Friday, March 4, 2011

The Word (and what it means)

This is not, technically, library-related, but it’s been occupying a fair amount of my brain space and I wanted to share.

A couple weeks ago, at the end of evening study hall, I was in the library finishing up working with a student; another student, his friend, was waiting for him. The friend was, I think, coming downstairs and banged his knee on the banister.

And then proceeded to call the banister a fag.

Which, yes, makes no sense, but the ridiculousness of what he said came a distant second to my shock that he had said it at all.

This was a good kid. A nice kid. A thoughtful kid. Not a kid who I thought I would *ever* hear say that word. Immediately, my heart sank. And anger rose.

In the moment I was angry and upset (and already feeling kind of fried), and I knew I was going to either tell him to leave, or scream at him. And I knew I didn’t want to scream at him, so I said, “You need to leave right now. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

I could tell by the look on his face that he knew he’d crossed a big line with me, and that I was upset. It became even more clear 20 minutes later, when I got his apology e-mail. I thanked him for his apology, and we set a time to talk the following day.

When he showed up the next day I wasn’t sure how the conversation would go; I’ve tried to talk to students before about how hurtful that word can be and its loaded history. Those conversations have mostly been less than productive.

But that was not the case this time; he came to the conversations both genuinely apologetic and genuinely curious about why I’d been so upset when he said that word. While we were talking he said, “If a kid’s my age and he’s gay, it doesn’t make any difference to me. If he’s open about it I have even more respect for him, ‘cause it means he has confidence.” And that’s when I knew--and I told him--that what he’d said the night before was a mistake, and that what he’d just said was far more of a reflection of who he really was.

He also shared that one of the reasons the word had been in his head at all was because he’d been around another student who had been using the word a lot--which, as a friend pointed out, is another compelling reason to address every instance of bullying language; every time a student says it, another student hears it. And becomes that much more likely to repeat it.

Since then I have had an ongoing discussion with this student about language and its use. Our conversations have been wide-ranging; every time he finds out something new about humanity’s less than-perfect-record in dealing with difference (burning heretics, the history of the KKK, the origins of the pink triangle) he pinches the bridge of his nose and looks kind of exasperated with the human race. I find myself wanting to protect him from finding out about the existence of the Westboro Baptist Church; I don’t want him to think any less of people.

A couple days later he came to me with another question--if a faggot was a bundle of sticks, how on earth had it come to be a derogatory term for gay men? Most kids who know that faggot meant bundle of sticks try to use that as a “get out of jail free” card when they get called out for using that word (“What’s the big deal? I was just calling him a bundle of sticks.”), but he instead wanted to know more about the history of the word. So we found out more. *

The next day he wanted to talk again; now that he knew more about the word, and his attention had been called to it, he said he was hearing it everywhere. And it was pissing him off. And while it doesn’t make me happy that he’s hearing it a lot, it does make me happy that it bothers him enough to want to do something about it. He’s inspired me to re-double my efforts around working with faculty and implementing a Safe Zone program. And as much as I think it’s important for faculty to address anti-LGBT language (and bullying or harassing language of any kind), the fact is most of that happens out of earshot of teachers; if we want it to stop, we need kids like this who feel fired up about responding to it themselves.

Based on all of these conversations, he decided to write a paper for his English class on the history of the word fag, and its misuse. He--a student who does not generally enjoy writing--sat down and easily wrote over two pages. As he told me, he feels that now that he knows the real meaning of the word it’s up to him to educate other people.

There is, of course, an obvious lesson here about how students are motivated by topics that they have an authentic interest in. But we all already know that’s true (we all know that, right?).

There is also the lesson about the importance of education, and the value in having honest conversations about difficult issues (we all know that, too, right?).

The bigger lesson, for me, is this:

For all we hear about this generation having no manners, or being disrespectful;
As much as we sometimes worry about the future, and who will shape it;
As much as we bemoan the decline of civility in our culture;
And as much as I sometimes feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall when I try to talk with students about being more thoughtful in how they talk about other people.

I look at this kid and think: We’re going to be just fine.


*From GLSEN:
During the European Inquisitions, "faggot" referred to the sticks used to set fires for burning heretics, or people who opposed the teachings of the Catholic Church. Heretics were required to gather bundles of sticks ("faggots") and carry them to the fire that was being built for them.
Heretics who changed their beliefs to avoid being killed were forced to wear a "faggot" design embroidered on their sleeve, to show everyone that they had opposed the Church. Since it was hard to live with such a bad reputation, people began to use the word "faggot" to refer to anything that was considered to be a burden or difficult to bear. Unfortunately, the term quickly became a sexist insult, as people used it to disrespect women in the same way the term "ball and chain" is used today.
The word "faggot" appeared in the United States during the early 20th century. It was used to refer to men who were seen as less masculine than people believed they should be. During the course of the 20th century, the word "faggot" became the slur most commonly used to abuse gay men and men perceived to be gay. In fact, "faggot" has become a general insult that is often used to humiliate any men. Since many people are biased against LGBT people, being called "faggot" is the biggest fear of many heterosexual men, and thus the easiest way to hurt them. Considering the long and violent history of the word, it’s important for people to understand its meaning before they use it so carelessly.


  1. Did you ever consider that the student was calling out the shoddy craftsmanship of the banister? Perhaps he was actually saying it was no better than a bundle of sticks, or a British cigarette.

    Nevertheless, 'tis an excellent post. Not only because I'd never known the full history of the term, but also because that student is a symbol of the future to come. I hope you can reach many others the same way you reached him.

  2. That line reasoning might work if the banister were not so solid. There is nothing shoddily-constructed in my library (oddly-constructed, yes. Shoddily, no).

    Also, thanks. :)

  3. What an excellent post! Thank you for writing this.

  4. Yes, thanks for teaching the history of that word. Interesting. And thanks for sharing this positive teaching *moment* -- I believe you are among the teachers who do make a big difference in the future of students here.

  5. KM- Beautifully written post. What a difference you've made with that chance encounter. The teachable moment didn't slip by. Thanks for writing this. Miss ya.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. This was more difficult to write than most things I post, for a number reasons (and I wasn't even sure most of what I was thinking made sense outside my head), and it means so much to me that it's resonating with other people.

  7. Hi kmthelibrarian!
    A colleague suggested I check out your blog and I am glad I did. What a wonderful thing you are doing here! It appears you are someone who "is making a difference"!
    Cathy Brankman