As gay and lesbian issues come to the foreground of mainstream America, awareness of gay and lesbian slurs is growing. But I am not sure tolerance for them is decreasing.
Avid MTV fans have, I hope, seen the public service announcements featuring Judy Shepard, mother of the slain Matthew Shepard. Each segment begins with jump cuts of angry teens walking down a hallway saying, "Fag" and "Homo." Judy Shepard then appears on the screen to ask us to speak up the next time we hear this type of discrimination. She finishes by tearfully warning us that we might not have a second chance.
Strangely enough, the misuse of the word "gay" has been an issue in my house for a few years now. For some reason, my best friend and I found it humorous to refer to things as "gay." Watching television, we commented on an actor or actress whom we didn't like as "gay." After seeing a movie we didn't particularly enjoy, we looked at each other and exclaimed, "That was so gay."
The sophomoric humor went on and on, much to the annoyance of my partner.
Whenever he hears us call something "gay," he asks us to stop. But for some childish reason we didn't. Then this month, while pursuing the latest issue of Out, I read an essay by author Eric Marcus on this very same topic.
It turns out that despite growing up around Marcus and his partner, Marcus' young nephew Ryan had picked up gay and lesbian slurs from his classmates at school. Most important, he didn't make the connection between his gay uncle and the idea of the gay people he was discriminating against when he used certain words.
The story went something like this: Because of a discussion with Marcus related to a new book he is working on, Ryan's parents asked him if he knew that his uncle Barney, Marcus' partner, is gay. Ryan said he didn't know. That night Ryan asked his father, "Is Uncle Barney gay?" His father, who was surprised by the question because Ryan has known Marcus and his partner since he was a toddler, answered yes.
Next Ryan asked, "Well, if Uncle Barney is gay, what does that mean about Uncle Eric?"
Ryan's father answered, "Well, he's gay, too."
Ryan answered, "How can they be gay? I thought 'gay' was something nasty."
Sometimes, when I try to make an excuse for my childish practices, I tell my partner that I am trying to take back the power of these words, "gay, homo and fag" in the same way activists tried to reappropriate the word "queer" with the establishment of groups such as Queer Nation. Of course, the point that I don't mention is that while I say I am trying to take back these words, I am not using them in any kind of powerful, affirming or positive manner.
If, as an out gay man, I have such a cavalier attitude about putting myself and my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters down, how can I expect anything different from other people? If I am truly honest about where this behavior comes from, I would have to say it is because I think I have never been the victim of discrimination because of my sexual orientation -- at least as far as I know.
Of course, that doesn't give me the right to abuse that luxury. Nor should I allow myself to live blindly disregarding the fact that we gays and lesbians can still lose homes, jobs and in many cases our lives -- all because of whom we love.
Happily, for both me and my partner, I am ridding myself of this embarrassing habit. More and more I am speaking up when I hear someone misusing the words "gay," "homo" or "fag." I find that these types of situations are a good opportunity to talk to people in an honest way about my life and what it means to be gay -- and make it clear that gay is OK.