ANN ARBOR — Sticks and stones may break your bones, but a new University of Michigan study shows words can wound for life.
The study found the commonly used phrase “that’s so gay” to describe something undesirable can have negative consequences for gay, lesbian or bisexual students.
Although subtle, such language is hostile, and can be harmful to sexual minorities, said study author Michael Woodford, an assistant professor of social work at U-M.
The findings appear in the current issue of the Journal of American College Health.
Researchers examined the impact of hearing “that’s so gay” among 114 gay, lesbian and bisexual students between the ages of 18 to 25 through an online survey.
Students reported how often they heard the phrase on campus in the past 12 months. They also answered questions about their perceived social acceptance on campus, physical well-being, mental health and willingness to disclose their sexual orientation.
Data suggests gay, lesbian and bisexual college students who heard “that’s so gay” more frequently were more likely to report feeling isolated and to suffer negative health symptoms, such as headaches, poor appetite or eating problems.
Practically every respondent reported hearing “that’s so gay” on campus at least once in the past 12 months. Nearly half of the students said they’ve heard the phrase more than 10 times within the year. Only 14 respondents—or 13 percent—hadn’t heard it at all.
Hearing the phrase more often was found to increase students’ risk of health problems and feelings of isolation.
“Given the nature of gay-lesbian-bisexual stigma, sexual minority students could already perceive themselves to be excluded on campus and hearing ‘that’s so gay’ may elevate such perceptions,” Woodford said, adding, “‘That’s so gay’ conveys that there is something wrong with being gay. And, hearing such messages about one’s self can cause stress, which can manifest in headaches and other health concerns.
Woodford suggested a solution, saying colleges must address “low-level hostility,” including language, to eradicate “that’s so gay” from college student vernacular.
“Policies and educational programs are needed to help students, staff and faculty to understand that such language can be harmful to gay students. Hopefully, these initiatives will help to eliminate the phrase from campuses,” he said in a press release.
Woodford co-authored the study with Michael Howell, assistant professor of social work at Appalachian State University; Perry Silverschanz, U-M lecturer in psychology and social work; and Lotus Yu, U-M graduate student in social work and public health.