Martin asked:

I lost my best friend of 18+ years (we’d known each other since kindergarten) because I befriended a person he hated. Fast forward to today, and I’ve made a ton of new friends with this group of people who love and accept me into their circle. I’ve become especially close with this one couple and their daughter (I think of her as my niece, even if its not a biological/ family relationship).

My problem is that this couple commonly use the word ‘gay’ to refer to something lame (i.e. ‘that’s so gay’). As a person who believes strongly that everyone is entitled to equal rights, this bothers me. Not just because it’s hurtful to gay people, but also because I fear that their daughter might pick up on this and start thinking this way about gay people. Or if she one day determines she’s gay herself, this could do a lot of mental damage to her if she feels she might not be accepted by her parents.

The thing is, do I have the right to bring this topic up to them? As much as I love their daughter, I’m not her parent, and thus I often think what right do I have to interfere in this way? Plus, I don’t want to lose the friendship of this couple either by bringing this issue up in the wrong way and thus seeming like I’m attacking them somehow. But then again, I sometimes wonder if I should even be friends with people who think this way, even though I am very close with them.

What should I do?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Firstly, I need to warn you that as it says on our home page  ‘We are not agony aunts, and we can’t promise that you will like the advice that we give.’ (At the time of writing, our ‘Problem Removal’ service is taking an indefinite break.)

I see this as a question in the philosophy of language, which covers the semantics of ‘thick’ concepts (descriptive notions whose application entails moral praise or censure) as well as problems of the ambiguous meanings of ‘ambiguity’ and also the sociology and politics of language use.

I asked my daughter, a Law student and a confessed ‘social justice warrior’ about this and she said, ”That’s so gay’ is so early 2000.’ Young people (or perhaps those who are more politically aware) are waking up to the fact that a comment that has such a rich range of meanings — not just ‘lame’ but odd, badly judged, fucked up, unfair (as in, ‘It was so gay that we got extra homework’) — has an inherent problem.

It’s no use protesting that this is just a case of one word with two meanings (‘I met Joe at the bank’, ‘The batsman went for a duck’). What matters is how the use of this word is perceived.

A few years ago there was a minor furore in the US over the use of ‘black ice’ to denote a dangerous weather condition. Some persons of colour took the term ‘black’ as having a negative connotation, although the intention was to describe ice that is difficult to notice on the road (black not white and shiny). In this case, I believe, reason prevailed. The etymology, the reason for choosing the word ‘black’ rather than ‘invisible’ (which is simply not true, you can see black ice if you look closely) was clear enough.

With ‘so gay’ the case is different. Personally, I am sorry that after the conversation with my daughter I can no longer talk about something being ‘so gay’ without a twinge of conscience. That doesn’t mean that I will never, ever say it. Sometimes, when you are lost for words about a situation that you find yourself in, there’s only one phrase that comes to mind. It’s just so gay.

Why is that? Why is it that certain words are like an addiction? Another addictive word is ‘cool’. Despite everything that has been said against the word, people still insist on describing something as ‘cool’. Suppose you could never say that something was cool, ever again. The beauty of the word ‘cool’ or the phrase ‘so gay’ is its gargantuan vagueness, while at the same time you have a feeling that in this particular situation you are meaning something quite precise, and what’s more your audience grasps this evanescent meaning — which varies with the context.

What should you do? Nothing. At the present time — attitudes can change — this is not a clear cut or even a borderline case of prejudice against gay people. That’s the consensus, so far as I am able to determine it. Your adopted niece is not being brainwashed. If she is gay, she is unlikely to conclude on that evidence alone that her parents are anti-gay. Either way, she may well decide, as my daughter has done, that all things considered it is better to make the effort to find another phrase to describe things that are just ‘so gay’.