Whoever said, sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me was obviously full of it. Words have enormous power to hurt or heal, and I suspect if you asked someone about the first time they were harassed because of their sexuality, gender, gender identity, race or ethnicity that they would remember it just as vividly as their first trip to the ER.
As LGBT youth, adults and families know all too well, name-calling, teasing and bullying isn't confined to just the playground, classroom, or cafeteria -- it can happen to anyone, anywhere. And as my wife, Alli, and I prepare for the birth of our first child -- an event I am so stoked for -- we have to learn when negative words, actions or reactions become a teaching moment.
I've been giving this particular issue a lot of thought ever since one such moment befell us this last Easter Sunday. We were out for a drink with a friend at a bar in upstate New York and the three of us were sitting outside, enjoying the sunshine when the bartender came out to talk to us. He took a seat and our friend -- the more gregarious of the group -- started a conversation with him. I was disinterested in his schmoozing as well as the free shots he promised us if we went inside to "bust the balls" of some of his regulars, but I did tell him that I thought he looked like the actor Mark Ruffalo.
He snorted. "Mark Ruffalo? That guy's a faggot."
My face immediately flushed and I flinched as though I had been slapped. Like many before him, this complete stranger had used one word to make being gay or gayness less than, an epithet, a put down. Before I knew it, I responded. "Hey, there's no need for slurs here."
Not-Mark Ruffalo looked at me blankly, confused as to what slur I was referring to. Maybe he was confused because we didn't look like people who would be offended by homophobic slurs; Alli and I weren't holding hands, kissing, sitting on each other's laps, or sporting matching rainbow flag tattoos. I had a choice: I could tell him I was offended by his comment because I am gay, or I could tell him I was offended by his comment because it's offensive and leave my personal life and identity out of it. This choice of whether or not to identify myself connoted a certain privilege that not all people from marginalized groups have the power to utilize, particularly people of color. Though I feared that making it "personal" would weaken my argument, I told him that I was gay and that what he said was offensive.
He blinked. I think it took a second to sink it, but when it did he (sort of) apologized. "Oh--I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend anyone. I'm not a bigot -- I have a gay cousin who I go camping with and he's never been offended by what I say so I just run my mouth a lot, but I'm sorry if I offended you. "
In retrospect, I wish I could have done a Zack Morris "Time Out," pausing time in order to collect myself and my thoughts before saying or doing anything else, but in real life we don't have such luxuries. Instead, I called him out for his watered down apology and hiding behind his gay cousin, but he wasn't having it. "I apologized, didn't I? Didn't I apologize?" At this point, his condescension unnerved me and I began pointing and gesticulating a lot, looking not unlike a possessed woman trying to explain that words hurt whether you are part of the targeted identity group or not. He repeatedly insisted he wasn't a bigot and he apologized again, ultimately suggesting that I should just let it go.
But I couldn't. Later that night, Alli and I discussed the pros and cons of calling out the bartender versus turning the other cheek. We talked about the likelihood of being able to change someone's mind on the use of slurs in a brief exchange, and the chances that you can even have a productive conversation when the slur used cuts you to the quick. Moreover, we asked ourselves if we have spent the better part of our lives "fighting the good fight" -- challenging stereotypes, racial scripts, gender(ed) limitations, assumptions about ability, and the presumptions of privilege -- can't we take a single day off and just drink a damn beer? Should our "differences" or status outside the heterosexual, male, racial norms mean that every moment has to be a teaching moment?
I don't know the answer, and I'm not sure that there is One answer with a capital "o." Every situation has balances of power, privilege and intelligibility that are impossible to dissect in the spilt second when you or your family's equality is at stake and red flashes before your eyes. In addition, each situation may be rife with more danger than others or involve unpredictable people with unpredictable reactions. As Alli pointed out, sometimes being safe is better than proving you're right.
However, I do know that I want our child with gay parents and a blended racial ethnicity to see that standing up to ignorance, bigotry, and verbal violence is a fight worth fighting, and that calls for equality and respect do not--and should not--end at our own personal stakes or identities, however we chose to express, blur, queer, or refuse these demarcations altogether. People of color, LGBT people and families, and other marginalized groups face these situations every day, and we must come together to challenge hate or ignorance where it appears.