MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

I’m OK, You’re OK, “Gay” Jokes in Movies are Not OK

And now for a few words on the “gay” issue surrounding Universal’s film The Dilemma, whose trailer, with Vince Vaughn uttering the line, “Electric cars are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay,” has stirred considerable controversy (note: the trailer has been edited to take out that line).

Were gay rights activists right to challenge Universal for having this line in their film to begin with, and for highlighting it in the opening scene of the trailer? Hell yes, they were.

For me, this issue is a very simple one. As Unitarian Universalists, we are raising our children to respect diversity. Our congregation is a welcoming congregation for the GLBT community. As a bisexual woman with many friends who are gay and lesbian, and a daughter who recently came out herself, this is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart.

I grew up in Oklahoma, a place where openly acknowledging your difference from the norm in any respect — gay, liberal, not fundamentalist Christian — can be a dicey proposition. But while it would be easy to say it’s only in the flyover states that tolerance of gay kids, much less acceptance of them for who they are, is more the exception than the rule, the reality is that even in more liberal places like Seattle, New York City and Los Angeles, there’s a subtle kind of casual bullying that often takes the form of saying things like “that’s so gay” that gives gay people — maybe gay teens in particular — the message that who they are is NOT okay, that if their friends found out they are gay, they will become the target of teasing, social isolation, maybe even physical violence.

I can’t begin to count, for instance, how many times in the past two years I’ve asked the teens at our home school center in liberal Seattle to not use the word “gay” in a derogatory way, as in “You’re so GAY, dude!” and “That’s so GAY.” I would talk to the school’s administrator, to other parents, to make them aware of it being an issue, and for the most part everyone agreed that of course it’s no more okay for the students to use the word “gay” in that way than it would be for them to be saying “nigger” or “kike” or “spic” or any other derogatory term. They agreed that we had GLBT parents and teachers and students who would find it offensive, and even if we didn’t, it STILL wouldn’t be okay.

But it still happened, on pretty much a weekly basis, and was tolerated by default in a way that a student using a racial slur, or making fun of a student’s weight or bra size, would never be tolerated. It was a never-ending battle against the popular culture of television and movies and videos and music these kids are exposed to that tells them “that’s so GAY” is okay.

The thing about oppression is that it’s an insidious thing. The Nazis didn’t just wake up one morning and start rounding up Jews in concentration camps and implementing the “final solution.” They started out with propaganda and smaller bits of oppressive (one might say bullying) behaviors to establish themselves as superior and the Jews as inferior to the Aryan race, and then responsible for all its problems, and then not even human in the same way that Aryans are human. They established with the common people that it was okay to discriminate against Jews by a systematic devaluation of Jews as people, people with the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as everyone else. They did it through fliers, through cartoons depicting Jews as rats (thereby setting the stage for the acceptance of “exterminating” Jews as one would exterminate a nest of rodents infesting ones home), through hyperbole, and, yes, through movies. Popular culture is as much a part of what sets the social barometer of acceptable mores as the indoctrination kids get at their parents’ knees.

It doesn’t matter if the joke “clarifies” that “of course we don’t mean THAT kind of gay, sheesh.” It doesn’t matter if it’s a funny joke, if it’s a joke at the expense of another person. It’s not about being the PC police. It’s about the need to respect other people, period, and to recognize that when you make jokes about gayness an acceptable part of popular culture, you by extension make jokes about particular gay people acceptable, and you further are helping to create a culture where intolerance of gay people is the norm. And when intolerance is the norm, bullying will — and does — follow.

You think not? Go do a random internet search on “gay bullying suicide” and see how many articles you pull up. Now go to those articles and read the comments section, and see for yourself how much hate seethes through those anonymous keyboards out there. It’s shocking, it’s sad, it’s the truth.

And while it’s also the truth that you can’t change what’s in peoples’ hearts, you do not have to make hate and bullying and intimidation acceptable. We as members and friends of the GLBT community have to stand up and say enough. We have to say “this is not okay, period.” Most of all, we who are the adults need to be actively concerned about creating an environment where it is both okay and safe for gay and lesbian teens to be open about who they are. Where a gay teen won’t be bullied to the extent that he feels life will never get better, and suicide is the only option.

