By Ariel Schwartz
Want to see how prevalent gay slurs still are in a society where new states are legalizing gay marriage on a seemingly regular basis? Check out Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) slur tracker, which keeps an up-to-the-minute count of how many times certain slurs (fag, dyke, so gay) are used on Twitter every day. One day's count, as of 2:30 PM PST: 21,437 uses of the word "fag" alone.
If you live in a culturally sensitive area and talk only to culturally sensitive people, you may encounter a gay slur once in a blue moon. When it happens, it's usually met with a mix of shock and horror. But this is not representative of mainstream American culture, where homophobic slurs are injected into daily life so often that many people--especially middle and high schoolers--wouldn't even bat an eye at hearing someone called a dyke or a fag.
In a recent study conducted by GLSEN, eight out of 10 LGBT students reported that they had been verbally harassed at school in the past year. So GLSEN has done what any advocacy organization worth its salt would do: it launched an awareness campaign. In 2008, the organization teamed up with the Ad Council to launch the ThinkB4YouSpeak campaign, a multimedia project that leveraged print, broadcast TV, cable, and viral video to make kids between ages 13 and 16--that crucial period when kids are moving from middle to high school--aware of how hurtful their speech can be.
"Our goal was to get to the moveable middle, to point out thoughtless uses of phrases like 'it's so gay,' explains Eliza Byard, GLSEN's executive director.
Created by GLSEN and the Ad Council, the slur tracker has actually been around since 2009. It was recently relaunched to take advantage of technological advances that allow the organization to track slurs in real time. "One thing we've seen overall is that the unthinking use of the phrases has declined," says Byard. "You've drained the sea of the ambient use of the language, and now what you're getting down to is when people say these words, they're using them for a specific purpose." The slurs that show up these days are often used with much more hateful intentions than in the past.
That raises the question of how valuable the ThinkB4YouSpeak campaign will be in the future, as the so-called "moveable middle" shrinks and slurs are reduced to those who are truly hateful. GLSEN is thinking about its next steps, but for now, the campaign is still relevant--just take a minute to survey the Twitter landscape and you'll see that people still casually throw around anti-LGBT terms.
"One of the things the Twitter tracker does right now--at a moment when the landscape on LGBT people's acceptance in society is changing so quickly--it's important for people to realize that that kind of speech is going on, that kind of language is being used," says Byard. "We need people to know that it's still happening."
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.