A few years ago I had the good fortune to find myself spending my afternoons in an elementary school music class working as a teaching assistant. The classes in which I worked were mostly filled with pre-teens in grades seven and eight -- possibly the most awkward of awkward ages. Not quite a teenager but no longer a small child, it's a period in my own life that I am grateful to have emerged from mostly unscathed. I don't think I can say the same about some of the young people with whom I worked, a few of whom were victims of what I call "casual homophobia" from a very young age. The recent suicide of Tyler Clementi has inspired me to reminisce about my experience being around the vicious and destructive language of schoolyard ignorance, and the genuine acts of prejudice it often inspires.
There was an interesting episode of "South Park" recently that addressed the evolutionary nature of the definitions of words. In the episode, Cartman and the gang denounce Harley Davidson-toting bikers as "fags," but without the implication that they were addressing their sexuality. In the episode, the word "fag" was used in place of "loser" or "idiot." The message was clear: to call someone a "fag" shouldn't necessarily be understood to be addressing one's sexuality. However, the fact remains that words like "loser" and "idiot" are inarguably negative, damning depictions of an individual, and when "fag" is used in place of them, the implication is clear: to be a "fag" is not a good thing.
I can recall countless examples from my experience working in an elementary school of kids tossing around "fag" and "gay" to insult each other. I've wondered often over the past couple of weeks about the effect that might have had on the psyche of the gay members of that classroom; forced every day to enter a hostile environment in which they felt socially isolated, and unaccepted. I've also wondered whether or not they ever managed to escape the prejudice and intolerance they experienced when I knew them. I'm not optimistic. I'm currently studying at the graduate level, and I have encountered several individuals at my institution who still toss around this type of deprecating language; often in jest, but no less detrimental to combating the very real, and very serious social issue of casual homophobia.
Some make the argument that saying something is "gay" in place of "stupid," or calling someone a "fag" instead of a "loser" is harmless under the right circumstances and between consenting parties, though I posit the following in response: for a 12 or 13-year-old in the first throes of sexual maturity who may be forced to confront his or her own homosexuality, growing up understanding "gay" to be negative is never a pleasant experience. I cannot speak for the LGBT community of which I am not a part, but I can speak for someone who has witnessed firsthand some of the consequences for gay adolescents whose environments forced them to believe that their sexuality is synonymous with negative qualities. When "fag" or "gay" become accepted as negative characteristics, no matter the actual implications, using them to insult someone is never acceptable. This type of casual homophobia has the potential to do very serious damage to the fragile psyche of an adolescent, and social alienation, isolation, fear and depression are often soon to follow.
The circumstances that directly led to the suicide of Tyler Clementi were not mere playground bullying, of course -- Tyler was outed over the Internet by his roommate -- but the mentality that inspires this and similarly destructive acts of ignorance is birthed through language. When young people grow up with the equation "gay = negative" firmly entrenched in their psyche, genuinely destructive acts of prejudice are almost imminent. Parents have a responsibility to their children, as well as everyone else's children, to be clear that "gay" and "fag" are not synonymous with negative adjectives, and are never acceptable insults.
Author Joe Klein made an interesting remark on a recent episode of "Real Time with Bill Maher," in asserting that the current generation of young people is always, relatively speaking, less prejudiced than the one that preceded it. There is a part of me that accepts his argument, particularly in light of the widespread condemnation of homophobia the loss of Tyler Clementi has provoked. However, the casual prejudice that I still see around me every day frequently leads me to believe otherwise. I hope I'm wrong.