The Gay Word Explores a Contested Term

It may not be a new problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a serious one: Among younger people especially, the word gay is often used as an insult akin to dumb or silly—a usage that many people who identify as gay find troubling or even traumatizing. While organizations like GLAAD have for some time now tried to educate the public out of using gay as a generalized term of derision, progress has proved difficult. In a new documentary out this month, filmmaker Amy Ashenden set out to better understand why.

The Gay Word focuses on the southeast of England, but the trends Ashenden documents are common in the U.S. as well. “Younger people are maybe more aware of the issues that gay people face,” she points out early in the film, “and yet they’re the ones defending the use of this language.” It’s this disconnect between a lived identity and a word that Ashenden encounters throughout her reporting, which ranges from interviews with students and activists to academics focused on the linguistic history and sociology of the word. The doc is a useful reminder that words matter, and even a three-letter one can be more complicated than you might expect.