Even in this day and age, with LGBT rights surging forward and popular support for equality growing at a breakneck pace, casual homophobia remains commonplace. One of the best examples of this is the ubiquitous phrase "that's so gay." Use of the word "gay" to describe something negative, stupid, uncool, or worthy of mockery is appallingly common, particularly among Millennials (ironically, the generation most strongly supportive of LGBT equality).
It's also harmful: a 2012 study of LGBT college students published in the Journal of American College Health found that those who regularly heard the word "gay" used as pejorative term reported feeling more isolated than their peers and are at an increased risk for a whole host of negative health problems like headaches, poor appetite, and eating disorders. For this reason and so many others, the phrase "that's so gay" makes my skin crawl.
It's relatively easy to call out friends and family members who use "gay" in this negative manner, but confronting total strangers -- particularly in public -- can be an entirely different story. Brian Hagar-McKee, a 55-year-old teacher from Framingham, Massachusetts, shows us how it's done.
Last Sunday morning, Brian and his husband George stopped at a local coffee shop. They ordered their coffee and sat down at a table near the servers' stand, ready to enjoy a little time together before George went off to work. Out of the blue, Brian overheard a young employee say to a co-worker, "Want to hear something that is so gay?" She tells her colleague her story, then repeats the slur, asking "Isn't that so gay?!?"
"And then," Brian writes, "I say, in my sternest teacher voice... 'EXCUSE ME?' She saw both of us glaring at her and was intelligent enough to correctly determine why. She was immediately apologetic, but still didn't quite get it. 'I wasn't using it in a negative sense,'" she said.
"Doesn't matter," [Brian] told her, making sure he was speaking loudly enough for the whole shop to hear. "That's too often how it gets used. Who I am is not something you get to use to insult something else." The manager came over and apologized, but then tried to downplay the incident. "Kids these days," they said. "There's no excuse for it," George replied.
The two finished their coffee and left, but the incident stuck with Brian. He decided to write an open letter to the worker, her managers, and the store chain, in order to turn the whole thing into a teachable moment.
Brian's open letter is after the jump. It's wonderfully heartfelt, and explains exactly why the phrase "that's so gay" is so hurtful for so many LGBT people. Check it out below.
To the young woman who made the mistake this morning:
Thank you for your apology - I forgive you. Please let me tell you why.
Let me introduce myself: my name is Brian, I was having coffee this morning with my husband, George. We've been together 28 years; we were legally married as soon as Massachusetts made it possible. Our work schedules don't always allow us the time together we'd like. This was one of those rare occasions when we were able to enjoy some quiet time in each other's company (with both of us awake).
I've been thinking about you most of the day. I wish that I had been able to calmly invite you and your manager to sit with us for a couple of minutes so I could talk to you about why we reacted the way we did. I want to be someone better than just the cranky old man in your store.
As a teacher, I care deeply about young people. Nothing makes me happier than hearing from children I taught in my elementary school, who come back to visit to tell me about the young adults they've become and where their lives have taken them. Nothing makes me happier than watching them find the jobs and hobbies they are passionate about. I love seeing (and helping) them find their voice.
I want every single one of them to be happy about being who they are, and I will defend them fiercely when someone else tries to tear them down. That includes you, too.
Homophobia isn't just the Fred Phelpses of the world waving "God Hates Fags" signs. Homophobia can be subtle - and it is always personal. I want to help you understand what a gay man hears, what I hear, when someone says the phrase "that's so gay."
I hear my seventh-grade teacher taunting one of my fellow students for being a "fairy" - and being terrified that he would call me out, too.
I hear my church telling me after I came out (at about your age) that I was not worthy to attend worship with them.
I hear "faggot" and "queer" and "gay" as the worst possible insults my high school peers could think of to call each other - and remember my fear that they would discover my truth.
I hear my own parents telling me not to come see them after I told them.
I hear the real estate agent who refused to show us any properties "because people in this town wouldn't understand you."
I hear the total strangers yelling out at us, "look at the faggots!", when all we were doing was walking down the street and minding our own business.
I hear the teen girl in the fast food restaurant in my mother's small town calling everyone she knows "faggot and homo" and remember feeling afraid to speak up because of all the young men around who might be willing to beat me up for it.
I hear the drunk screaming at me in the parking lot: "All you faggots ought to be shot!"
I hear the snort of the admitting nurse in the emergency room when I must tell her, more than once, that George is my next of kin.
I hear the news stories in state after state where my marriage is not recognized and there are no laws to protect me from anti-gay discrimination (and I pray my car never breaks down or one of us requires emergency care in one of those states). I hear the news stories in country after country around the globe where people like me are executed for the crime of existing.
I hear all the non-verbal messaging, the whole time I was growing up, that kept me in the dark about who I am; that never allowed me to see, hear, know that my life could be happy, healthy, well-adjusted, self-actualized; that never allowed me to believe I was worthy of love or that I would ever find love in my life.
In short, I hear shame, contempt, revulsion, disgust, hate.
I understand that you intended none of the above. Do you understand how your words can and do bring all of that up for me? Can you understand the fear I have the moment I hear "that's so gay," when I think, "how bad is this going to get?"
I'm 55 years old. I came out long before you were born. In the many years since then it hast taken me decades - decades - to overcome the ocean of negative messaging about being gay. I was in my mid-40s before I could honestly say that I was grateful for the gift (yes, the gift) of being gay.
Let me tell you what gay actually is: gay is how love operates in my life.
That's important, so I'll repeat: Gay is how love operates in my life.
Gay is George walking two miles on an unlit highway at midnight so he can help me change a flat tire that I just can't budge.
Gay is George rushing me to the ER for repeated asthma attacks that won't subside.
Gay is George's kindness to my homophobic and mentally disabled sister because he understands her need and continues to be generous and helpful to her despite her rudeness toward him.
Gay is George bringing my lunch to school when I forget.
Gay is the set of little rubber duckies he leaves around the house that mean "I love you" because he's too sentimental to speak the words.
Gay is the joy I have when I wake up in the morning and have another day with him.
Gay is the support of kind-hearted people who helped me survive the abandonment I experienced when my church and my immediate family would have nothing to do with me.
Gay is the love of extended family who made sure to let me know they value me as I am.
Gay is my husband's family who welcomed me with open arms and open hearts when my own family would not.
Gay is when my mother finally realized that it's better to have a gay son than no son at all, and when she says to me - after years of her own journey - "I believe you are as God made you."
Gay is my gratitude for the years of patience George has shown me, for the stability his love gives my life, for the comfort he has been for me always.
Gay is all those things. Gay is the lens through which I see and experience the world. Gay is where my joy lives. Can you understand then, why I would find it so upsetting to have something so sacred to me compared to something you don't like?
Please be assured that I don't hold a grudge. The expression on your face when I spoke to you made it clear you understood you had made a mistake. You made it clear that your intentions were not malicious. Careless and thoughtless, yes, but not intentionally harmful.
I hope you understand, too, that had someone been making blonde jokes or derogatory remarks about women I would have been just as loud in my protests. The mindset that grows homophobia is the same one that disrespects women. No one deserves the double insult of having unchangeable aspects of their identity disrespected as a way to denigrate something else.
I hope that you read this letter in the way it's intended: as an act of kindness toward you. The teacher in me hopes that you take it as a lesson in empathy, and that you'll pay it forward - and protest when someone else thoughtlessly indulges in a bit of gay-bashing.