Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sticks and Stones [DRAFT] [UPDATED]

Words are words. Words are just sounds and images that the important people of society's past put together and then they put a meaning to different combinations and called it "language." Over time, we, as a collective society, have altered these meanings, added new combinations, and taken away old ones. I'll be the first to say that age-old mantra of Cultural Studies: Language is arbitrary.

You can call me anything. The words themselves don't mean a thing to me. I used to get really up in arms about the word "dyke." These days, I've been known to use it myself, even sometimes to describe me (though not in a negative, name-calling way). My problem with the word "dyke" was a very simple one. "Dyke" was (and is, I think, still) the lesbian version of "fag." Whenever I'd heard it used, it was with complete malice... or, so I thought. People called you a "dyke" because they hated lesbians, and they hated that they thought you were one, whether you were one or not. I was naive and thought that people were honestly intelligent and thoughtful enough to at least hate you for what they thought to be true.

Then came the advent of "That's so gay." And, again, I seethed at the homophobia that ran rampant around my high school hallways. I lashed out at friends who used the phrase into their conversations. It got to the point where, whenever it would slip out of someone around me, the speaker would instantly apologize to me to avoid being lectured. I'm not proud of that, but I can't say I'm ashamed, either.

And then I realized that this had nothing to do with gay people at all. Well, I mean, part of it did, but not the part that included my friends and peers.

Clearly, whoever started using "dyke" and "faggot" to refer to lesbian/gay people did it with the intention of isolating that section of their identity. It began with homophobia, and it continues to exist because of homophobia, but it also continues to exist merely because of a lack of education. Most of these people don't actually have a problem with gay/lesbian people. "That's so gay" began because of a negative connotation attached to gay identity, but the kids in my school that picked it up did so out of the mere fact that being constantly surrounded by a certain dialect will cause you to eventually emulate it. Many of my friends told me they didn't mean it, it was "just a figure of speech," but I didn't believe them. Now, I do believe them.

But I don't excuse them. Like I said, just because you don't mean it that way doesn't mean that everyone doesn't mean it that way. And it definitely doesn't mean that that's not how it started because, hey, out of all the words in the English dictionary to use as a new way to express disgust, you mean to tell me someone picked the word "gay" out of a hat? I may not be smart but I ain't dumb.

I started thinking about this at work the other day. I get along with my coworkers pretty well. We have a good rapport, I like all of them (aside from one exception who, I recently discovered, nobody else likes either), we've got each other's backs, etc. And although I have a really hard time integrating with most of the rest of society for a plethora of reasons, I do enjoy being in their company.

Also, I am lucky enough to not have to be closeted at work. They all ask me about my girlfriend, I have "girl talk" about her to the girls and, albeit with good intentions, the guys invite me to have "guy talk" with them, though I politely decline.

But I can't help noticing the kind of language that gets thrown around the store while I'm there. Bad music gets described as "faggy shit." A disliked character on television is "such a queer." Strict parents are "just so gay." I know what I said, that they don't mean it that way, they don't even understand what it is they're saying. They obviously don't understand or mean it because they say it while I'm there--sometimes even in conversations with me.

But that's the problem, isn't it? They don't understand what they're saying. They don't understand that, these are just words, but they're words that stem from a way of thinking that has killed and assaulted and tormented generations of people simply for being who they are. And until people understand what they're saying, nothing is going to change. As long as "gay," "queer," "fag," "dyke," are synonymous with "stupid," "pathetic," "weak" and "disgusting," the true extent of discrimination, hate, abuse, assault, violence, and the like goes unnoticed.

I labeled this a draft because it's clearly all over the place with barely any comprehensible content and an unclear thesis that I changed halfway through writing it (sounds like all my papers in college high school).

What I'm trying to say, in all different ways, is that the problem I have with this isn't words and what they mean because I recognize that language is fluid and I love that about it. It's with the fact that a majority of society doesn't understand what their words are saying about themselves and what their words are doing in the grand scheme of things. You know? How do I get people to understand why it's more than just a figure of speech? I don't have to get them to care, just get them to know.

