Tuesday, February 26, 2013

But Words Will Never Hurt Me?

My hairdresser K does her thing in Brooklyn, where she, along with the rest of the staff, is punky, loud and fun. She knows all about my work doing campus LGBTQ work, and I've showed her many photos of my girlfriend, whose copper red curly locks are always a hit with those in the hair business.

I went to get my hair cut a couple weeks ago, and the place was mostly empty besides me and the three staff members closing up shop. One was controlling the music, and she clearly loved R&B, playing lots of R&B hits from the 90s. Her co-worker B, who was sweeping up hair from the day, starts berating her love of the genre. When the next very soulful song came on, B says scornfully, "God, you're such a homo."

My body reacted more than my brain--I immediately felt tense, like I had been caught.

Soonafter, K takes me over to wash my hair. We're chatting away and she says, "Yeah, my boyfriend is a total faggot..." Again, I felt the word physically, like it clunked in my chest.

Walking out of the shop an hour later, I interrogated myself. Why did I let the slurs slide? Why didn't I at least repeat their words to make them hear it, since they were clearly so second nature for them to say? How is it that I--someone who is paid to advocate for LGBTQ students, someone who has no problem debating issues of sexuality and gender, someone who has never had qualms about speaking up--was so silenced?

Mulling this over the last few weeks, the conclusion I've come to is that these words are most oppressive when they are said colloquially, because they are most difficult to contest in casual social interactions. If "homo" is spraypainted on a dorm wall, or "fag" held by a group of Westboro Baptist Church protestors, it's easier to see the slur and take it apart.

But when slurs whiz by you in spaces that are supposed to be friendly, or progressive, or quotidian, they're so much harder to call out...and therefore so much more painful.

Leave it to our northern neighbors to show this to us so clearly--the University of Alberta's Institute for Sexual Minorities Studies and Services launched NoHomophobes.com this summer, a website that tracks in real time the number of LGBTQ-related slurs people use on Twitter. Thus far they've found that "faggot" is used on Twitter almost a million times a month. (Warning: do not look at the website longer than a couple minutes...the volume of hateful language is probably not good for you.)

Recent screen shot of Nohomophobes.com, tabulating the hate speech on Twitter thus far today, including "Your lookin' extra faggot today" and "My 6 period teacher makes me sit in the back...with the dumb fucks because he's a faggot."
The Institute's Associate Director Kristopher Wells said it well, explaining to Think Progress that:
The use of homophobic language remains one of the few socially acceptable forms of discrimination in our society and make no mistake, leads to isolation, bullying, beatings, and tragically youth suicide. [...] Our use of casual homophobia must end.

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