As a bisexual woman, I wish I hadn’t had to grow up hiding that about myself, or feeling there was something wrong with me. As a mom, I don’t want to feel afraid that my daughter might get hurt, emotionally or otherwise, for being brave enough as a young teen to be open about who she is. And much as I admire Dan Savage and the It Gets Better project, I wish that the world we live in wasn’t a place where we need an “It Gets Better” project to reach out to young people to convince them their life is worth living, even if they’re gay.

This is why, even if you might think they’re being overly sensitive PC police, it’s a good thing for GLAAD to be watchdogs of the media around the term “gay” being bandied about in negative ways. If you’re not gay, or don’t have someone in your life who is gay and has ever experienced being bullied or threatened because of their gayness, maybe you find it hard to get why anyone would get so worked up about this issue, or you think it’s not an issue at all.

But just in the time it took me to write this post, I got a notification in my email inbox about a comment someone made about a YouTube video I put up several months ago of my daughter, her BFF, and her friend’s (gay) father dancing as part of a Glee Flash Mob at the Seattle Gay Pride parade.

The comment, by a user named wowtcg, was this: “Stupid faggots need to get aids and die. But in the end they all get aids :)…..Thank God.”

Wowtcg, who not only took the time to search on YouTube to even find this video in the first place and then to leave a hateful comment on it, inadvertently made my point about why it’s so important that we fight — loudly — against the use of “gay” in a derogatory way in popular culture, including stupid jokes in movies. This, folks, is exactly why.

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11 Responses to “I’m OK, You’re OK, “Gay” Jokes in Movies are Not OK”

  1. Patrick says:


    Thank you again for so truthfully articulating what I feel but could never have summed up.

    I am posting this at my office.


  2. will says:

    Thoughtful and very well said. Thanks for sharing this, Kim.

  3. jim emerson says:

    Well done, Kim. Please allow me to cross-post a comment I left on DP’s Hot Blog:

    I saw the “Dilemma” trailer and the joke seemed ugly to me, mainly because it’s so tired and old. The usage of “gay” to mean (as Vince Vaughn says in the scene) not literally homosexual but… something cheesy, or uncool or whatever its other negative connotations, is just so outdated. It’s a “joke” that may have had a somewhat clever or humorous dimension to it in the early 1990s (I remember a friend using it ironically as a non sequitur while stuck in gridlock: “Traffic is so gay!”), but now it’s just flat and exhausted and there’s nothing left but the offensiveness.

  4. Pat says:

    While I symapathize with your intent, you are using a faulty analogy. Unlike “nigger”, “kike”, and “spic”; the word ‘gay’ is not by itself a derogatory word. Therefore it cannot be prohibited in any particular setting. One can ake offense to the manner in which it is used, but judging peoples’ tone of voice is incredibly subjective. ITs hard enough to get kids to stop saying certain forbidden words, without telling them the appropriate way to use other words.

    Ironically, ‘gay’ only started to be used negatively in the ’90s; after gay groups began to ‘take back’ and adopt former negative terms like queer.

  5. yancyskancy says:

    I have to admit I don’t quite get this. I suppose I have to preface by saying I have a gay brother and many gay friends, none of whom I’ve asked about this issue yet. But the part that worries me is this notion: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a funny joke, if it’s a joke at the expense of another person.” Taken to the extreme, that would be the end of comedy as we know it. Of course, I don’t think Kim intends it to be taken to that extreme, any more than Vince Vaughn or many (possibly most) of the people who use “gay” in the “non-homosexual” context intend any harm toward gays. I don’t get the Nazi comparisons, because I sincerely doubt that most people using the word in this particular context have a negative agenda. Those who do will also undoubtedly use the word as a slur — though I suspect they’re more likely to say “You’re a fag” than “That’s so gay.” Wowtcg’s world view was not likely formed by this expression, and I’m not sure that it’s a slippery slope from “Electric cars are so gay” to “Stupid faggots need to get AIDS and die.”

    I absolutely have no problem with discouraging this use of “gay” in “polite society” — school, work, etc. But of course it will continue to be used, and writers, filmmakers and comedians who are more concerned with reflecting reality than being PC may well continue to use it, too. I’ll leave it to someone else to get into the whole “chilling effect” issue.

  6. lovegod says:

    I think what makes this particular slur so insidious is that so many who are hurt by it are defenseless and invisible because they are in the closet. Their own unwillingness to speak out against it feels like betrayal against their own selves, even while the silence makes their lives safer. They even may feel the pressure to participate in the joke while it tears them apart inside. This adds to the self-hatred they already feel.

