I participated in a conversation on Facebook a while back regarding the word “retard”. A friend posted this PSA from Glee and a conversation ensued. A number of people with disabilities responded to say, “Thanks. This word hurts; I don’t like it when people use it to refer to me or anything else they don’t like.”
Surprisingly, a number of people responded to say the “r-word” is a useful word, not at all harmful, and should still be used. One person cited the Mayo Clinic to support his claim. As expected, people with disabilities who had spoken up disagreed vehemently. I was also upset. Despite what people with disabilities said about the word, people without disabilities were saying, “The word isn’t hurtful; get over the fact that people are going to use this word. As long as I don’t hurt someone with disabilities, I can use the “r-word”.”
When I spoke up about why I disagreed with their claims, I asked myself several times, “Given all the evidences I’ve provided that the r-word is harmful and hurts people, how would I like them to respond to what I’ve said?” I guess I wanted them to admit they were wrong, they understand how the word is hurtful, and then promise to never use the word again. Perhaps that was too much to ask.
This past weekend I observed a similar conversation transpire via social media. The word this time was “fag”. This cut a little closer to home, especially given the larger context of recent personal experiences. I had just come home from a USU basketball game. At the game, USU fans had been shouting gay slurs at referees who made bad calls, members of the opposing team, and anyone else they disagreed with or didn’t like. There I sat with Dan; it felt like we were being compared to all those people. What stung most is that we were essentially being compared to BYU fans: ouch. (Sarcasm intentional. Not all BYU fans are bad people. I even have a few friends who are BYU fans). So when I came home and read social media — actual written words — that again compared me to someone that is despised, it triggered my “ganger” (i.e., gay anger). I had to speak up.
Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church
Surprisingly, when I spoke up I was met with all forms of justification for why it is okay to use the word “fag” to refer to someone you don’t like. I rebutted with nothing more than my personal experience: I am gay and I don’t like the use of the word fag (or any other gay slur) that compares me to things and people that are disliked. That wasn’t enough for some people. Because I’m gay and not straight, I didn’t have enough authority to say what is okay and what is not okay to call me. Here is one of the responses that illustrates the point well:
In my ganger, potential responses boiled and festered inside (none of which were shared): Please. You don’t understand me, and there’s no way in hell you’ll ever understand. You’re wrong (and straight); I’m right (and gay). My message to her and anyone else that justifies using gay slurs was knock it off:
Given all the evidences I can provide that the f-word is harmful and hurts people, how would I like others to respond to me? I guess I want them to admit they are wrong and I’m right. It never occurred to me until recently that maybe this is what it’s all about: everyone wants the other party to admit they are wrong, we naturally want the other party to bend, and we want to remain secure in our own paradigm. Perhaps that’s the difficulty of it: admitting you were in the wrong means a change in paradigm. Until recently, I never had the courage to change my own paradigm.
The day after USU kicked BYU’s butt, I called someone out publicly for using the f-word on social media. Since then, he removed the posts and apologized. In fact, everything he’s done over the last 24 hours exceeded my expectations. I guess you could say I didn’t think he, or anyone, would own up and admit wrong. Well, I was wrong. Here is an awesome message from Matt (aka Faf):
As the old saying goes, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Absurd as it may sound, nothing but truth bleeds from that statement. Words carry power. Words carry a lot of power. Another thing that carries an incredible amount of power is human emotion. Human emotion is something so strong and so often indescribable that even words can’t even hold the power to convey human emotion.
For as much good as words can provide, there are also others that can do tremendous damage. Days ago, I found myself on the side of wrongdoing when I chose to use the word “fag” in reference to a rival team’s fan base the day before a big game. That usage was wrong of me, and my reasoning as to why inhibition escaped me in that moment was that, to me, that word had never meant to me what it means to the gay community.
But I didn’t stop there. When a friend of mine pointed out my wrongdoing, I brushed that aside in hopes that I could make some stand in defense of a word that I felt meant something different to me than it meant to others. I brushed that aside in thinking that my own selfish interpretation of the word was more credible than the hurtful context it held for others. Referencing things like TV sitcoms and stand-up comedian’s interpretations of the word “fag”, I tried to rationalize using that word that deep down I knew I shouldn’t use.
I was stubborn, selfish and stupid. It wasn’t until I took a step back and saw that I had even tried to rationalize my actions to a very close friend of mine who most likely would have felt the negativity of those actions. A day after the bulk of the debate with the first friend of mine to call me out regarding the issue, the bigger picture became clear to me about what was really important, why my stance was wrong, and the impact it could have on others.
Regardless of whatever perceived multiple meanings they may have, slur words need to be avoided entirely based solely on just one meaning that negatively affects any certain group of people. While my own previous interpretation of the word “fag” had not been intended as hurtful or derogatory toward the gay community, intent is irrelevant if emotional damage is done, especially in a case when emotional damage could have been avoided. Standing by a misguided personal interpretation of a word that is hurtful to others is not right.
Words affect people, whether you interpret their meaning as one way or another, using words that slur others carry weight. And the weight that some people carry in regards to certain words is a burden of oppression and hate. Somewhere there is somebody that has had that word used against them to belittle them and make them feel like less of a person because of their sexual orientation. And NOBODY is less of a person for any natural qualities about themselves, nor should they ever have to feel ashamed or belittled about who they are.
No matter how they are interpreted to some, no matter what context they are used and no matter how much you may think don’t affect others, slurs hurt people. And the only way to avoid that hurt is to completely erase them from our vocabularies. It’s a worthwhile change that benefits everybody.
Matt gave me permission through his own example to change my own paradigm in those moments when I realize I’m wrong. This is one of those moments; I have owning up to do. I never thought he might be on my side. In fact, I assumed anyone who uses the f-word hates gay people. After the dust settled, he sent me a personal message in which he communicated he is a supporter — an ally. Specifically, he supported anti-discrimination ordinances passed in Logan — my home — a while back that gave LGBTQ individuals employment and housing protections. To Matt, and others who encouraged the passing of these ordinances, I offer my gratitude. Fear of being fired or kicked out of my home simply for being gay isn’t much of a fear anymore. I believe that Matt has every reason to hold his head high and walk away from this experience knowing he made a positive impact on at least one life (mine). I’ll be taking this experience with me as I move forward in life.
Matt sums up the message well :
I came to this realization the hard way, both by making an idiot of myself and by hurting several people close to me that I never had any intention of hurting. Don’t make the same mistake as I did. Let my lesson be your lesson. There’s already too much hate in this world without good people using hurtful words. Make a change for the better, and in turn, make the world better.
The Angel Walk in Laramie, WY. Family and friends of Matthew Shepard dressed as angels to visually block the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church
If you were touched by Faf’s message, let him know and share his message. He can be reached on Twitter (@RefractionFaf).