(Originally posted on April 3, 2013 at I Dig Your Girlfriend.)
Every teen drama in recent memory that’s taken a crack at a gay storyline has included one virtually identical scene. The gay (or presumed gay) character – usually tertiary but occasionally a main player – is walking nonchalantly down the school corridor. Suddenly, he or she stops dead. The camera then zips helpfully around to show us what all the fuss is about.
A locker has been tagged, in spray paint, with the word “FAG.”
This exact scene has happened on Dawson’s Creek, Popular, and Glee, among other teen shows. It usually happens midway through Season Two. (For variety, One Tree Hill had a “DYKE” locker instead, which I suppose is refreshing?)
The scene always unfolds the same way: one word, one locker, and one victim forcibly made conspicuous in a crowd of his or her peers. The perpetrator is absent or invisible; a faceless coward, hiding behind a very small but powerful word.
Hate can be so paint-by-numbers.
Just yesterday, a friend of mine showed me some disturbing images from right here in Edmonton. They were photos of a home here in the city; a home spray-painted with racial slurs. I blinked at these photos in disbelief. Is this sort of thing seriously still happening, right under our noses? In a city, and indeed a country, celebrated for its diversity? In 2013?
Racist and homophobic slurs point to more than just ignorance or a lack of imagination. They show us a truly ugly side of the human race. They force us to acknowledge the existence of the type of person who not only thinks hateful thoughts, but also makes the effort to spread them. Someone who goes to the trouble of buying spray paint, and travelling to someone else’s home, and smearing hostility all over a house where children live. Someone who hates that much.
How are we supposed to feel about this?
On a locker, or on a house, it’s just paint. It can be removed, or painted over. In language, it’s just a word. A small handful of unremarkable letters. Can a mere word really hold any power over us?
I am a white lesbian. I have never been the target of a racial slur, and I’m lucky enough to say I’ve never had a homophobic comment hurled directly at me. But what happens to one of us happens to all of us. When we see or hear these words, we know we’re hated. We’re reminded that someone out there actively despises us on a fundamental level, for something we didn’t choose and can’t change.
They hate us without knowing us.
Thankfully, it’s been my experience that people who hate this strongly are not in the majority. For every asshole who shouts or writes words like this, there are hundreds in line to shut them up. But even if most of us agree that slurs are wrong, there is a more insidious form of hate speech that happens daily; casually, even.
How often in the run of a day do we hear phrases like “that’s so gay” or “that’s retarded”? It happens frequently enough that some of us have come to the incorrect conclusion that these words are no longer a big deal. But they are.
There have been times in my life when I’ve spoken out against this kind of language, but more often than not, I’ve let the moment pass with my mouth shut, only to hate myself later. I’m always so afraid to make someone else feel uncomfortable, or to be seen as humourless or overly sensitive. I’ve rationalized my lack of action by reassuring myself that the person who said it didn’t mean anything by it. I’ve told myself that they were just being careless with their words.
I may have been right in these cases. But that hardly excuses it.
Careless language is a bad habit. Like any bad habit, it can be overcome, but not if we stay quiet. If we don’t nip this in the bud when we hear it, it will become more entrenched instead of less. Thoughtless, hateful words will fly out at random; at work, on the bus, at the grocery store. Maybe at home. Maybe around the kids.
Words have a life of their own. When a scared, closeted preteen hears a parent or older sibling calling something “gay” as a synonym for bad, how much can he or she be expected to understand about context or motivation? More to the point, what payoff could there possibly be for using these words that would outweigh someone else’s right to feel safe and comfortable in their own home?
Racists and homophobes reduce us to small, crude words because we’re simpler to understand that way. They don’t see us as people, just amorphous concepts worth their rage. Sadly, they will always be out there, radiating hate in shouts and in whispers.
We just have to be louder.
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