Matt Comer

The Next Time You Call Someone a Faggot

Filed By Matt Comer | May 06, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: bullying, Campus Pride, closet cases, It Gets Better

I don't think I could have imagined last fall just how challenging and, at times, frustrating returning to school college-gay-protest.jpgwould be once I actually set foot in class this January. After nearly four years of absence, I decided last fall to finish that elusive bachelor's degree I put off when in September 2007 I was offered and accepted the position of editor at Charlotte's QNotes.

Excitement and anticipation ruled the day in January and it continued throughout the semester, even as school and professional work piled on to make my life more stressful than it's probably ever been. While I've enjoyed the renewed college experience (though my experience of "college life" is mighty different now that I'm a little older), I have one major, frustrating regret: I closeted myself.

Yes, me: big queer activist since the age of 14; gay blogger and citizen journo since college; editor of an LGBT newspaper; volunteer and grassroots organizer; the "most flamboyant, outspoken queer teen Winston-Salem had ever seen," or so I wrote in my chapter in 2008's CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America.

It wasn't an intentional closeting by any means. LGBT subjects - save ancient Greek pederasty, and I don't think that counts - never came up in class; had they, I'd likely have spoken out. I simply went to class, took notes, studied for exams and left campus to head back to my office or home when the day was over. But, seemingly out of no where, I was forced to face prejudice and hate I hadn't experienced first-hand since high school, or, at least, my earliest days in college.

"That proctor guy is a faggot," the boy sitting behind me said of the young male student assisting our professor that day.

I, along with about 200 other students, sat in an auditorium-style classroom awaiting our instructor and her assistant as they prepared to administer our exam.

"Who?" the boy's friend asked.

"That guy. That faggot. He's been staring at us since we sat down. He's a fag," I overheard behind me, each instance of the slur stressed, pointed and dripping with hate.

I froze. I did and said nothing. My heart began beating faster.

"Should I turn around and say something?" I asked myself. "What would I say? How would I say it?"

It didn't turn out to be a very good exam day for me. I panicked - memories from high school bullying flashing back to my head. It wasn't until later that evening, once I was home and had related the day's events to a friend, that I came up with what I thought could have been a witty response.

"The next time you call someone a faggot, make sure the person sitting in front of you isn't one."

I thought about putting it on the back of a T-shirt and wearing it the next time I had the same class. But I decided to ignore the comment.

"I don't need a confrontation in the middle of a class full of students," I told myself.

I was lucky enough to be working with Campus Pride last fall when they released their landmark report, "The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People." The in-depth, first-of-its-kind study documents the experiences of some 6,000 LGBT students, faculty and staff across the nation's institutions of higher education. Though much attention is often given to anti-LGBT bullying, harassment and discrimination in K-12 schools, and campaigns like "It Gets Better" promises good days to teens who simply "stick it out" 'til college, Campus Pride's report drove home a sobering point: anti-LGBT harassment and prejudice doesn't magically disappear once a student crosses the stage to receive their high school diploma.

I found myself reflected in Campus Pride's various key findings (emphasis added):


  • One quarter (23%) of LGBQ staff, faculty, and students reported experiencing harassment (defined as any conduct that has interfered with your ability to work or learn). Almost all identified sexual identity as the basis of the harassment (83%). An even greater percentage of transgender students, faculty, & staff reported experiencing harassment (39%) with 87% identifying their gender identity/expression as the basis for the harassment. The form of the harassment experiences by transgender people was more overt and blatant.

  • One-third of LGBQ (33%) and transgender (38%) students, faculty, and staff have seriously considered leaving their institution due to the challenging climate.

  • More than half of all faculty, students, & staff hide their sexual identity (43%) or gender identity (63%) to avoid intimidation.

  • More than a third of all transgender students, faculty, & staff (43%) and 13% of LGBQ respondents feared for their physical safety. This finding was more salient for LGBQ students and for LGBQ and/or Transgender People of Color.


Why didn't I ever say anything? What was it that scared and intimidated me so much? Shouldn't a 25-year-old, outspoken gay man like me have had the courage to enforce my own zero tolerance attitude toward anti-gay harassment?