As if right on cue, I had an interesting interaction with one of my co-workers today. A woman came into the store who didn't speak very much English--this is not an uncommon thing at my store, which is located near a bus stop that goes to New York City, meaning that we get a lot of tourists and a lot of immigrants who commute for work or what have you. I guess that my co-worker had a hard time communicating with her, and when she left the store, he came over to me. "Do you have any Spanish in you?" he asked me. I thought he was trying to see if anyone in the store spoke Spanish so that if another Spanish-speaking customer came in, someone else could handle it. I said, "A little Portuguese, but no Spanish." Without missing a beat, he responded with, "I fucking hate spics."

This is not the first time I've dealt with racism at work, either, and it's always with this specific coworker. He is seemingly a very sweet person... if you're white. He's told me of his hatred for black people, Asian people, Spanish people, and Middle Eastern people--you know, basically anyone who isn't white. I won't make myself into a saint and say that I've tried to discourage his behavior. I haven't, because he never speaks intelligently enough for me to engage him long enough to do so without feeling my brain cells go kamikaze in my skull. But excuses, excuses, I should say something, shouldn't I?

What struck me about this, though, was his initial question. If I had said I was Spanish, that could have gone one of two ways: 1) He didn't say anything at all; or B) he possibly lashed out his anger on me. I'm inclined to think that the former would have been his reaction.

So... what's the difference between me being Spanish and me being queer? He has no qualms about slinging anti-gay phrases around when I'm at work, why should he care if he offends my heritage? I'm not going to make an argument for or against the idea of racism and homophobia being related/similar/identical issues and don't take any of this to be related to that argument because it's not. But, in this situation, I have to make a comparison and ask the question: what is the difference? People are wary of being racist, especially in public, because there are laws, number one, and number two, racism is generally something that is looked down upon--well, at least, blatant derogatory statements are, I won't go into anything else because, well, you're probably already bored and that's not what this blog is about, is it?

But homophobia isn't generally looked down upon yet. In liberal areas, yes, it is, but even so, that's on a larger scale. Calling a gay man a faggot on the street in front of strangers would surely get you dirty looks and possibly a shiner in most places, but what about in these cases: 18-20 year old boys calling each other "queer" while walking limp-wristed and talking lispy at one another in jest, asking each other, "What is this faggy shit on the radio? I hate this song, it's so gay." They're just being kids, right? Boys will be boys, won't they? And being a boy means not being a girl. And, besides, it's (say it with me now) just a figure of speech. It's not like they're homophobic or anything.

I'm so tired of that argument. "I'm not homophobic, but..." If you have to start a sentence with that phrase, you're about to say something homophobic. Calling things you don't like "queer" "gay" "faggy" etc. is HOMOPHOBIA whether or not you think you mean it to be. It means that you associate these terms with things that you consider to have negative qualities. Yes, it does and yes, you do. I can hear all those high school kids out there now, screaming at their computer monitors, "I have gay friends! I bought a 'Legalize Gay' shirt at American Apparel! I love watching 'Glee!' How can I be homophobic by saying words that I don't mean?"

If you don't mean it, don't say it. Simple as that. "Faggy shit" is just as easily replaced with "shitty music," "pile of shit," "sack of cats being drowned in hydrochloric acid" when you're talking about music. Or anything. Don't say words that you don't mean. It's not just a figure of speech, it's proliferation of discrimination and hate that a lot of people have been working really goddamn hard to eradicate since before you or even I were but a speck of dust on this Earth. So shut the fuck up and think before you speak. Thanks.

Whatever I'm laughing at me for being a Twitter bug, too, but TG World News posted this article from MetroWeekly that talks about this issue in a shorter and better post than mine.


  1. Do you still point it out? I know I always respond to a statement like that, "What do you really mean by that statement?" Then they really have to think about it. They have to admit that what they really wanted to say was "That's so dumb." And then, sometimes, you see a glimmer of understanding. That maybe "gay" isn't the best adjective.

    But in the end lets face it. They took analogies out of the SAT so people aren't really good at making connections like that on their own. :-P Sometimes they need a little push.

    I'm working with a guy this summer from The Gambia and when I came out to him he stopped speaking to me for a few weeks. This was the response I expected. I've been to Africa and this was at least a non-confrontational response. I am probably the first openly gay person he has ever known. Then in the past week he has begun to warm up to me again. I really hope that this continues so that he gains maybe some respect for and understanding about queer people. Because like you said in your previous post. We need to befriend the people who might not like us. And if they know you are a normal person, who they like to interact with. Then they can't hate you.

