I have a friend at school. My opinion of him has fluctuated wildly from the moment I met him. Like me, he is an atheist, and he is both more assertive and much harsher about it than I am. He is at least somewhat supportive of homosexuality on a moral level, but he also throws faggot and other gay slurs around as freely as if it they were mundane nouns or adverbs. His favorite words for female teachers he doesn’t like are “dyke” and “whore”.
Last week, I grew so uncomfortable with his constant stream of gay jokes that I finally called him out on it. “Some homophobe could hear you and think you’re on his side,” I said. “You could accidentally call some gay guy a faggot.” He replied that he thought I was overthinking it. I would like to say that I approached the interaction with great strength and confidence, but I did not. I felt and probably looked extremely awkward the whole time. I did not seem to succeed in changing his behavior, but I did manage to clear my hands of it, which is about the most I could have expected. It happened in a classroom during lunch break, and there other people in it that likely heard our conversation. Some of them may now think I am gay (I’m not), but that is a risk I will have to accept. I have a bad habit of sounding off about issues on the internet and then being too scared to discuss them in real life.
Reading the above two paragraphs, you may think that I am confident in the wrongness of such behavior. That is not entirely true. When I hear my friend’s barrage of slurs, I can see clearly that he has crossed a line, but I am not precisely sure where the line is. His behavior is simply so inflated as to be obviously on the wrong side.
The answer is less clear with people who throw out an occasional “that’s gay”, or sometimes call someone a faggot after they do something particularly shitty, or make minor gay jokes that carry no clear malice. Hell, there are actual gay people who have a tendency towards such speech, and if I was to fly of the handle at a heterosexual I could not entirely excuse them either. These actions are nearly ubiquitous in my environment, and it seems much simpler to dismiss them as humor.
But then I am reminded that somewhere around half of America still opposes homosexuality. Any use of those terms could potentially bolster that side.
Of course, even the neutral descriptive words “gay” and “homosexual” can have negative connotations in the wrong hands, and it would be foolish to ban them.
“Faggot” and “dyke” are not the only slurs common to my school. “Bitch”, “whore”, “skank”, “cunt”, the infamous “nigger”, and the slightly lighter “nigga” are in no short supply. If one counts “Jew” as a slur when used in an insulting manner, it is common as well. Even “retarded”, the most casually-thrown of all casually-thrown slurs, could easily be considered objectionable if it is compared to using “autistic” as an insult. Most of the kids I know have honors classes, but that seems to make little difference. They use those terms as enthusiastically as anyone else. When I was younger, I was taught that most of those words were evil, but now they pervade the entire atmosphere. My first taste of this came with the wild homophobia in fourth grade, and then I saw the social taboos against all of them evaporate somewhere between seventh and eighth grade, or perhaps it simply took me that long to notice. Now, the amount of true gay-hatred I see has decreased significantly (though not nearly completely), but the words that mark it have remained as common as ever. A moderate degree of misogyny is also not uncommon, and basic sexism is inescapable, as it is in society in general.
And, for every person that truly subscribes to these prejudices, there are two or three that avoid them to some measure but still make frequent use of their slurs and humor. I cannot clearly differentiate those populations without conducting something similar to an interview, and I am left to guess at their allegiances. The end result is that the entire social setting feels deeply corrupted. I know the bigotry exists, and I know that it seeps into people who theoretically oppose it, and I also know that the trappings of it seep into people who truly do. There is no escaping it, no closing your eyes and keeping it out of your sight. It can be accepted, if you so desire, or it can be fought, but it must be faced. I truly hope that my environment is something unusual, that it can be explained by being populated by adolescents instead of adults, or that the conservative nature of the Deep South has a hand in its workings and is responsible for most of its flaws, but my intuition tells me otherwise.
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