What happened to me in class this semester reminds me of my friend Brian Murphy's similar challenges when dealing with families, friends and other close relationships:

I do not do that which I know I should do. She says something insulting and I let it slide. He calls me Peter's "friend" and I don't correct him. They make jokes which aren't really funny and I chuckle enough to not attract attention. It seems that family, friends, and closer relationships impede the cause of justice by compromising our words and actions, by elevating relationships over rightness.

Such insecurity and uncertainty, as I can attest, isn't limited to personal relationships. In my case, complete and perfect strangers stopped me dead in my tracks.

As my first semester back at school wraps up, I've determined to make a new resolution. When the fall semester rolls around and I again find myself in class, I'll not let my inner meekness get the best of me. I'll take a chance, gulp down a shot of courage and confront the bigotry and ignorance that will (hopefully not) drift my way.

All-in-all, though, the experience served as a mighty important personal lesson. No matter how comfortable I think I might be, no matter how accepting or welcoming an environment I think surrounds me, and no matter how much I've nearly insulated my daily work and personal life with LGBT or LGBT-friendly people and causes, I'm never truly comfortable. There's still an awful lot of work to do - in high schools and colleges, in neighborhoods, in states and in our country and world. Silence can't be an option.

(Crossposted from InterstateQ.com); img flickr


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Matt, there were a thousand times in college that I could have spoken up but didn't.

One time, a straight "friend" told the lame joke about Rolaids being an AIds patient in a wheelchair. we were in the middle of lunch at the dorm cafeteria, and I immediately showed my disapproval be getting up and moving to a different table. Everyone in the group noticed, because I could hear their comments afterward -- some were supportive of me, and some weren't. And it was the last time I sat with them.

Sometimes forcing a confrontation really is asking for trouble. In your story, you could have gotten up and said "I don't want to have to overhear ignorant bullshit like this!" before moving to a chair as far away as possible. You could also make a remark about how unprofessional such comments are in today's business world.

Good for you for returning to finish your degree! I did something similar. As I'm sure you know, a bachelor's degree is the minimum you need in the economy we have now.

You've written an honest article, Matt. Thanks very much. I think many of us react to similar situation in the same way as you have. Sometimes we are simply caught off guard and later think of the perfect retort. I would like to believe that in my older years I have learned to take a gulp of courage (after assessing the immediate physical risks -- call me a coward if you wish), and seize the teachable moment, especially when there's a one-on-one or small group opportunity at hand. It's the drive-by shouters who exhibit their bravado by tossing words and objects from their passing cars that really irk me. They are the real cowards. I console myself with the thought they really are afraid of their own deep-seated, inherent gayness of which they are unwilling to confront. Thanks again, Matt, for you honesty and allowing me to face my own reality once again.

Chitown Kev | May 6, 2011 1:32 PM

I recently had this conversation with my family and it was treated with A LOT of hostility. I was told that I was being "selfish," that comments such as these weren't being directed at me so I shouldn't be offended, that when family and friends make anti-gay comments I should leave the room, etc., etc., etc...I could go on.

As I related in my comment above, sometimes just leaving the room is enough -- especially if you do it with the right body language, a glare that shoots red lasers out of your eyeballs can say volumes as you rise to leave ...

It's always your choice what to do -- there is no right and no wrong (within reason, of course). And with family members, it's good to educate them while showing a healthy dose of compassion.

Good Luck with your family, Kev ...

Chitown Kev | May 6, 2011 3:29 PM

Yeah, been there and done that with the glares.

Been there and done that with being away and doing nothing but saying hi.

Been there and done that with both compassion and confrontation.

I thought that at one time it had budged and, frankly, maybe it has.

I really am at a loss of what to do but I really am in a state of mind where I simply refuse to take it anymore or even tolerate from the family. I've gotten too old for that now.

Ultimately, you can't make them change their minds or attitudes. But you can "divorce" them when that becomes the only way to show you won't tolerate any more.

