Study Looks At Why College Students Say 'That's so gay!'

By Dawn Wolfe

Surprising results suggest the phrase isn't about homophobia


Following up on his 2012 research into the harmful effects on LGBT college students of hearing the phrase "That's so gay!" on campus, the University of Michigan's Dr. Michael Woodford has come out with a new study looking at why male students use the phrase.

One highly surprising result of the latest study suggests that straight males who say "That's so gay!" aren't doing so because of anti-gay bias. In fact, they don't seem to relate the phrase to the gay community at all.

"Among the heterosexual male undergraduates surveyed, attitudes about the acceptability of same-sexuality were unrelated to using the phrase, but levels of discomfort with feminine men were related. The more respondents were uncomfortable around feminine men, the more likely they were to report saying the phrase," according to the UofM press release.

In other words, straight college men don't say "That's so gay" because they have a problem with lesbian or gay people - they say it because they're uncomfortable around any male, regardless of sexual orientation, who seems feminine.

"Studies find that perpetuating LGB hate crimes and gay bullying is strongly correlated with homophobia. Therefore, it is commonly assumed that homophobia is linked to saying 'That's so gay,'" said Woodford in the press release published in January. "However, our results suggest otherwise."

"Attitudes about male gender norms are really playing a role while aspects of same-sex sexuality were not related (to using the phrase)," said Woodford, who responded to BTL's questions via email. "This is really about gender policing - not females but males and male gender expression." Woodford is an associate professor with the UofM's School of Social Work and the lead author of the study.

But while anti-gay bias doesn't motivate students to use "That's so gay!" to mean stupid or lame, hearing others use the phrase does.

"Hearing 'That's so gay' was one of the most powerful predictive factors in saying it," Woodford explained during his BTL interview. "It becomes one of the norms - and maybe I'm just repeating what I see in the environment. If it's so popular on the campus, just by immersion you pick it up ... especially if it's something people don't see as harmful."

Although those who use the phrase don't see it as being anti-gay, or as harmful, Woodford's 2012 study confirms that LGBT students who hear the phrase are definitely experiencing harm.

"We found LGBT students who were hearing it ('That's so gay!') were reporting not feeling accepted on campus," Woodford explained. "Students who hear the phrase are more likely to report headaches and stomach problems..."

Woodford and a UofM colleague, Professor of English Dr. Anne Curzan, agree that students need to be educated about the harm they're doing with their words.

"It is important to remember that words can do real damage, whether someone intends them to or not. Part of respecting other people is using respectful language, including identity terms," said Curzon. "I have been interested in and impressed by the ad campaign over the past few years called 'Think B4 You Speak,' which has both famous (including NBA players) and not famous people asking viewers /listeners not to use the 'gay' to mean stupid."

Woodford would like to see college leadership take a more active role in educating students about the harm caused by the phrase and discouraging them from using it.

"We need public codes of conduct saying that these kinds of phrases will not be tolerated," he said. "We need to put in programs and policies that say discrimination is more than just blatant sexism and homophobia ... and media campaigns we can use to get people to be more purposeful and intentional around the language we are using."

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