By June Liu
"He called me a faggot," Phillip mutters.
"Who is 'he'?"
I first met Ken and Phillip the night before at a gathering in the Leopard Lounge of the Norwegian Gem Christmas cruise. The gathering seemed almost too good to be true. Eight teenagers began the evening as strangers and, within minutes, we were talking comfortably.
Phillip and I discovered we both love dance, and he invited me to ice cream in the dining hall. I was perfecting the swirl on my cone when Phillip tapped my shoulder.
"Can I tell you something kinda personal?" he asked.
My ice cream cone wobbled in my hand as I nodded.
"I'm bisexual," he said.
"Cool!" I replied.
Yes, so cool to a New Yorker like me -- a screenwriter and journalist in search of intriguing stories and characters. Yet, this story evolved beyond "cool" in complicated ways as my morals and values forced me to challenge Ken, who had also become a friend. It was easy for me to play the role of comforter to Phillip. However, confronting Ken, who attended a conservative Christian school in rural Pennsylvania, was emotionally demanding.
My heart raced as I approached Ken. I didn't know what to expect when I entered Phillip and Ken's story as a new character. I didn't have lines prepared or any idea how the scene would unfold. I acted on my values of tolerance, sharing them with Ken. I also listened to him: "There aren't any gay people where I come from." Ultimately, I convinced him to apologize to Phillip. However on the cruise's final night, Ken calls Phillip a faggot again. Phillip smashes Ken's face into the elevator, telling me with a disturbing satisfaction: "He got what he deserved."
I was saddened that my impact on Ken was so minimal, but learned that confronting controversy often produces complicated and unsatisfying results. A few months later, I volunteered to write a spoof about Mr. Smith, a controversial biology teacher, for the humor issue of the school newspaper. Some Nightingale girls objectified Mr. Smith, saying, "Oooh, his pants are so tight." There was also a video on Facebook of him dancing at a school party. My piece touched on his clothing and dancing in a satirical way. The faculty advisors cut my article for "sexualizing a teacher." The censorship outraged me since I did not find the article offensive. However, it occurred to me that my innocent joke was inappropriate to the advisors, due partially to generational differences. Likewise, I found Ken's description of Phillip offensive, while those in Ken's world may have found it harmless because of cultural differences. Through both experiences, I discovered I am one to consummately question and analyze, refusing to allow my frustrations to paralyze my explorations of what drives people to act.
Journalism and writing have grown to become my platforms for those explorations. Phillip and Ken emerged in my conscience when I penned a script in my screenwriting class a year later. My script follows a girl playing soccer on a boys' team. Her teammate Gabe opposes her presence and humiliates her on the field. Although Gabe is the "villain," I delve into the insecurities driving his actions. Ken partially inspired Gabe's character. The two may seem despicable, but I tried to understand them by digging into the forces that motivate their actions. Similarly, a victim or "good guy," like Phillip, can be motivated to do "bad things," like smashing Ken's face.
There are few easy rights and wrongs. Regardless, I still consider Ken's comments to be troubling, think Mr. Smith would have enjoyed my article, and believe Gabe should welcome his new teammate. Moreover, I am driven by a passion to address the "uneasy" in real life or fictional universes.
June is a graduate of The Nightingale Bamford School and a freshman at Cornell.