Applying Psychological Science, Benefiting Society

Stop Saying “That’s So Gay!”: 6 Types of Microaggressions That Harm LGBTQ People

Sad Asian teenage boy

By Kevin L. Nadal, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychology, John Jay
College of Criminal Justice – City University of New York)

When I was a little kid, I used to hear my brothers, cousins, and friends say things like “That’s so gay!” on a pretty regular basis. I would usually laugh along, hoping with all my might that they didn’t know my secret.  My parents and other adults in my life would tell me things like “Boys don’t cry” or “Be a man!” which essentially was their way of telling me that being emotional was forbidden or a sign of weakness.

When I was a teenager, there were a few boys at my high school who ridiculed me, almost everyday. When I walked by them in the halls, they called me a “faggot” or screamed my name in a flamboyant tone.  I learned to walk by without showing any reaction; I could not let them know that it bothered me, or else I would be proving to them that I was indeed gay.  I didn’t tell anyone about the bullying (not my parents, teachers, or anyone) because admitting that I was being teased for being gay would mean that I was admitting to being gay.  I had never felt so alone in my life.

In college, it got a little better. While I was no longer harassed about my closeted sexual orientation, I didn’t have any friends that were openly gay and most of my friends didn’t have any either. Some of my friends and family members still made occasional homophobic jokes in front of me. While many loved ones later told me that they suspected that I was gay, no one gave me any reason to believe that they were gay-friendly.  So I just remained in the closet a few more years until I couldn’t take it any more.

In retrospect, I had a very difficult time accepting my gay identity, because of the microaggressions that I experienced throughout my life.  Microaggressions are the everyday encounters of subtle discrimination that people of various marginalized groups experience throughout their lives (Sue et al., 2007).  Some microaggressions are unconscious (i.e., the perpetrator doesn’t even know they did something) while some microaggressions may be unintentional (i.e., the perpetrator may be aware of their actions, but may not realize the negative impact they may have on people).

One of the reasons why it was important for me to study microaggressions against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) people was because I knew that this type of discrimination existed and because I hypothesized that they had a significant impact on the lives of LGBTQ people, particularly on their mental health and identity development. I collaborated with two fellow psychologist colleagues, Dr. David Rivera and Dr. Melissa Corpus, and we theorized the various types of microaggressions that affect LGBTQ people (see Nadal et al., 2010). For the past several years, my research team and I interviewed all kinds of LGBTQ people and they all reported that microaggressions are very common in their lives.

Here are a few examples:

1) Use of heterosexist or transphobic terminology:

These types of microaggressions occur when someone uses disparaging heterosexist or transphobic language towards, or about, LGBTQ persons. For me, it is anytime someone says “That’s so gay” and “No homo” in my presence; for my transgender friends, it could be anytime someone says “tranny”, “she-male”, or other derogatory terms. In hip hop, it is common for rappers to unapologetically use the word “faggot”, which then gives permission for kids to use the term unapologetically in everyday life.  Maybe this is why 9 out of 10 LGBTQ high school students report experiencing harassment at school and why 2/3 of them say they feel unsafe (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 2010).

2) Endorsement of heteronormative culture and behaviors:

These kinds of microaggressions take place when an LGBTQ person is assumed to be heterosexual, or when they are encouraged to act in gender-conforming ways. I know that I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be so flamboyant or that I should act “more masculine”. As a child, my family forced me to play sports, yet sighed when I played with Barbie. As a young adult, when someone asked me “if I had a girlfriend” or “a wife or kids”, they were essentially telling me that they expected me to be heterosexual. Heterosexuals don’t realize that it is common for them to assume someone is straight, unless proven otherwise.

3) Assumption of universal LGBTQ experience:

These sorts of microaggressions transpire when heterosexual people assume that all LGBTQ persons are the same. For instance, sometimes, people tell me I’m not “a typical gay guy” because of some stereotype I don’t fulfill; other times, people assume that I would automatically get along with another gay guy simply because we are attracted to the same gender. Lesbian women have reported that people presume that they should all be masculine, while bisexual people have reported that they are often stereotyped as being “confused” (Nadal, Issa, et al., 2011).  Many transgender women have reported being arrested and falsely accused of being sex workers (Nadal et al., 2012), demonstrating that these biases and microaggressions could even have legal implications.

