Is “That’s So Retarded” The New “That’s So Gay”?

Know this: mentally-handicapped LGBTs exist. It’s hard to know how many, but they do. And just like young LGBTs, they need help standing up against the slurs used to dehumanize them. Enter Lauren Potter, an actress with down syndrome who stars in the televised musical series GLEE. She and co-star Jane Lynch teamed up with other celebrities of color to discourage people from saying “retarded” when they mean “stupid” or “fucked up.” And guess what? Their PSA is a lot more direct than the lighthearted “Don’t Say Gay” PSAs.

Their website breaks down the history of “retard” for us:

When they were originally introduced, the terms “mental retardation” or “mentally retarded” were medical terms with a specifically clinical connotation; however, the pejorative forms, “retard” and “retarded” have been used widely in today’s society to degrade and insult people with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, when “retard” and “retarded” are used as synonyms for “dumb” or “stupid” by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity.

When it comes to slurs, retard, nigger, and faggot really do fall along the same line. “Nigger” is more of a huge no-no because of its hateful history. “Faggot” still gets used by music artists like Tyler the Creator, but the recent fines against NBA players Joakim Noah and Kobe Bryant suggest that the “f-word” is slowly falling out of favor in the public square. So what about “retarded”?

In 2003, The Black Eyed Peas had a hit with Let’s Get Retarded a song that most radio stations and sports stadiums wouldn’t play because of its slur against mentally handicapped people. Only after the band realized its limited appeal did they release a 2004 edit re-titled Let’s Get It Started. But you can still hear “the r-word” and see laughing stock “retard” characters in TV, films, and even casual conversation by those we’d otherwise consider open-minded.

After viewing the above student-made PSA, I decided to speak with Jim Bingham director of the Goodwill-sponsored documentary For Once In My Life. His film follows a band of Goodwill employees who all have mental and physical disabilities. Together they make just about the baddest musical combo you’ve ever heard—they’re not just good for mentally handicapped people, they’re pretty damned good, period. Bingham agrees that the mentally handicapped folks face incredible discrimination and hardship when working and living in the U.S., especially when it comes to disparaging slurs. Whether you know any such folks or not, they’re members of our community and deserve help standing up for their dignity, just like us.

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  • EdWoody

    This is all well and good, but unfortunately it’s just the way language ends up developing. Idiot, cretin and moron were originally clinically defined terms as well, but that use declined and their pejorative connotations became the main denotation. Given time, the same will happen to whatever new word they decide to use instead of retard, and then they’ll have to come with another new word. Even the desperately PC phrase “differently abled” is already suffering the same fate. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s going to be next to impossible to fight.

  • Kev C

    “Mental retardation” is still used as the medical term. The current PC neologism “mentally handicapped” is for plebeian usage because plebs haven’t turned it into a derogatory term … yet.

  • David C

    I was taken aback by the directness of this PSA last night. I like it.

    I’m a little frustrated by the “…is the new…” thing. Orange is the new navy blue. Faggot is the new Nigger (or more precisely “Gay-slur is the new N-word”), Retarded is the new Gay. Ugh.

    It’s, sadly, a fact that are insecure animals who exploit differences to make ourselves feel superior. The Neanderthals probably mocked the weakest in their group, “You’re so ugg-ugg-grunt”, “Why is your forehead so small?”, “Do you and your mate walk upright?”

    Language is not the issue, respecting human dignity is. We all have to try a little harder. Even the retarded faggots.

  • Skeloric

    As a GLBT with physical and emotional disabilities, I do find the “retard” comment as equally offensive not because I have any specific developmental disability because I have been around others who did.
    Wonderful and beautiful people who lived lives more pure and fulfilling than many I’ve seen.
    Also much more accepting and tolerant than those who would otherwise try to present themselves as their “betters”.
    David C has the right of it, it is the “WORDS” its the lack of respect for other people that is the disease eating away at our civilization.

  • Skeloric

    darn lack of edit…
    “David C has the right of it, it is NOT the “WORDS” its the lack of respect for other people that is the disease eating away at our civilization.”

  • Retard

    This is Retarded!!

    re·tard? ?
    –verb (used with object)
    1. to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.

    After reading this article I feel retarded. Call em pink Bunnies and then you’ll ban that word too. It will never end, which in a sense makes it reatarded, plus if your reatarded would you actually even know or care? I know a couple of them and they seem like they are just really high and drunk, which the way the world makes me a little jealous, but then again that’s just reatarded, oh yeah good luck getting rid of that word RETARD!!! also ban tard, RE-RE and [email protected]#t while your at it.

