SYDNEY (AP) — An Australian school principal has asked students to stop using the word "gay" when singing a classic children's song, but said Thursday no offense was intended — he was simply trying to keep the kids from laughing.
Principal Garry Martin of Le Page Primary School in Melbourne said he instructed students to substitute the line "Fun your life must be" for the original "Gay your life must be" when singing "Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree." The song about a native Australian bird is a favorite around campfires from New Zealand to Canada.
Martin said he was playing a recording of the song for the students about a month ago when the line "gay your life must be" produced a flurry of giggles throughout the classroom. Some of the students use the word "gay" as a schoolyard taunt, he said, but don't understand its true meaning. And so, to calm them down, he told them to swap in the word "fun" for "gay."
"It wasn't misplaced political correctness, it wasn't homophobia, there was nothing really calculated in doing it," he told The Associated Press. "I could've stopped the whole class and gone into a very caring, supportive explanation of gay being quite a reasonable choice in lifestyle that some people make, but I was only talking with 7- and 8-year-olds and I think that sort of thing is better explained more fully with parents."
His decision erupted into a controversy, he said, after one of the students told his parents about Martin's change to the song. Word then spread from the parents to friends to the local newspaper, which ran a story — and Martin found himself being bombarded with angry e-mails.
"Some think I'm the devil incarnate," he said.
Crusader Hillis, CEO of the gay and lesbian advocacy group The Also Foundation, didn't go that far — but he did call the lyrical swap an overreaction.
"It sends a signal to people that just because a word has two meanings, that one of those meanings is unacceptable and that's really putting us backwards," Hillis said. "Even if it's done for good intentions because 'gay' is being used in schoolyards as a slur, I think they need to use the word as a conversation rather than banning it."
Martin said his decision was a mistake made with the best of intentions, and he plans to speak to the students about how different words hold different meanings across generations.
He also plans to ask students to sing the original version of the song.
But, he added, "We might not sing it that often now."