4) Discomfort or disapproval of LGBTQ experience:

These types of microaggressions include instances when LGBTQ people are treated with awkwardness, condemnation, or both. This takes place any time a couple looks at my fiancée and me in disgust as we hold hands in public. It also occurs when people proclaim that my sexual orientation is “an abomination” or that a transgender person’s gender identity is “unnatural.” One recent example of this in the media is the story of a transgender scientist who was outed and ridiculed for her gender identity by a journalist. While the article was supposed to focus on one of her inventions, the writer chose to instead focus the article on her gender identity. While instances like this may occur for many LGBTQ people, this story is especially tragic because the transgender woman who was targeted eventually committed suicide.

5) Assumption of sexual pathology or abnormality:

These microaggressions come about when heterosexual people consider LGBTQ people to be sexual deviants or overly sexual. One example of this on a systemic level is the federal ban for any man who has had sex with another man to donate blood. So even if a man is HIV-negative and has been in a monogamous relationship all of his life, he is considered to be at risk and therefore an ineligible donor.  In the media, an example includes one time when Paris Hilton said that gay men are “disgusting” and “probably have AIDS” or recently when The Bachelor said that gay people were “more ‘pervert’ in a sense.’” In everyday life, a common occurrence is when people assume that LGBTQ people would be child molesters and are wary about LGBTQ teachers or babysitters. Anytime that any straight man assumes that I would hit on them, not only are they mistakenly flattering themselves, they are communicating that they think that all gay men can’t keep their hands to themselves.

6) Denial of bodily privacy:

These kinds of microaggressions occur toward transgender people primarily and include interactions in which others feel entitled or comfortable to objectify transgender bodies. For instance, when Katie Couric recently asked Carmen Carrera about her genitals, she inappropriately and invasively asked a question that would never been asked toward a cisgender person (i.e., a person whose gender identity matches their birth sex). How would you feel if someone asked you about your genitalia on national television?

Why does this matter?

All of these microaggressions have a significant impact on people’s lives. While some of these experiences may seem brief and harmless, many studies have found that the more that people experience microaggressions, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression, psychological distress, and even physical health issues.  For instance, I recently published a study that found that the more racial microaggressions that people of color experience, the more likely they are to also report depressive symptoms and a negative view of the world (Nadal et al., 2014). In another study, LGBTQ participants described that when they experienced microaggressions, they felt depressed, anxious, and even traumatized (Nadal, Wong, et al., 2011). Furthermore, given that LGBTQ youth are known to have a higher prevalence of substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide (see Nadal, 2013 for a review), it is even more important for us to try to minimize microaggressions and make the world a better place for them.

So what can you do?

Well, first of all, let’s get everyone to stop saying things like “That’s so gay!” or “That’s so queer!” If something is weird, say it’s “weird”! Why do you have to bring LGBTQ people into it? Correct others when they use homophobic/ transphobic language or endorse LGBTQ stereotypes. Let’s teach our kids to love people, instead of hating them. We have the power to transform this next generation of young people to be open-minded and awesome.  Let’s do this together.

Second, let’s admit when we commit microaggressions, learn from the wrongdoing, and apologize. We all make mistakes, consciously and not, and we need to own up to them when we do. Listen to what they are trying to tell you and try not to be defensive. The worst thing that we can do is to deny that someone is hurt or offended by something we said or did; in fact, invalidating their experience could be considered a microaggression itself.

For example, when Piers Morgan interviewed transgender author Janet Mock on his show this past week, an onscreen description of Ms. Mock read “was a boy until age 18.” Meanwhile, during the show, his Twitter account read: “How would you feel if you found out the woman you are dating was formerly a man?” Ms. Mock, along with many transgender supporters and cisgender allies, replied to Mr. Morgan via Twitter, calling him out on his bias. Instead of recognizing that he may have offended people, Mr. Morgan reacted with tweets like:

While I don’t believe that Mr. Morgan was intentionally trying to be hurtful (in fact, he likely views himself as a transgender ally), his focus on Ms. Mock’s birth sex and the sensationalizing of her transition is a common microaggression that transgender people experience. Perhaps if he could fully empathize with transgender people and the dehumanization they experience daily, he would have not gotten so defensive. In fact, he might have been able to apologize and have demonstrated a true teachable moment.