  • Oh4

    Thanks. This is a message many parents have been pushing for generations. Use the word/phrase in the correct context, no problem. Oddly enough, it’s the adults in this country that misrepresent the word most often, passing it down to the next generation. Still, it was our country’s youth who got us to stop littering, to put on our seat belts. It may be they who help put this to bed as well. I certainly hope so.

  • LulzingLulzer

    I seriously doubt any campaign attempting to discourage people from saying “retarded” will succeed. Like the first poster said, our current words for “stupid person” originated, like the current derogatory use of “retard,” in clinical terms. Adolescents drive the ever-changing lexicon, and they’re immature. Best of luck changing human nature.

    People will always make the comparison of particularly stupid people to the clinically retarded. The people potentially offended when people make that comparison are: 1) too few in number to make a difference, 2) are unaware someone’s insulted them.

  • TomMc


    Keep conjecturing…

  • LulzingLulzer

    @TomMc: Is that so? Well, come back to me when you’ve wiped out “retard” or “that’s so retarded” from the common vernacular. Best of luck.

  • TMikel

    Hey, why don’t we start saying, “That’s SO Breeder,” or “That’s SO Straight,” or even, “That’s so passé, outdated, Republican or something else if we MUST denigrate people in such a fashion – doing so is SO 20th Century!

  • Pocket

    @LulzingLulzer: Replace “retard” with “gay” and replace “clinical term” with “any term that denotes femininity” and see how far you get. We’re all in the same boat so lets all drop the act that its our sealed fate to sink instead of row.

  • Armand

    Are we really going to chain ourselves to political correctness?

    Sunday brunch will never be the same.

  • Justanuthercrackerlol

    It’s not acceptable to call me a cracker! lol

    I hear “cracker” more these days than any of the other “slurs” in this commercial. How about NO slurs about anyone…minority or not. This double standard crap has got to go…

  • Rob R-H

    @LulzingLulzer: You really believe that the number of people with developmental disabilities are too few in number to “make a difference”? Or even better, that they are unaware that they’re being insulted?

    The first point is entirely irrelevant to their reasonable expectation of dignity and respect. The second? Could not be more wrong.

    If you’re going to be entitled, obtuse blowhards about using this word, then fine. But own it. Stop pretending there’s nothing offensive about what you’re stubbornly insisting on doing.

  • Joetx

    This PSA is waaaayyyyy more effective than anything Gay, Inc. has come up with.

    Plus, our community also received a benefit.

    P.S. There’s a big difference b/t “That’s retarded” & “That’s (so) gay” – people with mental disabilities don’t identify as “retarded,” whereas gay people identify as “gay.”

  • Fitz

    One of my SiL’s is retarded. If you use the word “Disabled” she’ll read you a list of the things that she is “able” to do. I guess it’s all in intention… the word “Retarded” wasn’t treated like that in their home. It’s like the word “Diabetic”: it describes a medical condition. But I love the overall idea of learning to be more careful about hurtfulness. Were all just trying to push our little car daily, there is no need to make like uglier.

  • Armand

    @Fitz: Your comment made me diabetic.

    Loves ya girl.

  • Kamuriie

    @Rob R-H: Funny how I only see people campaigning against the use of “retard” or “retarded,” when when “idiot” and “moron” originated in the EXACT same manner–clinical terms for the developmentally impaired.

    Have you ever used either? And if so, do you own such use? Do you advocate the abandonment of all these terms, or just the contemporary “retard/retarded”?

    If you don’t, you’re hypocritical at worst, and inconsistent at best.

  • Rob R-H

    @Kamuriie: Right. Those terms have the same origin… about a hundred years ago. I’m sure Teddy Roosevelt would give me quite a talking to if he heard me use them.

    I am amazed and amused by people like you who will lash out with arguments like this in order to justify their own entitled use of whatever offensive phraseology they feel particularly invested in.

    You like “retard”? Use it, by all means. Argue passionately for your right to do so. Just understand that to people less invested in using hate language, you just look like an ass. And you erode your own right to express indignation the next time someone throws similar hate language at you. Until then, knock yourself out.

  • Jeffree

    I used to have a suite-mate who constantly used the words “retarded” or “gay” to describe anything he saw as worthless or bad. We got him out of the nasty habit by using a description of him “Deadbeat Dad*” in the exact same way. Took a couple weeks for him to figure all that out; because he was kind of slowpokey himself.

