It’s so not gay: casual homophobia in the Twittersphere

Posted on 10 October, 2012


An anti-gay protest in San Francisco. Image by Jenny Mealing/Wikimedia

An anti-gay protest in San Francisco. Image by Jenny Mealing/Wikimedia

An anti-gay protest in San Francisco. Image by Jenny Mealing/Wikimedia.

Two years ago the trailer of the film The Dilemma caused controversy after lead actor Vince Vaughn was heard saying “Electric cars are gay. Not homosexual gay, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay”. The trailer was pulled after CNN newsman Anderson Cooper raised the issue on a popular show with Ellen DeGeneres.

In another scene from the popular British sitcom The Office, lead character David Brent sings a song he wrote. Upon finishing, another character, Tim, describes Brent’s effort as “sound[ing] a bit gay” to which an offended Brent replies “It’s not gay”.

These and other instances, both in everyday life and on-screen, have helped cement the term as common currency. You might think that the meaning is quite clear according to the context it’s used in (Vince Vaughn above clearly differentiated between the different meanings in the trailer), but you may be surprised to know how much offense it causes. Just ask, an initiative launched by The Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta in Canada, who monitor use of derogatory terms on the social networking site Twitter.

Use of the word ‘gay’ to describe something as inferior, not cool or rubbish is nothing but casual homophobia, say The issue mirrors the debate of casual Islamophobia in the UK. Conservative MP Sayeeda Warsi even claimed that Islamophobia now seemed to be ‘socially acceptable’. Now it’s the turn of casual homophobia.

NoHomophobes have collected data on the use of the word “faggot” and its variations since early July by monitoring tweets on Twitter. The monitoring of the use of these words is designed to serve as a ‘social mirror’ and capturing the homophobic language that exists in the Twittersphere. They claim that by the end of September the term ‘faggot’ was used more than 2 million times and the term ‘so gay’ 800,000 times. The infographic at their website nearly three weeks later (ie today) indicates a usage of nearly 3 million occurrences.

Frequency of monitored terms between July 5th to October 9th.

Frequency of monitored terms between July 5th to October 9th.

However, considering that there are 340 million tweets a day, according to Twitter, that would mean that less than 1% of tweets are of a homophobic nature. But this also neglects to mention that only four terms are monitored, is limited to the English language and that there are many other ways of being homophobic not monitored in this study.

Tweets with monitored terms.

Tweets with monitored terms. (Click to enlarge.)

But the number of tweets is still a concern – the fact that these terms were used millions of times in the space of three months should highlight that homophobia exists and is a concern – a society wouldn’t accept racist or sexist terms however infrequently they occurred.

The power of the collected data is aiding the cause for activists concerned with battling homophobia. Gay Lebanese activist Raja Farah expresses concern “that the word [ie ‘gay’ in a derogatory sense] is used commonly without anyone even noticing or being shocked about it – that is the real shocker here. People will say that not everyone means it in a bad way, but that’s not the point. It is still a derogatory word for gay people and its widespread use on Twitter is reflective of the issues we homosexuals face daily.”

So, before anyone goes around describing something as “so gay, man”, they should think twice about the offense it may cause and perhaps choose another word – plenty exist.

Originally published for a British science outreach magazine.

Posted in: Current Affairs