Before a wrestling match at a wonderful independent school where I taught, I strolled through the boys’ locker room to use the bathroom. As I departed, I heard a student derisively say, “Dude, that’s so gay.” I wheeled around quickly and angrily and yelled, “Hey, what’s up with that?” A quick apology materialized, and I, after accepting the apology, left, refocusing my energy on the upcoming match.
After the match, my thoughts returned to the locker room, curious why the boys there felt so comfortable using that word as an insult. It might have been the relative safety and seeming security of the space—a boys’ locker room is, by its very nature, a sanctuary for boys to say almost anything without adult intercession or interference; it might have been the homogenous audience—other teenage boys, similarly preparing for athletic competition; it might have been a sense of benighted ignorance that exists among teenage boys because few object to the word’s use. I cannot know for sure why this boy felt secure uttering that phrase—even in the presence of an adult—but I can say that his words forced me to think about this issue: why do students who attend a school that seeks to honor all its members feel it appropriate to use such offensive language?
In schools we encourage students to find their voice and to discover their identity—learn who they are and who they want to be. Using literature, music, art, theatre, and history we share our experiences so that students leave ready to serve the world that they will inherit. When we succeed, students are prepared to contribute richly and deeply to their chosen communities and to stand alone, if necessary, for what is right and what is best. When we fail, students may muddle through their lives flustered and frustrated, seeking refuge on any island that provides succor. I like to think that we succeed more often than we fail, but the process of preparing our students sometimes involves students’ honing their voice with hurtful words. Students in middle and high school try on different personas in an effort to know who they are and who they want to be. In addition, they seek to know where the boundaries are so that they know what is and isn’t acceptable. Those moments, when students are voicing nascent ideas or exploring new selves, can be uncomfortable for them and for those who work with them.
In my younger days, teenagers blithely said, “Nigger” or “Faggot,” because society didn’t disparage such use. Today, rarely will you hear either one of those words, because they’ve become taboo. But teenagers find new words to express themselves, to shock (and titillate) one another, and to test boundaries. Soon after 9/11, according to an NPR news story, teenagers took to calling one another “terrorist,” as a means of expressing disapproval and garnering attention. Imagine the pit in your stomach if someone called you a “terrorist” months after that horrific tragedy. Teenagers, then, have a knack for employing language that is poignant, powerful, and arresting.
And so it is with “gay.” Teenagers use this word, because it shocks, it titillates, and few object to its use. I have heard it spoken at stadiums, on trains, at restaurants, and on the radio, with nary a response from the people listening. With that approval (silence is the voice of complicity), students respond almost reflexively or instinctively to an unpleasant situation by saying, “Oh, that’s so gay.” As noted in Urban Dictionary.com, “Gay” is “often used to describe something stupid or unfortunate, originating from homophobia. It is used among many teenage males in order to buff up their ‘masculinity.’” When called on it, or corrected, students say, “Oh, but we don’t mean it that way; we just mean it’s stupid.” Or they hide behind the knee-jerk response, “I was only joking.” I am sure that you have heard that there is truth in every joke, and I agree. I also believe that sometimes we speak to try out new ideas, or to fit in, but sometimes, we speak to hurt someone else.
We are engaged in a civil rights battle. We read with interest the skirmishes that each state wages over gay rights; seemingly daily another state votes for or against gay marriage, and the issue divides our nation almost as sharply as abortion has done for the past 41 years. This issue, Gay Rights, is as important as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and the Abolitionists movement of the 1850’s. I think most people believe that the fringe that supported these causes then improved our nation, and I believe 50 years from now, when history judges us, it will say that those who supported Gay Rights were the ones who fought the good fight. In short, this issue asks us what do we value, and do we really mean what we wrote in the Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal—and in the Constitution of the United States: are these just words, or are they the foundation of this nation? And know that Gay Rights are a national and global issue: Uganda has drafted a new law that would bar non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from promoting homosexuality, tightening rules further after anti-gay legislation in February was widely condemned as draconian.
We cannot expect to change the world or even our own country overnight, but we can think globally and act locally; we can honor our unique history of (eventual) inclusion and our solemn mission: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words should lead us, as a citizen of the greatest country in the world, to think, say, and do what is right; to foster an atmosphere where all people, Blacks and Whites, Jews, Muslims, and Gentiles, heterosexuals and homosexuals, feel comfortable, safe, and supported. As Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice advises, “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Seek to live in affection…in all your dealings with others, and in your relationship with outward society.” As a community that aspires to instill principles that will improve our world, we need to see ourselves as a community that uplifts all its members in thought, in word, and in deed.
Originally published in William Penn Charter Professional Magazine, Winter 2010