    *Father of two kids, who provided no help or child-support to the babymomma. He flunked out of school & now washes dishes at a diner where I hope he gets to work with people who actually have developmental disabilities and who still get promoted before he does.

    Karma’s a biotch.

  • AFruit4Thought

    The success of the campaigns against “that’s so gay” prove that we can remove “retarded” as a pejorative. People who say that it’s embedded in their speech just don’t feel like trying. It’s easier to rationalize using “retarded” because we’re comfortable with it. It’s harder to see that we’re hurting people and should change. Don’t take the easy way out and blind yourself to the pain you’re so carelessly dealing out.

    @Kamuriie: I don’t know how you feel about people using “that’s so gay.” From my understanding of the Queerty community, many people here hate the phrase. You’re using essentially the same arguments that anti-equality advocates use when they want to say “that’s so gay” – the original term meant happy and the current phrase has been changed to mean stupid and has nothing to do with them homosexuals.

    And, the difference with idiot and moron is that they are no longer used as clinical terms. They have moved into common speech and have been there for a good long time. Retarded is still used clinically and only recently (relatively) moved over to the vernacular.

    @LulzingLulzer: It’s completely wrong to think that everyone with intellectual or developmental disabilities doesn’t understand your use of “retarded.” Did you watch the PSA?

    @Pocket: Here, here!

  • Kamuriie

    @Rob R-H: What relevance does the age of their origin have? Someday, “retard’s” origin will be 100 years from now. Declaring one as “hate speech” while giving the other two free passes–despite both having the *same* clinical origin–is absurd.

    @AFruit4Thought: You claim that the “don’t say that’s so gay” campaign has been successful. Based on what evidence? I work in the school system of a liberal state, and frequent Xbox Live games where adolescents chat; I hear it every day. Other teachers don’t even criticize children, much less punish them, because if they did, they’d be sending almost every male to the administrators on a daily basis, and they have no patience for that.

    As for my opinion of the language; it’s mildly annoying, however I also recognize the futility of trying to stop people from using it. When you confront a kid about it, it’s absolutely mind-boggling to them that “gay,” in that sense, means “homosexual.” “I meant gay as in stupid.” There’s rarely any thought or malice behind the words. Similarly, when people say “that’s so retarded,” they’re saying “that’s so stupid.”

    You say that “it’s okay” to use the terms “idiot” and “moron” because they’ve entered the common vernacular. … So has “retard.” People have been colloquially using “retard,” “tard,” or “retarded” for 30 years. I’m saying: either all of them are acceptable, or none of them are. Giving two free passes because it’s been “grandfathered in” while focusing on the new one is absurd.

  • Jeffree

    Well ain’ t this conversation getting lame?….0h yeah, ok wait, that’s a pejorative term for people with mobility issues. Seems we’re running out of options to exclaim our disapproval, disdain or dislike for things or people.

    Time to get creative, folks.

    [scurries to bookshelves looking for insults found in Shakespeare]

  • CJ

    I agree, it is insulting and derogatory. The PSA is 100% correct.

  • fuzzy

    @Jeffree: “Seems we’re running out of options to exclaim our disapproval, disdain or dislike for things or people.” And yet you’ve just listed three perfectly valid words that don’t disparage one thing by negatively equating it with another. The English language has about 200,000 words in active usage, depending on who you ask, and where. It follows that there are plenty of ways to express displeasure that don’t involve slurs.

  • Godiva

    I agree, but the title is a tad misleading, as both terms are used quite frequently, and it’s incredibly insulting and disrespectful. There are a plethora of words you could use to describe something that you dislike, none of which have to offend minority groups that already feel marginalized.

  • Mac

    I find it disappointing that, in a forum for LGBT issues, so many feel that the use of this word cannot be combated. I have seen the reduction in the derogatory use of the term “gay” because respect for and references toward LGBT persons is a high-profile issue. To compare a person to a group of people based on a stereotype and using a slur is wrong, period. Quote the dictionary all that you want, perception and how a word is defined by society are the keys. I am guilty of using derogatory terms that refer to LGBT persons, racial groups, and others in the past, but I made the conscious effort to stop many years ago. As a parent of a special needs child, I ask that you think about this and do the same. It is about human dignity. Offensive language is not a special needs or LGBT issue, it is an overall societal issue.

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