Monday, September 23, 2013

The Kid They Call 게이

One of my first-year students is named JS. He's quiet and polite, and he's one of the stars in his class when it comes to English, since he lived in the U.S. when he was little (in Georgia for about three years, or maybe during third grade; I can't recall) and speaks English quite well. His general attitude during class is just what you'd expect from a smart kid who understands everything that's going on but doesn't always care. But I like him; though he's not a shining star of enthusiasm, he works diligently when it's time to work, and he also helps his peers out when they're struggling.

The other students call him "Gay".

The first time I heard that, I ignored it. The second time I heard it, I thought that maybe I'd heard it incorrectly. The other students used it as a term of address, like it was his nickname. As it turns out, that's exactly what it is.

The third time I heard it, I directly addressed the student who had said it.

"What did you say, HS?"
"Oh, sorry Teacher, nothing."
"No, what did you call him?"
"It's his... 뭐지? Nickname! It's a nickname."
"Why do you call him that?"
"It's a joke!"
"Don't call him that." I walked away.

I was really troubled. My students are typical teenagers. They call each other names. They hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally with their words. But my students are also Korean teenagers, so add to their adolescent flippancy a worrisome lack of understanding about LGBTQ issues and the baggage carried by the word "gay" in American culture -- the culture I am supposed to represent and teach. My students very likely have no idea that they could be bullying JS with the nickname they have designated for him.

The fourth time I heard it was this evening just as I was leaving for home.

"Hey, JS, how was your Chuseok?"
"Oh, good. But I had to study." WJ approached. She's a sweet girl, also has impeccable English.
"Hi, Teacher," she said. Turned to JS as she walked away: "Gay."
"What did you say?"
"Oh, it's his nickname," she said, still walking.
"No, come back here. What's his nickname?"
"Um... it's..." To JS: "Can I tell him?"
"Look, I know what you said. Why did you call him that?"
"It's just a joke."
"It's my nickname," he said. "My friends just... like the way it sounds. It sounds nice."
"Are you okay with it?"
"Well, as long as you're okay with it..."

I left. WJ and JS walked into the study room, the former tittering as if she'd just escaped some dire punishment. I rehearsed a lecture in my head on my way home. I came up with a dozen better things I could have said.

But you know what? This story doesn't have an ending yet. I'm honestly at a loss here. What's a teacher to do when he 1) doesn't want to get in the way of his students' apparently innocuous camaraderie 2) won't stand for any verbal bullying among them 3) feels a need to explain why using the word "gay" as a casual nickname isn't okay without 4) imposing the value system of a historically hegemonic culture on theirs?

Suggestions welcome! Leave a comment.

Part 2 can be found here.


  1. I wonder if you could stick to examples in Korean society and have a discussion rather than 'imposing' a value system. If you can find footage of Ban Ki Moon's speech on LGBTQ rights in might be interesting to ask why it was under-covered in Korea. Or ask students what they think about the person who threw food at the wedding last week:

    1. Thanks for your advice! I definitely don't want to lecture my students without them understanding why I'm bothering to talk about American/Western values at all. The truth is that there are precious few examples in Korean society, either good or bad. Few to no positive gay role models, and under-reported incidents of homophobic bullying really just render the issue invisible. But I'll take a look at Ban Ki Moon's speech and try to bring it up in class sometime. (I'm working on a lesson now that covers a wide range of insults and verbal abuse, not just pejorative use of the word "gay".)

  2. Please keep us posted, Andrew!