Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bundles of sticks, and stones

I have a good straight friend who used to call me a faggot. He just thought it was a funny kind of put-down. I knew he meant no harm (he's a great guy and very gay friendly), but I just never could get comfortable with him doing that. Eventually, I figured out why. Then, I sent him this e-mail.

Dear ___,

Just FYI, and I don't mean to bust your butt here, but as a word "faggot" is equivalent in violence and malice with nigger, kike and cunt. Imagine you were chatting with a black friend and said "you're great, even if you are just a fucking nigger halfbreed." Or to a trusted female colleague you say "I think you do a great job; too bad you're a fucking bitch cunt and not a guy." You can say these things, and it's possible that they would be perceived as funny, but more likely they'd fall flat at best. They are violent words.

In the case of "faggot," you should be aware that this is the word you hear right before you're beaten by drunk homophobic thugs. Like virtually every gay person I know, I've had epithets hurled at me on more than one occasion. In virtually every case "faggot" was among them. I don't think you know this, but I was once assaulted on the street when I lived in Salt Lake City. The cops showed up before I got hurt, but I'll never forget the reptilian look of hatred in those men's eyes, and I've never forgotten the words they used. My assailants called me a faggot. I don't take offense at what you say to me because I know your intent, but I do want to do a tiny amount of consciousness raising here. When you use words in a joking way that are expressions of violent hatred you may evoke associations and memories in your listener that you do not intend. This happens even if the person knows you're joking.

Again, please don't take this in the spirit of reproach. I really just mean to clue you in to the way I and, I expect, others who have been on the receiving end of this kind of stuff react. We don't do this because we are thin skinned or politically minded or out to prove a point; we do it because of the context in which those particular words have been used with us in the past. It's an involuntary response, like shielding yourself from a blow. Anyway, I hope you can understand where I'm coming from on this.

He quit using those words.


Pablo said...

Brilliant! This is a wonderful example of how to be diplomatic AND direct at the same time. Thanks for sharing this!

Miguel said...

I'm glad you were able to point this out to your friend, I get the whole notion of knowing where they were coming from and all but even so it was nice that you felt comfortable enough to bring it up. That's a sign of a relationship worth keeping and thanks for being a great example to those of us who are still learning to navigate in this so-called-life!

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Pablo and Miguel,

Thanks for your comments. I guess I should add the post script that my friend and I are still really close. (We've been friends since 7th grade.)

J G-W said...

Yes, I have a friend who also uses the "f" word -- always as a way of being funny. Of course for him the street runs both ways... He's Jewish, and he thoroughly enjoys humor that relies on anti-Jewish stereotypes.

I am certain if I ever made a strong statement, as you have here, he would immediately stop using that word (at least in front of me).

I think his way of using these kinds of words and stereotypes, though, is actually more his way of making fun of the stereotypes themselves. In his actions and overall behavior in life, he's as pro-gay as they come (and anti-racist, anti-sexist... progressive in every way). So I've never really been able to be offended, even just a little bit.

I'm sure if I ever am, I will say something...

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi J G-W,

You raise an interesting point about not being offended. In the situation I described above I wasn't actually offended. Like you, I was confident of my friend's benign intentions. Still, the weird thing was that every time my friend would make his "jokes," I would flinch. It was a totally involuntary response. As I tried to convey to him, it wasn't that I am thin skinned or unable to take a joke. It's (to me at least) about the memories and associations that these kinds of words bring back.

J G-W said...

Yes, I think I know what you mean.

Thinking about your post made me realize that intentionality and context are everything in terms of how we interpret a word or a joke... The identically same thing said by two different people in two different situations can mean diametrically opposite things.

I guess the bad thing about that kind of humor in any situation is it can be so easily misinterpreted, and it can (I suppose) give a green light to folks whose intentions are less benign.

My friend uses this humor in a gathering of friends who have been gathering bi-monthly for almost 15 years... We know each other very, very well. I know him well enough to be fairly sure he would never use that kind of humor in another setting where it was more likely to be misinterpreted.

I think if I heard that kind of humor in a different setting -- say work or some other semi-public setting, I might feel obligated to say something.