Today you may see a few students in Lobby 7 and in your classes with duct tape inscribed with the phrase “No H8” over their mouths in support of an event called the Day of Silence. I suspect their numbers will be few in light of the fact that MIT’s atmosphere of masochistic pursuit of work leaves little drive for campus activism, but I digress. The Day of Silence is a country-wide effort to spread awareness of the bullying and name-calling of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth as well as the effects of the casual use and tacit acceptance of using phrases like, “That’s so gay.”
Perhaps you think such an event pointless; perhaps you are unaware of any name-calling on campus. However, I assure you that the collective speech of MIT students is enough to bring the average queer to the brink of self-hatred. Although hate speech is most pronounced in the lexicon of the male athlete and the frat brother and the dude-gamer, it can show up just about anywhere.
Take, for example, my dormitory: Senior House. It is rightfully considered by many to be a bastion of openness and acceptance. However, this past February, an incident involving some fairly brutal verbal harassment — including the use of two of the more revolting slurs, “faggot” and “dyke” — of two friends of mine warranted a PSA by our Housemaster regarding the necessity of condemning bigotry in all its forms.
And while it’s true that the explicit taunting of a particular LGBT or perceived-LGBT student by a hostile person or group is more or less a rarity, it certainly doesn’t imply that our problems are nearly solved. Indeed, as I’m sure many a male MIT athlete can attest to, the word “gay” is one of the most frequently used words in the locker room. As you might imagine, its use is virtually never in a neutral (“Ellen DeGeneres is so gay”) or positive sense. Rather, in one of the most stunning displays of semantic versatility, “gay” will take on meanings as varied as stupid, unfair, feminine, lame, weak, strange, camp, or homosexual, among others. In fact, it is often used as an all-encompassing word implying just about anything negative.
Many people still wonder what the big deal is. For one, when people use this and other words they don’t mean “homosexual,” they mean “stupid,” “unfair,” etc., and, as such, we LGBT-folk should understand their words don’t apply to them; the word “gay” has simply acquired a new definition. But such arguments can be dismissed as disingenuous out of hand. The source of the negative connotations of “gay” is the link to homosexuality. Your use of the word does not exist in a vacuum, but is influenced by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) tectonics of culture. It is simply impossible to stake a claim to intellectual honesty and simultaneously argue that “Don’t be gay” has no connection with “Don’t be homosexual.”
Others will maintain that free speech dictates that you can say what you like. That is all well and good, but your words have consequences. I’m certainly not going to suggest that any one particular use of the word “gay” in the pejorative has led to a teenager’s suicide, but in the aggregate, the off-handed equation of a person’s identity with a slew of negative characteristics constitutes an assault on their self-worth. Indeed, what often causes the greatest hurt is less the blatant homophobes and transphobes — the Fred Phelpses and Pat Robertsons and Maggie Gallaghers who constantly rail against the Evil Pink Menace — than the people who are supposed to be on our side but fail to respect us. We expect right-wing demagogues to spew ridiculous, hateful garbage, and as such we build up a resistance and a sense of humor in response. But when it’s the President of the United States, a man who was supposed to bring a modicum of progressivism to the White House, consistently refusing to show definitive support for gay marriage, it sends a message to all of us; that is, that we aren’t worth the trouble. When our parents, who are supposed to love us unconditionally, casually express disgust at two gays showing affection, it warns us that we are revolting and that we had better not turn out to be one of them. And when it’s our friends, whom we should be able to trust, remarking “That’s gay” after a bad call during a ball game, we are jolted from our happy ignorance and reminded that we are degenerate.
The Day of Silence is all about bringing attention to the million little ways that we unwittingly contribute to a culture that devalues and even demonizes a group of people starting from their most vulnerable age and continuing through adulthood. For this reason, I think it has an important place in the march toward acceptance.