The other day a group of teenage boys called me "f**got" from the window of their passing car while I was on my bike. It was jarring to hear that word so blatantly used. To be honest, it's not a word that makes it into conversations I have with anybody or even conversations I overhear. Most public discourse here in Vermont is nice like that.
Recently, a much beloved commentator on our local NPR affiliate used a derogatory term for people freshly in the US from Mexico as a part of his on-air commentary. I'm sure you know it.
Then, the other day, I overheard a person I know pretty well, and who I know to be a decent and kind and caring person, express herself to another person that she "didn't understand why black people can call each other the "N" word (she used the actual word, loud and clear) but white people cannot use that word." They were talking about the NPR commentator and feeling sympathetic toward him for the criticism he had garnered for his recent gaffe.
I was floored. Floored to hear that word said out loud and with such casual comfort in a public between two nice older white ladies from Vermont. Maybe I've been naive. I wanted to step in and say something, but I couldn't think of what to say fast enough and then the moment had passed. That happens a lot to me and is probably why I'm writing as much as I am.
Now, I have a pretty good sense of humor and a pretty thick skin. I get crap yelled (and thrown) at me from cars all the time when I'm out on my bike. I like comedy shows with a fair amount of profanity and transgressive humor, usually the more the better.
I've been watching quite a bit of Louis C.K.'s show lately. There's a great scene in the second episode where he's playing poker with a bunch of other comedians and the conversation turns to Louie's use of the word "f**got" in his routine. Naturally, they all want to know what the one gay man in the group thinks. And there, in the middle of this ribald, crazy, show, was the most heartfelt speech about the use of that word I had ever heard:
"You might want to know, that every gay man in America has probably had that word shouted at them while they're being beaten up. Some times many times, sometimes by a lot of people, all at once. So, when you say it, it kind of brings that all back up. So now you know what it means. Use it, by all means, get your laughs, but at least you know what it means."
Now, there's maybe a bit of hyperbole in there. I sincerely hope not every gay man in America has been beaten up that way, but I bet a lot of them have or know someone who has. The issue remains the same. There are some words in our language that, no matter their use, connote acts of the worst kind of inhumanity and violence. Sometimes, the people who those words are most directed at will use those words, to take ownership of them, to take the sting away. But there is no absolute right to use those words without impunity from judgement or criticism.
When those boys yelled at me, it wasn't just another word in their arsenal, they could not have just as easily used a more nondiscriminatory epithet. The message was clear: "We are using the word "f**got" because it connotes our power as white, heterosexual young men over you. We are using this word to accuse you of being gay as well because we think that it gives us additional power in this situation. We think you either are gay and therefore our use of this word empowers us, or we think we are telling you you are gay even though you are not because being gay is something we think a person should be ashamed of."
Maybe that's a lot of intent to attribute to a group of 16 year old boys in their mom's maroon GMC Envoy on their way home from baseball or football camp or whatever (they were eastbound out of Burlington on Williston road near the end of the day and they had eye black on their faces). But that's the thing about these few, particularly nasty words. You don't have to form the whole intent behind them all at once. You do it slowly, over years of ignorance, insecurity, or feelings of powerlessness. Maybe like the woman I overheard, you cover that insecurity with a layer of politeness and etiquette. When you tap into those words, though, all that ugly just comes right out.
After an altercation at a gas station almost two years ago, I observed that:
"I am left with an unsettling impression that the veneer that keeps us from living in a Mad Max, caveman sort of world is exceedingly thin."
Yeah. I'm no survivalist, but there's a lot of anger and hate out there under the surface. It's scary to see somebody's comfort level with accessing such nasty, violent concepts. It's scary to remember how prevalent it is.