    At the same time, many people who make the comments are simply unaware of the depth of pain that they cause. I, for one, would rather be aware of the deeper ramifications of simple, stupid statements that I take for granted than for others to let me continue them in ignorant “bliss”.

    So when you combine vulnerable, defenseless people with unaware companions who don’t understand how abrasive they are, it just makes sense to add a little light to the situation.

    Then there are also those who have an inaccurate picture of gay people and believe that their slurs are valid. Those people need to be corrected by having contact with real gay people. The inaccuracies will then crumble and they will realize that they were closed-minded and mean without intending to be.

    And then there is also another group simply comprised of cruel, hateful people. In time they will be shunned for their harmful attitudes if they are not already. It is discussions about these issues that that reduce the power of bigots to make others follow them unthinkingly. Cruel people are losing their power as others gain insight.

    The example of the nazis is appropriate to bring up here, for if we don’t question charismatic bullies, others might go along for the ride without realizing what they are doing. Without insight, the people who are unaware and the people who are ignorant can be gradually swayed to do things they would never do on their own.

  7. Kim Voynar says:

    Pat, I believe your logic is incorrect. No word in and of itself has objective meaning. All meaning of language is subjective depending on the mutual understanding of speaker and listener. Words only have the value to which they are assigned. The word “chair” only means the same thing to both of us if both agree on what it means.

    (As an aside, this was one of the more subtly powerful elements of DOGTOOTH — that the parents had warped even their childrens’ ability to communicate with the outside world by changing the commonly understood meaning of everyday objects.)

    The words “nigger,” “kike,” “spic,” — or, to keep with our theme here, “gay” and “faggot,” would mean nothing in and of themselves without the history of bullying and oppression that gives them their weight.

    Might there be a context in which the phrase “that’s so gay” or “you are so gay” isn’t used in a derogatory manner? I suppose I can imagine a scenario in which one gay person might say it to another in a friendly way or as a compliment. But again, that depends on the intent of the speaker, and in the context of that line in the film, however funny it might be, it’s pretty clear that the word “gay” is not intended to be complimentary.

    To put it another way: there’s a huge difference between saying “my friend David is Jewish” versus saying “yeah, that car salesman tried to Jew me down on the price, but I got the better deal in the end.” Words mean nothing without context and mutual understanding.

  8. Neve says:

    Hm, just thought I’d through my two cents in- first of all by saying that, as a gay teen, it certainly DOES hurt to hear people (strangers, peers, even friends) say things such as “that’s so gay“, “you’re so gay“, etc., especially during the period of “Am I gay? Am I not? Is it okay if I am? What will people think of me? Will _____ and ____ still be my friend? Will people be able to tell?” and a slew of other worries.

    Now, on a related note- a piece of recommended reading: “Dear Yes on Prop 8 Supporters” by Antiquity-Dreams, also know as Sasu or Sven, know in real life as Raven Winter- yes, behind the screen name, there IS an actual person with actual feelings.

    If you wish, you can find it here, or, you can see her reading it aloud here


  9. Liz says:

    If only Anderson Cooper had been around to complain about the phrase “Juden raus,” we could’ve avoided all the horrors of the Holocaust.

  10. Kim Voynar says:

    Liz, if only a lot of Anderson Coopers — or better yet, a lot of average, everyday people in general — had stood up to Nazi propaganda from the beginning, we could have avoided all the horrors on the Holocaust. Things like the Nazi party, the Holocaust, rape as a weapon in war, tribal warfare, religious warfare … pretty much every horror you can imagine happens because people allow it to happen.

  11. Frankie Baby says:

    I think the fact that people are so offended by gay jokes, is why they are so offensive. Same with the N-word. Same with most other WORDDDDDDDS. Lemme just reiterate.. W.O.R.D.S. Not knives or guns, WORDS. Got it now? No? Ah fuck it.. it’s just easier to call you all whiney little pussies, and feel inside my heart your assholes tightening up, and your “no no” buttons firing wildly.

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“I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

It wasn’t easy. We started back in July 2018, it was actually on the Fourth of July – that was our first shoot. It’s like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more. We threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not, and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor’s race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here. By election day, Zak Piper, our producer, had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double-check that, it might have been seven. We had this organized team effort to hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn’t already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the Board of Elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So, yeah, it was kind of a monster.”
~ Steve James On City So Real

“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho