Opinion: using unlikely language, Dan Savage empowers LGBT community

Marney Kline, Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in May, 2012 in a print edition of the Legend, but due to the piece recently winning 1st place (Opinions) in the California Press Women’s Association high school communication contest, we are now republishing it for the web.

 

When you hear the word “faggot,” you typically associate the utterance with hate speech, unpalatable slang, or perhaps a zinger aimed at the godless Homosexuals, spelled with a capital H. Yet lately, the term “faggot” has been reclaimed by none other than the objects of its wrathful intonation: Gay people. And who is to say the LGBT community should not resurrect the term from the politically incorrect garbage bin?

Author and performer Kirk Read, who wrote a coming-out memoir called “How I Learned to Snap,” appreciates “any word like ‘faggot’ that has that much power …. It has flames inside it. Otherwise people wouldn’t bother.” In a chapbook called “Hello Cleveland,” which Read created in February 2012, he ponders, “I don’t know who I hate more – George W. Bush or leftists with no sense of humor.”

In a similar spirit, Dan Savage, a gay writer, prominent LGBT rights advocate, and founder of the “It Gets Better Project,” addressed a crowd of student journalists in Seattle on April 13. “If your faith is solid, enduring an obnoxious faggot running his mouth for five minutes isn’t going to harm it,” he said in response to students who walked out of the auditorium during his keynote presentation.

Approximately 20 students from Arrowhead Christian Academy in Redlands, Calif. vacated two rows of seats and exited the room after Savage said, “We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity.” He cited how, during the Civil War, slave-owners “waved Bibles over their heads” to justify their so-called right to own other human beings.

While his choice of language made some audience members squirm — and provoked a storm of protest on CNN, the Huffington Post and Fox News — Savage made it clear that he spoke out of a genuine interest to educate and start conversation, not to condemn or insult.

Even so, some were offended. A 16-year-old Mormon from Utah, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that she has a gay sister whom she and her parents accept. Still, Savage offended her because he “put others down to put himself above them … he didn’t need to do that.”

When Savage finished presenting, a student named Nathan Coffing from New Mexico rose from the crowd during the question-and-answer session to announce that, without the support network of the “It Gets Better” video project, in which people talk about their experiences as gay Americans, he could not have mustered the courage to tell his parents that he was gay.

But the F-word still stung. “Somebody pushed me and called me a faggot,” he said, “… so I punched him in the face.” Even for gay Americans who want to reclaim it, “faggot” is a word that hurts just as the “n-word” hurts African Americans.

Despite Coffing’s violent but perhaps temporarily effective reaction, anti-LGBT bullying is a widespread, ugly, and largely untold story in schools today. Not only does it raise depression and suicide rates among LGBT students, but among straight students, too. According to a Penn State Counselor Education Newsletter published in March 2011, “44 percent (of LGBTQ youth) reported being physically harassed due to their perceived sexual orientation.” The key word here is “perceived”: Along with active sweat glands, acne, and other verities of the adolescent condition, youths face pressure to deny yet another natural occurrence: Homosexuality. Even straight kids get anxious about being “perceived” as gay to the untrained eye of an eager homophobic. Thus, anxiety and depression rates are higher in communities that tolerate anti-gay bullying, Savage said.

But there’s another F word involved here, and that’s feminism. According to Savage, a recent study at University of Illinois, funded by the Centers for Disease Control, found that “the single biggest contributing factor to sexual harassment of female students is anti-gay bullying.”

Why? “Because if you go to a school where the worst thing that can be said about you is that you’re gay, you will be the target of violence if you are perceived to be gay,” Savage explained. “And what is the quickest way to disprove that charge? It is to be seen physically assaulting or sexually harassing a female student by a crowd.”

While Urban needs little convincing that everyone has a right to love anyone, even in a sexual way, most of the world does not seem to get it: Homophobia, name-calling, and Bible-wielding tantrums are all too common. There are too many F words in our world. Perhaps Christian pundits enjoy a hearty debate, but when it comes to defining religious freedom as the right to oppress, dictate, or malign another group of people, one has to ask where we draw the line.

Which brings us back to the F word. While the Bible provides hope and complacency to many, we must also recognize that it’s a very crusty old document with some inevitably backwards opinions. Besides, “God” is a fluid concept, an ambiguous noun. Every believer has his or her own notion of what “it” represents.

So the next time the Christian Right cites Leviticus 18:22 as evidence that “it is abomination” to lay down with the same sex that you happen to be,” members of the gay community should rise up and say: “Excuse me, but my god is a faggot.”