Mom, Is 'Gay' a Bad Word?

I'm driving my two kids home from school when, apropos of nothing, B-Man says, "Sometimes when I get worried, the top of my head gets hot."

At the risk of shutting down this rare glimpse into my 9-year-old's inner workings, I respond in a hope-it-doesn't-sound-as-fake-as-it-feels nonchalant tone, "Huh. That's interesting. Like, can you give me an example?"

"Like at school I heard a kid say someone had done something wrong, and I knew it was me who did it, but no one else knew, and my head got hot."

"So, you felt embarrassed?" I clarify.

"Kind of. More like embarrassed and scared," he says, looking out the window at the homes we're passing.

"Hmm," I say, swallowing hard the scroll of questions that wants to unfurl off my tongue.

"And I don't want to tell you what I did," B-Man preempts me, "because then you'll, like, want to talk about it forever."

Too true. "OK," I say, deciding to table this one until Mr. Ears, a.k.a. little brother K-Bird, isn't sitting nearby, recording every word.

A couple of hours later, while B-Man and I are sitting at the kitchen counter, sharing a plate of sliced apples and semi-privately chatting, I broach the topic: "So, if I promise not to talk about it forever, will you tell me what you did?"

"No," he says with a half-smile.

"You can trust me," I say, hoping I'm right. "And you won't get in trouble, because clearly you already know that what you did didn't feel good, so I know you won't do it again. I'll just be proud of you for telling me what happened."

Full smile. "OK," B-Man says. He leans forward and whispers in my ear, "When we were writing '-ay' words on our spelling boards today, someone wrote 'gay' and circled it as their favorite word. But someone else said 'gay' was a bad word. But it isn't, right?"

Never mind the opaque "someones." Behold: The heart of the issue has emerged.

"Have you ever heard the word 'gay' used as a bad word?" I ask.

"No!" B-Man shakes his head, adamant.

Really? I wonder. Come to think of it, in the past 10 years I've heard the word "gay" used in its negative slang form only twice, and neither instance happened on our elementary school campus.

So I introduce B-Man to the concept. We talk about how he already knows that "gay" means happy, and how he already knows that "gay" means a man who loves a man, or a woman who loves a woman, like Mom and Mama do. And then we talk about the other "gay," the one that people use in a mean way.

"Sometimes people use the word 'gay' like you would use the word 'stupid,'" I explain.

B-Man looks at me like I have two heads. "That's weird."

"Right?" I say. "Like if someone were talking about a movie they didn't like, instead of saying, 'That movie is so stupid,' they might say, 'That movie is so gay.'"

He furrows his brow. "That doesn't make any sense."

"I know," I agree. "And if you think about it, it could hurt people's feelings, right? Like if we all decided that we'd use the word 'B-Man' instead of the word 'stupid,' you probably wouldn't like that."

"No way."

"So I think that's what your classmate might have meant about 'gay' being a bad word. If it's used in a mean way, it's a bad word. But it sounds like you've never heard it used in a mean way?"

"Never. Like last year, when I had that 'I support gay marriage' sticker on my composition book, and another kid read it, he didn't say it was a bad word."

"Because it wasn't used in a mean way," I offer.

"No, it wasn't," B-Man says.

I reach over and rub his back. "So you don't need to feel worried about using the word 'gay,' because you're not using it in a mean way."

"OK," he nods.

I give his shoulder a squeeze. "And thanks for telling me."

He nods again, looking down at our slowly browning apple slices, visibly retracting into the private vault that is his brain.

"So, did I talk forever about it?" I nudge.

"No. Well, kind of," B-Man shrugs, "but not in the way I thought you would."

Fair enough.