Words by Scot Tatelman
My uncle passed away from AIDS when I was thirteen years old. Next to my parents and sister, he was the closest person in my life, and the fact that he was a gay man, living in fear, unable to truly be himself for so much of his life haunts me to this day. So for our next #WhatDoWeTellTheKids project, I wanted to feature proud members of the LGBTQ community here in my uncle's hometown of New York to shed light on the power and dangers of language.
I'm hoping this project serves as a catalyst to stop people from using harmful words that have impacted so many good people... and equally important, I hope it acts as a teaching tool for things we should be telling our kids. As we’ve seen happening around the world, I'm looking to create a ripple that causes a really really big wave of love. Thank you to all who have taken part in, read and shared this project. Somewhere, my Broadway-loving Uncle Milt is smiling wide, booming, "BRAVO SCOT...BRAVO!"
Saturday Night Live Co-Head
Writer & Filmmaker
“I came out when I was 18 or 19, but I knew I was gay from the age of 10 or 11 whether I could articulate it or not. So for those 8 or 9 years where I knew but didn’t want anyone else to know, I heard people carelessly saying the words gay or a fag a lot. I didn’t actually experience people calling it to my face or attacking other kids, but the words were casually tossed around to mean things that were dumb or they sucked, so being used in a very negative sense. In some ways that weirdly held more power to me than personal attacks because I wasn’t an active gay person living a sexual live, I just knew I was gay and the words gay or fag were synonymous with dumb or stupid, making it harder to want to come out. When I was in high school, no one was openly out, and part of that was because the only thing we knew about being gay was a thing you laughed at or made fun of.
At least with the people I know and the world I live writing comedy in New York City, I don’t really experience homophobia on a day to day basis as it’s just not ok to say certain things like “that’s gay.” But, one of the things people often say is describing someone and saying something like “he’s gay but you can’t even really tell” as if you can’t even really tell is a better version of gay than when you can really tell, like there’s a sliding scale of gay. Like being gay but seemingly straight is subliminally better than someone who’s gay gay. I feel like I’ve heard well meaning, pro LGBTQ people say something around those lines and I think it’s still homophobic. Kind of like ranking us as to being a better gay than someone who’s more under the radar about it.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? I remember all the things that I thought made me worse than other people in high school have actually made me successful as an adult. I was self conscious about being gay, or not good at sports, or not being the typical thing you prize in a high school boy - straight, strong, fast, girlfriend, etc - as I was funny and liked theater. But being gay has given me empathy because when you’re in the minority or marginalized group, you can see the world in a different way - you know what it’s like to be teased, to be disrespected or not in charge, but it gives you a point of view that becomes valuable. So now as a writer and comedian, I can tell stories, write jokes and characters from a point of view that not everybody has.
The things that you think make you less than, are actually valuable because you have a point of view that others don’t have. You have access to empathy and life experience that other people don’t have. You see the world in a way that a small percentage of the world see it in, and you can move to cities and find a small community of people who have gone through things that you’ve gone through.
Feeling self conscious about being gay feels so far away from me because I remember in high school praying that if there was one thing I could change about me, it would be to wake up the next morning and be straight. But if I could change to be straight right now there’s no way I’d do it.
So for a lack of a better phrase, I would tell kids today that it really does get better.”
“The word fag is even hard for me to say out loud. It’s one of those words that carries so much weight, anger and hate regardless of the context it’s being used or who’s saying it. It just makes me cringe.
Growing up, the idea of saying something was gay automatically meant it was negative or not right, which was always confusing to me - why is something being gay so awful or negative?
Even as I got older, people used the phrase in the same sense, and it surprised me - you would assume they would be more educated or open-minded about it...and often times, it wouldn’t even connect to someone’s sexual orientation - it was the easy, one word message of something not being right. Before I knew who I was or what it meant to be a gay man, I already knew that the word gay was used as an adjective for all things bad.
The scariest thing about having grown up not out is the isolation that surrounds it. You could be in a crowd, but one word can make you feel totally alone and isolated. That’s terrifying when you barely know yourself and don’t have the confidence to stand alone - all you want to do is stand with something else. Language is really isolating because it reduces us to words and whatever misguided meanings those words carry and whatever hateful context they’re being used in.
