Hate begins with words—but here’s the good news: you don’t have to put up with it.
About five years ago, I was having dinner with a group of friends at a cheese-and-pasta joint in L.A., when Kerry—one of my closest straight buds—leaned in over a glass of red wine and told a story that began, “So this queer walks into a doctor’s office…..” At first I thought he was putting me on—we’d been tight for most of our adult lives and he’d known I was gay right from the start. For that matter, so had everybody else at the table. But they were all laughing!!!
* * *
Derek Henkle was a high school student in Reno, Nevada. His curriculum included math, English, literature and science, along with daily attacks by groups of boys who (a) systematically beat the crap out of him; (b) tossed him into a locker and bolted the door shut; (c) spit lunch all over him just for the hell of it; and (d) strung a lasso around his neck so they could “drag a queer” behind a pickup truck. The compassionate principal, of course, was quick to address the problem. “I won’t have you acting like a fag,” he told Derek, ending the discussion before it had begun.
* * *
Anthony Colin and Heather Zetin, students at El Modena High School in Southern California, were denied permission to form a Gay-Straight Alliance on campus because it wasn’t an acceptable extra-curricular activity. So Tony and Heather invented an extra-curricular activity of their own: They booted the school district’s ass into court, won a preliminary injunction, and had their GSA waiting for them on the first day of the new semester. But something else was waiting for them that day as well: an angry group of allegedly nurturing parents, held back by police barricades and shouting things at the kids like, “No faggots at El Modena” and “Keep the dykes out of our schools.”
* * *
Okay, pop quiz:
Q. What do these three events have in common?
A. Hate begins with words.
Remember that moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke runs into an imaginary Darth Vader in the underground cave, lops off his head with a light saber and then discovers his own face under Vader’s mask? This was Yoda’s not-so-subtle way of teaching young Skywalker (and us) how easy it is to turn into the enemy. And if Yoda were gay (let’s face it—he’s single, he knows how to cook, and he doesn’t have any 18-inch girlfriends with big ears), he’d be the first to point out that every time we allow a word like “faggot” to slip into hyperspace unchallenged, the Dark Side grows a little bit stronger—whether Matthew Shepard is being strung up on a fence post in Wyoming or your friends are unintentionally bashing you over shrimp scampi in North Hollywood. Exactly how many “fags” does it take before somebody is looping a rope around a 16-year-old’s neck? How many times had I let Kerry get away with “poofter” before he’d escalated to “swish” and finally to “queer”? How many of us sit silent like that witless Dorothy Maguire in Gentleman’s Agreement (though far more tastefully dressed) without taking a stand?
The trick is learning how to say “no.”
1. You’re 13 years old and attempting to work your way through eighth grade. As if Julius Caesar weren’t enough of an impediment to adolescence, you’re stuck with a class bully named Nardiello who looks like a medicine ball with feet and whose entire vocabulary appears to be derived from The Dictionary of Disparaging Invective. Don’t even think about hiding from him; these people know how to track us down as though they were heat-seeking missiles. The best you can do is be prepared for the first assault, which will probably be in the form of a debonair query along the lines of “Hey, faggot—you some kinda queer?”
What Not to Do: Don’t point out that “Hey, faggot—you some kinda queer?” is actually sort of redundant when you think about it. Not if you want to keep your teeth.
What to Do: Hold your ground. Answer the question only after he’s rephrased it; “Hey, you gay or something?” is okay. By now, of course, you’ll probably have him so confused he’ll back off anyway—these people tend to thrive on intimidation, and without it they lose. In my particular scenario, Nardiello offered a few half-hearted morsels of contempt, then moved on to his next victim and never harassed me again; in fact, on a few rare occasions he even called me by my first name. (I’d hate to think I actually earned the respect of somebody like that—who the hell needs approbation from Jabba the Hutt?)
Note: This doesn’t always work out quite so well. Two years later, when I tried the same routine on Bruce Garrison, I wound up getting slugged anyway—but at least it was on my own terms. So recognize the risks, but don’t back down. Derek Henkle didn’t.
2. Eleventh grade. Now you’re 16. Catcher in the Rye is the first title on your junior English list and you’ve been looking forward to it since sophomore year. But during an in-class discussion, Mr. Havens refers to Holden’s former teacher as a “pervert”. And thirty-one other kids in the classroom are taking him at his word.
Play dumb. Ask him what he means by “pervert”. Eventually, you’ll force him to admit that pervert=homosexual. Then, as you feign further bewilderment (hey, you’re a gay kid—theatre’s in your blood), you’ll want to find out why on earth federal and state governments would be endorsing civil unions, hate crimes bills and domestic partner legislation for perverts? By now Mr. Havens ought to be overtly—and deliciously—hostile, at which point he’ll probably change the subject.
The Upside: You’ve just educated 31 kids the right way.
The Downside: Gay or not, you’re going to wind up with a reputation as a pain-in-the-ass liberal. Good job. That’s how you get elected to Congress.
3. Your parents know you’re gay, but they’re not exactly home free with it yet. That part’s cool; give them time. But don’t allow them to get away with anything, either.
I knew that educating my father was going to be an uphill climb. This was a man who’d take me out to dinner, have three martinis, and then begin discussing women’s breasts. In anatomically vivid detail. When I was 12. But if you play your cards right, there’s always a way to turn the tables on guys like that:
DAD: I don’t get it. What can fags DO with each other?
ME: Use that word one more time and I’ll tell you.
DAD: (Hasty.) Forget I said anything!
4. You’re eating shrimp scampi in North Hollywood with a group of your friends. Over a glass of Merlot, your straight bud Kerry leans in to tell a story.
KERRY: So this queer walks into a doctor’s office and—
YOU: Don’t go there.
KERRY: Sorry, man.
No, you can’t change the whole world by yourself. But you can make absolutely certain that your corner of it stays clean.
And you won’t even need a light saber to do it.