And, finally, for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, I leave you with a couple of things. First, the next time you experience a microaggression, know that you are not alone. Sadly, these are common experiences of our lives, but I hope you find some comfort in knowing there are millions of people who can relate to you.  Second, let’s try not to commit microaggressions against each other either. Our community has been through a lot and we really need to work together.

Biography:

Dr. Kevin Nadal is an Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice – City University of New York, the Vice President of the Asian American Psychological Association, and the author of “That’s So Gay!” Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. He also has a new talk show – “Out Talk with Kevin Nadal“.

References:

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (2010). The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in our Nation’s Schools. New York: GLSEN.

Nadal, K. L. (2013). That’s So Gay! Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Nadal, K. L., Griffin, K. E., Wong, Y., Hamit, S., & Rasmus, M. (2014). Racial microaggressions and mental health: Counseling clients of color. Journal of Counseling and Development. 92(1), 57-66.

Nadal, K. L. Issa, M., Leon, J., Meterko, V., Wideman, M., & Wong, Y. (2011). Sexual orientation microaggressions: “Death by a thousand cuts” for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of LGBT Youth, 8(3), 1-26.

Nadal, K. L., Rivera, D. P., & Corpus, M. J. H. (2010) Sexual orientation and transgender microaggressions in everyday life: Experiences of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals. In D. W. Sue (Ed.), Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact (pp. 217-240). New York: Wiley.

Nadal, K. L., Skolnik, A., & Wong, Y. (2012). Interpersonal and systemic microaggressions: Psychological impacts on transgender individuals and communities. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 6(1), 55-82.

Nadal, K. L., Wong, Y., Issa, M., Meterko, V., Leon, J., & Wideman, M. (2011). Sexual orientation microaggressions: Processes and coping mechanisms for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 5(1), 21-46.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. E. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for counseling. The American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.

You may also be interested in:

Answers to Your Questions for a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality

Answers to Your Questions about Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression

Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation and Youth

APA’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns

Dr. Nadal is also featured on Buzzfeed: 19 LGBT Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis

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Categorised in: Human Rights and Social Justice, LGBT Issues

159 Responses »

  1. Fabulous article and it brings this phrase into perspective. Will be reblogging this one.

    Like

  2. This reminds me of when I was a child and I was told to stop saying “that’s retarded.” There are so many things we say that we do consider the consequences of, as you mention things we often pick up from songs or hear other people say. It’s very important to think before we speak.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you make some good points that are applicable to all relationships.

    On the other hand, you are talking about things that are quite unnatural, and unnatural things often cause uncouth responses.

    There’s no excuse for being mean to people. You also have to understand that certain lifestyle choices will cause adverse reactions. I guess it’s easy for me to say because I’m heterosexual, but I think we all need to lighten up a bit.

    Have a good day.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed the information you have presented, it is time everyone gave more thought to the impact of their words and phrases; something I will certainly challenge more. The more we talk about this the better.
    However, are you aware of your own microaggression comment ‘People of colour’? Could you explain what you meant by that term? In Britain, referring to someone in that manner, or ‘coloured’ is viewed as a racist term.
    Thank you

    Like

    • It’s an umbrella term that is used by non-whites. It encompasses any race or ethnic group that doesn’t self-identify as White. It is used to emphasize common experiences with racism in the U.S.

      Like

  5. Excellent article! In order to progress, we as a society really need to address the ingrained biases in our language and colloquialisms.

    Like

  6. Thank you for the article, ever since my late teens I’ve felt intensely uncomfortable when the phrase “That’s so gay!” or “Stop being gay!” came to my mind in moments of frustration or stress, and this microaggression concept makes a lot of sense.

    Like

  7. I fully agree with you, especially on the blood donation ban. There are people dying who need blood transfusions and there are plenty of gay people willing to donate healthy blood. Society today is a mess.

    Like

  8. I was one of those who used these expressions openly until my close friend opened up to me, telling me she is a lesbian. I’m not afraid to admit that I was ignorant and apathetic to these sayings. What I was saying was hurting her and this led to a much needed change in vocabulary and state of mind in order to preserve the our beautiful friendship.