When I think of the situations that we’re in and as much progress as it seems we’re having, it also feels like we’re regressing. It’s not necessarily a fear of how it will affect my own everyday life because I’m so fortunate to live in the NYC bubble and work in fashion, but you empathize with all of the kids who don’t have a bubble, community or one person to seek that kind of safety, refuge and understanding in.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? It may be naive to say that you can stand up and educate everyone, but you can find comfort in the idea that hate comes from ignorance - not knowing the person you’re fearful of. Any minority - visible or otherwise - deals with that kind of hate because people are scared of things they don’t understand.
Ignorance is about an unwillingness, un-openness or even a pure laziness to try and educate yourself about the things you don’t understand. If anything, it’s really gratifying to think you’re on the other end of that in that you’re so open and curious. As I got older, I felt much more empowered, secure and confident that I’m on the other end of that conversation - seeking to understand things or people I don’t understand.”
Ali Forney Mental Health Specialist, LMSW
"I'm transfemale, but I don't present in a particularly feminine way. As a result, I have two choices: either to live with people consistently misgendering me ("May I help you, sir?") or to correct everyone I come in contact with. Neither option is satisfactory, but the first is preferable, from a practical standpoint, at least - even though it means living in a state of perpetual discomfort.
Cispeople have a luxury we transfolk never will, in that society's dominant narrative is written expressly to encompass their existence, and theirs alone. It is something we're always aware of being outside of, and it's a difficult reality to live with every single day. Queer people have been coping with this for an eternity, however, so like our LGBTQ forbears we will just have to carry on and work for change. Transphobia within the LGBT community? It is subtle, often, and no less painful.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? Work to accept and love yourself. Don't worry about fitting in - with your family, your school, your community, or your government. They all seem very important when we're young and trying to figure things out, but as you go on in life it becomes much more important to understand who you really are, not what some relative or the media tells you you should be. Figure it out, then be the change you want to see -- that is more important than ever in the face of the social regression and repression we are almost certainly guaranteed to face in the immediate future.
Always remember the words of the great Candy Darling, the Warhol superstar who said, "You must always be yourself, no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality."
Lawyer & Activist
“The word “faggot” is like a knife to the chest every time I hear it. I think it was later in life that I realized there were other sides of me and I wasn’t just a black man, and the word “faggot”, even just saying it now, I felt a ping and a pain because I know the history behind that word and the damage it’s done and pain it’s caused so many people.
At the end of the day, a lot of people who use these derogatory terms don’t even know anyone who they think fits into that category which is even more reason why it’s so sad, depressing and offensive because it’s a string of people throughout the world categorizing and making judgements that they have no idea about. So when I hear faggot or fag, it hurts, it’s painful, there’s a lot of ignorance behind it, and a lot of pain being caused by people using those words, and I just question if they understand the harm that they’re doing or whether they lack the intellectual curiosity to find out who are the people behind those words...because I suspect if they met the people behind those words, they’d think and act differently.
I came from a very supporting and loving family but there were times when extended family members would use the word fag. I think back when I was a little kid in elementary school, not even knowing who I was, and heard this derogatory word used by people I cared about - family, friends and even teachers - and knowing they weren’t using it in a positive way meant that if I were any part of the definition of that word, that must mean I’m a bad person and therefore for me, I’m sure that was part of my suppression of being my full self, recognizing my true being, my true emotions and feelings. Perhaps it would have come quicker had I not heard those powerful, negative words by people close to me that I cared so much about.
The negativity associated with those words combined with the reinforcement of those you look up to not saying anything about it. For instance, if any child in the church I grew up in was heard saying “you f____ing bitch” to anyone, you’d just hope that child survived the immediate reprimanding. Now, if anyone said “you f____ing faggot” though, maybe there might have been someone who said don’t swear, but my immediate memory or vision is people laughing or giggling and no one doing anything about it. So now you have people hearing those words and those who are supposed to be respected leaders in the community that don’t do anything about it, and in fact may reinforce the use of it by giggling or smiling. It’s a double reinforcement of the negativity and shows the power and danger of their use and how it could affect others.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? I work closely with the Trevor Project, and the day after the election, was the day that they received the most calls in its history. Kids calling in worried about their future, how they’ll be accepted, seeing the progress that had been made in the LGBTQ community and the acceptance that had seemingly been shown not only by the federal government and media, worried that it was all then lost.
