The kids file into the high school classroom with the usual talking, bickering and teasing. Inevitably, one student will loudly ridicule another.
"Oh, that's so gay!"
Suppose you're the teacher. What do you do?
According to the kids I've spoken to, you probably don't do anything. You pretend you didn't hear anything and go about your business.
Those words appeared in this space in April 2003, and I regret that things seem not to have changed for the better ... and may well have gotten worse.
I'm told the phrase "that's so gay" is still heard repeatedly at Oneonta High and probably every other middle and high school in our area.
It's not a matter of political correctness. It's a matter of ignorance and prejudice.
Let's face it, it's only a hop, skip and a jump from pejorative banter at the local high school to what happened last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington when author and columnist Ann Coulter referred to John Edwards as a "faggot."
"I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards," Coulter told the group. "But it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot,' so I _ so kind of an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards."
Coulter's previous outrageous statements include saying that certain widows of 9/11 victims enjoyed their husbands' deaths because it brought them some celebrity. She also opined this about Muslims.
"We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."
Coulter is clearly a wingnut and an embarrassment to mainstream conservatives. Several right-leaning writers and Republican presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney ripped her after her slur against Edwards.
But what really is troubling is the reaction from the audience at the conference. It's on YouTube. Go ahead and listen for yourself.
Her referring to Edwards (who is married, a father and by all accounts heterosexual) as a "faggot" evoked cheers, laughter and even an appreciative whistle.
Why were those people celebrating? What kind of upbringing taught them to react like that?
What kind of upbringing will the next generation have if it hears "that's so gay, that's so gay, that's so gay" every day?
To blame the schools isn't fair, but still, they can and should be doing more. At Berkeley High School in California, a gay student club distributed buttons with the words "That's so gay" crossed out.
Not a bad idea at all.
Oneonta High Principal Nancy Osborn told me that several programs are in place there to fight intolerance and that all inappropriate and threatening language is dealt with when brought to the administration's attention.
But, I asked her, if a student is in the halls and loudly saying "nigger" or "dirty Jew" or "that's so gay," would a teacher or administrator treat all the slurs with the same seriousness?
"No," she said with what I perceived as a bit of regret in her voice. "Some terms are just becoming more common. For instance, the (four-letter) 'F' word is very common. It's inappropriate, and we address it, but a lot of students feel they can say a lot of things that our generation wouldn't say."
In Santa Rosa, Calif., a high school freshman named Rebekah Rice was recently teased about being a Mormon by classmates who asked, "Do you have 10 moms?"
Rebekah replied: "That's so gay." She got sent to the principal's office, then received a warning and a notation in her student file.
The kids who teased her about being Mormon apparently weren't disciplined, and that was patently unfair, in addition to being another example of ignorance and foolishness.
Rebekah's parents are suing the school, saying it violated her First Amendment rights when she used a phrase that "enjoys widespread currency in youth culture."
If the phrase "enjoys" (a silly word in this context) such currency, it's because parents, teachers and other grown-ups don't challenge it, and thus give it their tacit approval.
Think about how debilitating, humiliating and confusing it is to be a gay kid and having to hear time and again that what you are is synonymous with something awful.
Jim Koury, editor of the local gay publication, "Diversity Rules," talked to me about the "social ostracism, depression and intense peer pressure" for local youngsters to stay in the closet.
"Look at the suicide rates among gay youths," Koury said. "They're much higher than for young people who are straight."
John Edwards, responding to Coulter's speech, said it was "hateful, selfish, childish behavior."
Ms. Coulter is probably a lost cause, but we can and must do more to deal with the "childish behavior" of our children before they grow up to be bigots.
Finally getting rid of "that's so gay" would seem to be a good first step.
Sam Pollak is editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.
- Sam Pollak
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