    The great outcome is I do not appreciate this kind of talk around me and I urge my family, especially my nephew, to be mindful of what they say and how it may affect those around them. I do not think or expect my actions to change the world, but it will change me and the world around me.

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  9. Hi Dr Nadal, I agree with so much here. As a straight man, I identified with this post due to a moment in college when I exclaimed “that is gay as f**k”. One of my friends who was gay approached me afterwards and expressed his dismay. I didn’t realise how insensitive I was being. Since then I have tried avoid such language, but slips occur as a result of culture. I believe that as our cultures evolve, these events will die out, but people like you are needed to advocate it. Thank you.

    Like

  10. Further to my previous comment, I was wondering whether or not the general public will have access to your references. They seem, for the most part, to be scientific studies. Are there any public sources you can direct us to? Thanks again, Mark.

    Like

  11. Hello and I have stood in your shoes. The pain and learning how to control yourself. I just wrote a post about my high school years and yes I’ve walked in your shoes.

    Like

  12. Found your blog via WordPress Next. Come visit mine at http://www.thatssojacob.wordpress.com 🙂 thanks!

    Like

  13. I totally agree with all of this. There’s an advert at the moment for a huge KFC burger which says “man up”, a phrase which I find completely ridiculous and harmful.

    Like

  14. I am hetero and vehemently against all that is “PC”. On the other hand, I agree totally with this. This is not about being PC, it´s about not dehumanizing a group of people and making negative not a lifestyle choice but who they are. I am an educator and I have cracked down hard on these kinds of slanders. I have made a conscious choice not to say this myself. Kudos for a well written article about the subject.

    Like

  15. I once used these very same “micro-aggression terms” in everyday vocabulary, really thinking nothing of it. Now it sickens me to think I had once been so insensitive. Not just toward people of the LGBTQ community, but to people in general. After learning that my youngest sister was diagnosed with Autism, the phrase “that’s so retarded” stung my ears as I began to notice how frequently it was used in everyday language, and how my sister CAN’T speak up to defend herself. I’m so confused as to why so many of these responses are directed towards people being “to sensitive”… who am I to say that phrases that don’t offend me, wouldn’t offend someone else? I’m not them, and have not walked in their shoes. What would it really hurt for EVERYONE to just learn to use a higher form of vocabulary, and not to fall into what should’t be called a “social norm” by using these slang terms and comments? Why can’t we just be polite, and acknowledge that other people are different than us. If we do say something that we think is fine, but offends someone else, just apologize and try and be mindful… what could possibly be wrong with being more compassionate? That’s just my take on life in general.

    Like

  16. Reblogged this on Art on her and commented:
    I couldn’t have said it any better! *claps*

    Like

  17. I agree with the author there are phrases that become outdated as we grow in acceptance of others’ differences. On the same vein, I always wondered how people that have dark skin feel about phrases such as, “That’s dark” – meaning that is sad or bad in some way. Or, “Dark purpose” – meaning someone has evil on their mind. There are too many examples to go into but I hope you get my meaning. I’ve personally tried to stay away from these types of phrases as they may cause offense.
    I believe they represent an archetype from our ancestors when the coming of night meant the increased risk of predators. Dark represents the unknown (i.e. dark horse) or danger. What do you think?

    Like

  18. Great post. I, naively I suppose, was quite shocked the first time I heard my eight year olds friends refer to something as ‘that’s so gay’. I very quickly had a conversation with my son about why that was out of order. But it’s hard to explain to a kid who lives in a society where ‘macho’ men abound and think nothing of calling their boys ‘princess’ if they don’t make the grade sports-wise. I want my boys to grow up knowing that who they are is okay. And my hope is also, that they grow up seeing people as people. Judging them on nothing more than what’s in their heart.

    Like

  19. okay people say thats so gay in a bad way, and even though the lgbt would like everyone to think of their way of life as normal, it isnt the fact is i have never heard of a couple including gay people have a child and say oh please be gay when you grow up. people are always going to say things that can be offensive it is a part of life, stop reading so much into it most of the time they dont even really mean it the way you think they do, when i was growing up if i got dirty my dad would say you look like a homeless person, did this mean he hated all homeless people? NO

    Like

    • mommyx4boys
      YES– it means your dad “hated all homeless people” and that you are effectively passing that hate of people you do not understand and so judge very harshly to your four sons. I hope they aren’t homeschooled.