I'm right on that edge with my siblings -- for reasons other than my being gay, although that almost always plays in to the mix.

Chitown Kev | May 7, 2011 2:38 PM

Well, yeah...

I would be dishonest if I didn't add that there's assholery going aroiund on all sides, including mine.

But (as in your situation, it seems) my assholery has nothing to do with my gayness, really, and a big part of the resentment on my part is that it does tend to become an implicit subtext in discussions where it has absolutely nothing to do with nothing, really.

A.J., I kind of took your route. I ended up getting up and not sitting next to those boys for most of the semester.

It's irked me for some time now, though, why I sat back and allowed them to get away with saying it, hence the post. My way of thinking it out.

I don't see how coming out at the same time helps.
Do what you would do at any event where silence helps...

A few suggestions:

"Could you please not use profanity in class"

"You're talking too loudly it is very distracting"

"Could you please not make comments about faculty in the classroom"

And all the best in obtaining your degree, Matt !

This is a brave and honest post, Matt, and thanks for that. Those of us who have visibility in the LGBT community often don't like to think that we have issues with outness.

The big issue here is that we're often not prepared to deal with these situations and so we just let them slide, thinking it'll be easier if we just don't say anything. In the short run, maybe. In the long run, it doesn't make it any easier since there's a very good chance that guy will go off and do the same thing.

I disagree with Geena about her suggestions, though. I think it's necessary not just to call this person out for being impolite, but also for the homophobia involved. Whether Matt has to come out or not is one question, but the problem with what the guy said wasn't the bad language.

"This is a brave and honest post, Matt, and thanks for that."
Thank you.

"Those of us who have visibility in the LGBT community often don't like to think that we have issues with outness."
Definitely. I've seen it happen not only with myself but others as well. I have a great, great admiration and deep respect for those people for whom "being out" isn't an option -- people who, whether straight or gay, are perceived by others as sitting outside norms of gender expression and who are pinned as "the other" without any choice of their own.

ellysabeth | May 6, 2011 8:54 PM

The last time somebody told a stupid tranny joke in my presence, I just sort of glared at him like he had just done something terribly rude, which, duh, he had.

I don't expect that it was as constructive as seizing the opportunity for education/discourse, but it had an efficient effort:result ratio and felt good enough.

I would hope that in your future opportunities for education/discourse, you wouldn't use the word "tranny" to refer to trans* or genderqueer folk.

I would have just let that word slide but it really would go against what this article is teaching, wouldn't it. I hope Matt's piece gives us all more bravado when confronted with mis-labeling, disrespect, belittling and violence. In community.

My method is always direct and nonconfrontational. I find that prejudiced people are unaware that what they are saying is wrong. Therefore innuendo or sarcasm are highly ineffective. I usually turn to the person and say something like "I heard what you said, and I wanted you to know that, as a transgender person, I found it very upsetting. I'm sure you didn't mean to, but please don't". Of course, if I feel in true physical danger, I skip it.

Knowing you as I do, I kept reading and waiting on you to turn around and skewer the guy with your wit, Matt. I really thought that at the end you'd give him what-for even though you warned us at the beginning that you didnt. I can see how this would definitely bother you!

Om Kalthoum | May 7, 2011 11:50 AM

Don't beat yourself up too much, Matt. Trust me, no matter how long you live, you will have other opportunities to confront this sort of casual bigotry. Next time, you'll be better prepared if you choose to respond directly.

Leigh Anne | May 7, 2011 2:37 PM

Sometimes it's wise not to turn your back on a bigot. Other times it's wise not to paint a target on your back before turning.

Hey Matt,

Sometimes I wonder how many of the students say things like that in the class that I TA.

I intentionally outed myself in the first week of the semester as a strategy to avoid that sort of discussion among my students. Its my hope that outing myself will help to make GBLT students more comfortable and make student more careful how they refer to me.

If this strategy works or not is still somewhat uncertain.

Sam

My big mouth has been generally opened by such things since reaching adulthood.
I understand that it is a personal choice to make but my choice has generally be easy for me to make.