Thursday, October 7, 2010


The first time I kissed a girl I was in college. I was pretty naïve for even a freshman; there had been no openly gay kids in high school and, in the late 70’s, there were considerably fewer representations of the “gay lifestyle” in popular culture. I had thought, for the first 18 years of my life, that I was straight. I liked boys, I’d had plenty of crushes, had fallen in love in that particularly passionate way that teenagers do. The guy I loved in high school was a little older than me, smoked cigarettes, had long blond hair that he always had to brush out of his eyes. We got into most of the kinds of trouble that teenagers tend to get into. I had no inkling – not a spark, not a sign, not a clue – that my attraction to boys would morph into an attraction to girls.

But so it did, and even then I was slow to catch on. I thought it was just this one girl, this one summer, thought it was just a phase… But then there was a second girl. And a third. And to my surprise I eventually realized that I was a girl who liked girls.

I’ve been pretty lucky over the last 30 years. Nobody ever physically hurt me, nobody singled me out for bullying. Sure, once I was walking near Syracuse University, happily smitten and holding my girlfriend’s hand, and someone yelled out “faggot!” And there was a brief period of time where I’d get anonymous phone calls from someone who would hiss the word fag! and hang up. A woman I once considered a friend told me she didn’t mind that I was gay, but she probably wouldn’t let me babysit her kids. All of those were difficult experiences – upsetting, rattle-me-to-the-core experiences – but overall, I was spared the merciless taunting and harassment that so many kids and teenagers endure.

This contemporary version of harassment puzzles me a bit, in part because I teach in a college and I’ve witnessed attitudes change radically in the last decade or so. Students today are often very supportive of their gay and lesbian classmates. This is true in many high schools as well. Young people are, in general, more educated about homosexuality, more open, and more accepting.

At the same time, it’s almost impossible to walk down the halls of any middle school, high school or even college and not hear someone use the word “gay” in what is considered, often, a joking manner. “That’s so gay.” “You’re gay, dude.” “Quit it; that’s gay.”

If I asked anyone using the word in the above manner what they meant by it, here’s what they’d say: it has nothing to do with being gay. It’s just the way we talk. We’re just kidding around. Everybody says it.

I believe them.

I also believe that they should stop using the word in that way. Why?

Because it carries within it an insult. The insult might be subtle, it might be meant as a joke, it might even be said with affection, but gay – used in this way – equals less. Less cool, less important, less macho, less desirable, less accepted, less good, less normal. Less than everyone who’s not called gay. Just less.

And guess what? We hear you. We – all of us who are gay, whether happily so, or confusedly so, or newly so, or proudly so, or enduringly so – we hear you. We hear you mock us, laugh at us, trivialize us, intimidate us, bully us, demean us… we hear you. Even when you don’t know we’re listening. Even when you don’t know we’re gay. Even when you’d swear up and down that you didn’t mean anything by it. We hear you.

And, to be blunt, it hurts.

The words you think are funny – just stupid, meaningless jokes – are hurtful. We – your sisters and brothers, your cousins, your classmates, your neighbors and colleagues, your coworkers – get our feelings hurt just like you do and sometimes, for some of us, it’s hard to get over it.

When you’re a 13-year-old boy and teased relentlessly for being WHO YOU ARE, it’s hard to get over it.

When you’re a lonely 15-year-old girl who’s harassed relentlessly for being WHO YOU ARE, it’s hard to get over it.

When you’re an 18-year-old boy who’s videotaped and mocked for being WHO YOU ARE, it’s hard to get over it.

And so what, right? Everyone gets their feelings hurt, everyone has to learn to toughen up, everyone has to navigate a whole architecture of social constructs and social pressures and social cues and isn’t that what growing up is? Don’t we all have to deal with situations like this, where someone makes fun of us and we have to figure out how to get through it?

I guess so. Sure. Okay, yeah, lots of us go through it.