      Like

  20. Great Read! As a teacher I find that language is of major significance…..MY language! As much as I try to pick up teenagers on their sloppy use of offensive terms, I also try to audit my own language. It’s amazing what you’ll notice if you change the language of a classroom. For example, instead of saying that a student is “bad”, tell them that they made a “bad choice”.
    Thanks for the thought provocation.

    Like

  21. Reblogged this on sxeveganbiking and commented:
    Well written piece…

    Like

  22. While I agree that we aught to be conscious of others in our use of words, I feel that a) the word “gay” had a completely different meaning before homosexuals took use of it, and I think that when people say “that’s so gay” it isn’t necessarily meant to mean “what a homosexual thing,” but has taken on a third meaning at this point, which is a kind of sarcastic incarnation of the original meaning of the word. And b) we live in a country where free speech is a right. If you want to keep losing your rights, by all means let’s make more laws about what people can and can’t do, and complain about the things people say. We cannot expect people to agree with each other one hundred percent of the time, that is basic humanity. I believe that people should have the freedom to do as they please, period. To me that means if you want to be a homosexual or if you want to talk shit about homosexuals because it’s not my place to tell other people what they can and cannot do,it is my place to be responsible for my actions and feelings and to keep them in control in spite of outside influences.

    Like

    • People absolutely have the right to use language others find offensive. However, that doesn’t mean they have the right to say those things with no consequences. If someone says something I find offensive, chances are I’m going to call them on it. That’s my right. This article isn’t about legislating speech, it’s about recognizing what types of things are offensive.

      Like

  23. Reblogged this on Mindful Musings at Midlife and commented:
    Thoughtful piece on curbing microaggressions in our homophobic society. Even those of us who are straight allies need to remember our acceptance, without judgment, of these words and phrases, needs to stop.

    Like

  24. Reblogged this on Hungry & Foolish Forever and commented:
    Choose your words wisely. Following the current expression trends without considering the affect of its meaning makes you ignorant.

    Like

  25. excellent blog! Thank you.

    Like

  26. People who proclaim homosexual or trans-gender identity as an abomination and unnatural are entitled to their opinions, of course. They are also subject to the opinions of those who disagree with them. We should call them out for their homophobia, religious fundamentalism, hate-mongering and anti-social behavior. They do not get a pass simply because they may believe they represent the majority of people, and they should be called out until the stigma of their bathing in the spotlight of social scrutiny is greater than their need to spew their trash. Saying nothing only enables them to continue with their malicious comments.

    Like

  27. That’s a very informative article. I have been called gay because I discourage people when they say stuff like “You’re gay” etc. I don’t mind though, being called gay. It’s not like it’s an insult.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. This is an excellent article. The harm that microaggressions can cause needs to be addressed, and this article is a great way of raising awareness.

    Like

  29. You nailed this so right on! Thank you, Kevin and John!

    Like

  30. Really eyeopening

    Like

  31. I always used to think saying “that’s so gay” was a mean and discriminatory thing to say, but then I though – you know, the most common parlance of the word “gay” used to mean something different and then gay people sort of took it on as their own word to mean something else, so why shouldn’t another, entirely different group of people take on the word to mean something, again, worse. Turnaround being far play and such. It’s a bit like saying we shouldn’t say that something we don’t agree with and finding affronting to our sensibilities is “fascist” for fear of offending fascists. I guess, linguistically, what goes around comes around. Not that saying “that’s so gay” is any less dumb, but if you are going to pilfer words, I figure you can’t complain if the words get pilfered back.

    Like

  32. Reblogged this on Sarah Coughlan.

    Like

  33. Are you really gay or have you just been talked into it by all the insensitive bullies who couldn’t handle you not fitting in to their stereo type of what a man is?

    Like

  34. I don’t accept the idea that certain groups have a right to control language.

    Like

  35. This Blog from Thailand is so gay – more like a compliment over here in the Kingdom of (former) Siam

    Like

  36. I’m bisexual. And thanks for this.

    Like

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