  2. Honestly, I wish I could say that I'm as adamant about pointing it out as I should be, but I'm not. I'm getting really tired of fighting it and that's awful and I wish I wasn't but I'm just so frustrated all the time, you know? Sometimes, honestly, I'm just so tired of being angry that all I have the energy to do is be angry inside myself.

    While I agree with your second point mostly, I worry about the "show them we're normal" argument because it still requires us to define something as "normal." It echoes a bit of heteronormativity to me that makes me a little uncomfortable. Like, what about you made him warm up to you after you came out to him? That you don't act like a dyke stereotype, whatever that means? I mean, what could he possibly have thought was going to be so different about you? And what if whatever he thought had been true? Would it then have been okay for him to still be cold to you? It just sounds like the "I don't care if you're gay as long as you act straight in public" thing to me sometimes, you know? Which is bullshit within itself because that's just a proliferation of gender roles and expectations because what they really mean is "men act like men and women act like women and everything will be okay." (Sorry this is super long, I'm still not really back on East Coast time so I'm simultaneously overtired and wide awake)

  3. What I mean by it is that he was able to see that I wasn't the evil person gay people are made out to be. It wasn't that I was fitting into a specific role that made him accept me. But he was able to see past even for one second the piles and piles of stories that are told about gay people. How they are horrible and deserve to die. I like to think that gay people to him can no longer be faceless mean people who shake the throne of God (long's one of the ones about how gay people are bad and it all has to deal with gay people making God's throne shake). Gay people are humans with faces. Thats what I mean by normal. Normal as human.

    And if he hadn't warmed up to me. Then I'm sure he still wouldn't be talking to me. He's in the minority here. So there isn't much he can do about it. And I know he has talked with other people I work with about gay people and what people in the States think about gay people. And I hope that he continues to have dialogues with others about it. And I hope that it might change his opinions forever. But also to completely go against everything I said in my first post....I never would have come out to someone who wasn't American when I was in the Middle East. I would have been putting my head on the chopping block. So there is another problem. Is there a time when it is better to be closeted? How does one negotiate things like being queer where it is punishable by death? I feel safe fighting those laws from the states. But I wouldn't fight while I was in that country. Am i just being a huge hypocrite? Probably. But I also don't want to go to jail. And I hear being stoned to death isn't all that fun. And now it is late and I am rambling. Hope some of this made sense.....

  4. It totally makes sense. And I do totally agree with the idea that homophobic (or any type of discrimination-inclined) people need to know someone in that group in order to lose their gross misconceptions and see past the lies they've been told. Which is really the motivation for people to come out, in my opinion.

    But, again, this all goes back to my post about privilege. I'd like to say that I would have the guts to fight for my rights in a place where death was a possibility, but honestly, I don't know that I could. This echoes my thoughts on my privilege, I can't say that I'd have been as open about myself if I didn't come from a place where I knew I'd definitely be safe. I think that I could have dealt with verbal harassment and violence might not have stopped me, but not the threat of death. And definitely not with open parental disapproval. I used to think that it wouldn't bother me, but my complete inability to talk to my parents about my gender issues is really speaking volumes about the amount of courage that I think I have.

  5. I think you have an amazing amount of courage. Even if you don't mention it to them you know that to some extent they wonder. And at least that might start a productive, and productive being the key word here, conversation in the future. Remember that feeling of fear we all have before we came out for the first time? And for the most part coming out worked out well for the both of us. Now you just need to come out about something else. And I think that no matter what we need to remember that our parents can change. My mother used to cry to me on a weekly basis about my sister and I being queer and about a week ago she mentioned to me that she wanted to go to a PFLAG meeting this upcoming Monday. 2 years ago I never would have seen this as being a possibility. Especially with my father and his views about...well everything....and he has been wonderful recently.

    One of my favorite Middle Eastern scholars is a woman named Nawal al-Saadawi and in her memoir from when she was imprisoned for her writing she says something that sounds like this...fear is ignorance. if we knew what death was then we wouldn't be scared of it...And I think this is how it works for pretty much everything. We all run the worst possibilities through our heads before we make decisions. Then we dwell on those bad possibilities and push the good results aside. And it sucks that the only way to become knowledgeable is by doing the very thing that we are terrified of.

  6. Also can I make a request that you have some sort of post about lesbian sex. Watch episode 4 of "The Real L Word" if you need inspiration (it's on youtube). Shakes head. Oh the monsters that Ilene Chaken creates.