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Defining the 'gay' word - an interview with documentary maker Amy Ashenden

22nd December 2015

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“That’s GAY”. It’s a phrase that has entered common lexicon to mean something is “bad”, “weak” or “stupid”. But when it is also the most commonly used word to mean homosexual, what repercussions does this use of language have for LGBT people?

The Gay WordDoes it feed homophobia or is it just a harmless expression?

Southampton graduate Amy Ashenden addresses these questions in new documentary The Gay Word.

Amy has worked for the BBC and London Live. She freelances for the Guardian, and has previously produced Working for Nothing – a documentary about unpaid internships in the UK, which featured an interview with the leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett.

The Gay Word looks at the use of the word ‘gay’, its evolution and how it fits into prejudice with conversation with the general public, academics, teachers and organisations like Stonewall.

In Britain, 99% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people hear the word ‘gay’ used negatively. 84% say that this distresses them.

It paints a full and interesting picture about how language feeds into wider societal prejudice and is a definite must watch. She self-produced and edited the documentary in two months, using equipment from SUSUtv, the University of Southampton’s TV station.

We asked Amy about making the documentary and her thoughts on the issues it addresses:

Why did you decide to make this documentary?

I wanted to create a tool that would bridge the gap between people who see the negative use of 'gay' as derogatory, and those who see it as detached from sexual identity. There are a lot of arguments and defensiveness on both sides so I wanted to look at all perspectives as objectively as I could to try to figure out how this trend has developed and why it divides opinion so strongly.

Did anything particularly surprise you when making the documentary?

Yes! I was surprised to find gay people supporting the negative use of the word 'gay' and also that older generations felt strongly that young people are paving the wrong path for this word. I was also surprised to find that it's not always so simple as concluding that homophobia is behind the phrase "eurgh that's gay"; it's a lack of understanding.

And that is really from a lack of education, knowing gay people and their experiences, and heteronormativity. I've also been overwhelmed by the positive feedback at the screenings, which all sold out in advance! It's great to have a wide variety of people behind the film. 

Did you find any challenges when making this film?

I had to remain open minded, because my aim was not to create a campaign video but a documentary that really explores the issue. I want it to be a film anyone of any sexuality can watch and relate to, and feel that they've opened their mind to new perspectives and experiences. The big challenge really was making the film on my own - lugging the camera on trains, learning to edit, filming when I'm not in shot and just using my student overdraft as the budget! I did it in two months, start to finish. I was determined to make it happen though, and having had even just one young person message me and thank me for making it has made it so worthwhile. 

Do you think this is a ‘recent’ thing? It has been ‘commonplace’ since I was first at secondary school in the early 90s – do you think it is worse now?

I wouldn't say it's worse necessarily - in fact, someone in the documentary points out that it can't have become normalised simply by the fact that the documentary has been made. It's still said but it's also still protested against. Stonewall has been campaigning a lot on this issue, and I interview them at their London HQ in the documentary. 

Do you think that it illustrates a hangover of immature views on sexuality?

Haha! I like the expression "hangover". However, I think sexuality has long been something which many people struggle to deal with easily (be it their own, or someone else's). I think it illustrates a lack of education and a bigger lack of understanding than we like to assume. 

How important do you think the use of language is to the wider context of inclusion?

I think language can say a lot about our attitudes towards minority groups and one thing that came up in the documentary is the idea that when someone says "eurgh, that's gay", it says more about the person saying it than it does about gay people. I did find a strong sense of alienation felt by some in the LGBT+ community by the negative use of the word "gay".

Do you think any group of people get to ‘own’ a word? Especially given the evolution of the word ‘gay’?

That's the tricky thing about language - no one can censor or prevent a word from evolving, and we shouldn't. It's the reasons behind why we chose certain words or phrases that's really key, and why I chose to explore this issue. There's the idea of reclaiming words, which came up in The Gay Word, and some people made the comparison to the 'n' word. Saying "that's so gay" is different though, because it's last dominant usage was neutral (meaning homosexual) and positive (meaning happy) so it's not being reclaimed as its new use is negative.

What are your personal views after making the documentary?

Having made the documentary, I feel strongly that there is a lot of work to be done and we must not become complacent. The 'gay' word brought up lots of other issues that the LGBT+ community face and they have not disappeared just because of whichever year it is or marriage legislation. It's up to straight allies to help too. 

Watch the full documentary below and find out more at


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