To you, they might be totally different things, but hear me out. The term “that’s so gay” used to describe something stupid and the way that some people use #diabetes on Twitter or Instagram hit the same nerve with me, and I would go as far as saying that these two problems also have very similar solutions.
People saying “that’s so gay” has pretty much become synonymous with “that’s so stupid.” We live in a world (according to GLSEN) where 75% of high school students say that they have heard “that’s so gay” or “faggot” used as an insult while at school. I would guess that an additional 25% didn’t understand the question.
I can speak with authority on this after working with young people for the last decade that “good” kids with no intention of insulting their gay peers are using the term “that’s so gay” because it has become part of this generation’s daily dialect. It’s a term that’s accepted in schools. The sports field. On social media. And it’s hurtful.
Regardless of the intent of the speaker, calling something you dislike “gay” connects a group of people to something you don’t like. It’s a microaggression – a sneaky way that we passively communicate hostility toward a group of people.
Microaggression is a decent way of explaining what I feel that many people are doing when they use “#diabetes” on social media to tag photos of unhealthy food. A quick search on Instagram for the hashtag and you see that it’s equal parts people sharing their lives with diabetes and people sharing photos of unhealthy or over-indulgent food choices.
The intention of someone adding “#diabetes” to a picture of cupcakes, for example, is to really poke fun at themselves. It’s as if they are saying, “look at the bad choices I’m about to make!” People that use this hashtag as a joke, like people using the term “gay” in the pejorative, rarely know the harm that they are doing. Like a racist joke, even if the intent of the joke-teller isn’t to cause harm, that doesn’t mean that harm wasn’t done.
The harm done by people poking fun at diabetes isn’t done to me. I understand what causes diabetes (as much as science has figured out anyway). I know that the candy bar that you take a photo of and add a hipster filter to is causing insulin-resistance as little as your bad sense of humor will.
The harm comes when someone hears for years that diabetes is a consequence of shitty choices and then he/she is diagnosed with diabetes. These jokes are the root cause of the shame-burden that newly diagnosed people with diabetes carry around…a burden that makes managing a complicated condition only more complicated.
What’s the solution? When I was working with young people and I heard one of them call something (not someONE) “gay” I let it go. Part of me thought that the problem was just too big to tackle, while another part of me didn’t want to come off as the “word police.” Over time I started correcting word-choice when I heard a kid call something “gay” and it usually made a kid stop using the word (around me anyway).
My feelings toward the usage of #diabetes are very similar. For the longest time I’ve thought that the problem is way to big for me to ever make a dent in, and I don’t want to be the diabetes-joke police on Instagram…but I can’t sit around and watch it any longer. Now when I come across them, I’m going to start tagging people that use #diabetes as a joke in photos of my bloody fingers, blood glucometer, insulin needles, etc. And I’m going to say “This is what #diabetes really looks like.”