay!" as I ran by any of those three girls to go play tag with the boys or even to walk by their desks in the classroom or pass them in the lunch room or the hallway.

Yes, this is a rather mild form of bullying or what is now referred to as gay bashing since it is bullying of someone who is gay. I never told anyone at home about it. I never told a teacher about it. We lived in a very small religious community. Boys weren't supposed to like boys and girls weren't supposed to like girls and if they did, they had a demon inside them. I wasn't about to let anyone know I had a demon in me.

But, I knew I was gay. I didn't have a definition for it before I started being made fun of for it. But I did like girls in the way they meant it. It just so happened that was the same year that I kissed a girl for the first time. I can't remember that girls name. She was homeschooled, but she lived down the mountain from us and came over a lot since we were the only two girls the same age on the mountain.

I still think about her sometimes. I wonder if she identifies as gay today. I wonder if she remembers me. I know that my little nine year old heart loved her as much as a nine year old can.

"Mom. Mom." I came back from my walk down memory lane.

"Well, I know it was being used in the current context when I was in third grade." I said to my son.

I don't know when it began being used to mean queer. I just know that was my first experience with that definition of the word gay.

My son thinks that was a really long time ago. I can deal with being gay. I don't know about being old though.

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