But for a significant number of gay and lesbian kids and teenagers and young adults, the difference is that they see no end to their struggle. They can’t imagine that it will get better. Plenty of adults, after all, are homophobic. It’s not uncommon to hear an adult mutter “faggot” or “homo” or to warn their kids that they better not turn out to be gay when they grow up. How can these kids imagine that it’ll get better, when grown-ups seem just as bad, or worse, than their peers? The adult world, in their eyes, doesn’t appear too promising.

I don’t know if I could have withstood being mocked or harassed or teased or bullied. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have. I’m pretty sure I would have become withdrawn and depressed and maybe even suicidal. I know I wouldn’t have been able to talk to my parents about it. Whether I could have confided in a friend or not, I don’t know. I don’t remember everything about my 14-year- old self, or my 18-year-old self, or even my 25-year-old self. But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t resilient enough to endure what some kids endure these days.

It seems like it takes a tragedy to wake people up. We have to hit bottom before we can find ways to improve. Well, five teenagers are dead this fall, all suicides, all gay. That seems like the bottom to me.

I don’t think it’s enough to reassure a depressed or frightened kid that it will get better. I believe it will – I know it will – and I love the campaign that celebrities have begun to support gay youth by telling their own stories and affirming that it does, indeed, get better. We have to do more than that though. We have to change our ways.

So I wonder… How hard would it be to start changing on the level of language? Would it hurt anyone to stop using the word “gay” in a derogatory or joking manner? Would it hurt anyone to stop calling people fags or queer? Would anyone’s life be diminished by taking that one baby step?

I’d appreciate it, from the bottom of my heart, if you could try.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this! The other day, I had heard one of my students commenting about something being "gay." Class hadn't started yet--there were only a handful of students there early. I looked up from my notes when I heard him but, unsure how or even if I should respond, I did nothing.

    I thought about that moment the rest of the day, trying to convince myself that I had done the right thing. Had he used the word "gay," in that manner in his writing, I could have left feedback on the inappropriateness of using such a word... but it was not my place, I thought, to comment on a student's personal conversation.

    Yet, after reading what you wrote, and thinking about that moment the other day in class, I wonder if it's not my place, as his college instructor, then whose place is it? Would I be overstepping my boundaries as a teacher to talk to this student in private after class about something not related to the course? I wonder, if he had said it during class rather than before, would I have acted differently? Should that even make a difference?

  2. I don't like the word "gay" tossed around like a football either. Thanks for writing this piece. I hope the right people get to read it.

  3. This is a wonderful post, Donna. Thank you.

    There are lessons aplenty here: we all share the common pain of words and bullying, in varying degrees. I was a target in high school. There is so much about my younger years that I do not think about. But that world of hurt lives on. Not a week goes by without having reason, usually unexpected, to recall the taunts and threats, and the humiliating secret about my daily life that I would not share at home.

    But when to intercede on behalf of others? When my daughter was editor of her high school paper, she wrote an editorial about the code on language. She said that if the school insisted on outlawing the classically banned four-letter variety, there should also be a ban on "fag," "stupid," "fat," and other harassing language that causes far more harm than a tired old "fuck." The school wrote its first-ever disclaimer as a footnote reminding students that my daughter's editorial did not necessarily reflect the opinion of the school.

    At some point, we just place our duty as fellow humans first: to defend, protect, educate, offer sanctuary. Our more rigid roles as teachers, parents, employers are not always our best platforms. Dorothy Day said, "You do not need permission to do good."

    Thanks again, Donna.


  4. Thank YOU, Jen and Vik and Marge and JOHN.

  5. The old saying..."walk a mile in my shoes"....holds true on so many much ignorance....bigotry-.....whether it be for being black....jewish.....and all the jokes based on things that are supposedly notorious for each group....'he(she)tried to jew me'....or even between blacks ...'the nigger said that to me....'
    Yes....and the thing that's part of the vernacular these days....'that's so gay'....and ironically, I've heard that from my own step-daughter who is gay.
    But that is only the tip of the iceberg of what goes on with intolerence for those who are different than what we as a society consider normal in this country...even in the world.
    Sadly Donna....we have a long way to go....but you have given me more to think about...thank you