You first tell them they’re not alone - that’s something we have to constantly remind our children, particularly those that are questioning their feelings, emotions and love. It’s ok to be who you are and to make resources available to them.
Have courage. Whether we like it or not, there are certain burdens to being a minority in society...those burdens aren’t going to erase themselves overnight. We are going to work as hard as we can to fight the discrimination, racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia that’s out there, but the fact is that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon so you’re going to have to have courage. You have to tell yourself that - and I tell myself that when I get discouraged and hear words I can’t stand. You have to have courage of yourself that you can do something about it. It may not be change on an immediate global level, but that’s not how change is made...change is made on a local level and individual level and that’s how you inspire others to spread your message.”
Vanity Fair Fashion Market Director
“BOTTY MAN is the term that probably makes my skin crawl the most. "Botty Man" is the Patua (or Creole) Jamaican phrase for someone who is gay or effeminate, both issues that I was grappling with as a youth growing up in Jamaica in the late 80s.
While faggot can be more jarring, the gay community has also taken it back to some degree. I hesitate to say that, as it I don’t want to diminish the powerfulness of this word either. Growing up in Jamaica, songs were dedicated to the killing of gay men, for instance Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye.” I remember as an 11 year old seeing a mob of people chasing a young man through my back yard hitting him with switches of stalks of sugarcane screaming Botty Man at him. I remember the mob anger and the sense of sadness and helplessness I felt, and the pure horror of the mob mentality. I think it's because of moments and songs like this that it took me so long to come out of the closet. I also know that homophobia is still a huge issue in Jamaica and, unlike the United States, it seems to have gotten worse.
If I could say anything to gay or transgender youth now it would be to hang in there and that things are only going to get better. I know things right now must seem extra hopeless and scary, but things will get better and there are so many people that are out there to help. When I was a teenager, coming out of the closet seemed like an impossibility. The idea of coming out was terrifying, but I did it, and that was over twenty years ago. Since then everything has changed and progress is made every day. AIDS is no longer a death sentence, gay marriage is now legal, and huge progress has been made for the Transgender community. The large majority of people across the United States are sensitive or at the very least aware of the Transgender community.
Lord knows we have still have a long way to go, but we are getting there. I know it is easy for me to say this as someone who lives in NYC, but I also grew up in a small town and in Jamaica, where the word faggot and gay were thrown out so casually, so I do understand.
Today there is Help. Go online and educate yourself, get involved with your local LGBTQ community center. Be proud of who you are. I know it’s terrifying but you are not alone, and you are not alone in your community no matter where you live, I promise you that."
Ali Forney Director of Life Skills
“My biggest pet peeve is when people follow up a phrase with “no homo” almost like a disclaimer. Because it’s bad to be gay or bad to be associated with anything queer, so if you add that disclaimer at the end of a sentence, it automatically negates whatever you said that could be construed as gay, homosexual or queer...and that pisses me off because it’s kind of like saying don’t be emotional to a woman. It’s like you being an other or person from a marginalized group your feelings are invalid or identity is invalid and by using phrases like no homo or that’s gay diminishes us or whoever identifies in that way. I see that a lot in our young people - they’re so disempowered and words are a way for power. So when they’re throwing shade or using certain slurs with each other it’s a way to reclaim power when they don’t have it already.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? Find your tribe wherever you can. There’s strength in numbers, but when you realize that you yourself are not the soul victim, it’s not you or personal, it’s part of a larger disdain for anything homosexual or queer, once you find your tribe who also think like you it’s easier to withstand the cyberbullying or one on one bullying.
Teaching people to be upstanders as opposed to bystanders. An upstander is a person that’s hanging on the side witnessing bullying happening, and instead of being one of the crowd, a bystander, being an upstander whether using humor or deflecting negative attention to them. If we start teaching young people to be upstanders it also diminishes the bullies power and words.
Having people find their community, that like-minded individual who might like that same weird blog as you, or be an artist just like you are...whatever it is, you’re able to find that safe space. And if that safe space is a person, that’s great.
I also teach young people to find that advocacy within themselves - and although we know it’s not easy - but if we’re teaching them now, I feel like I’m getting my job done.”
Soul Cycle Vice President of Retail
“I go back to the typical words like gay or homo but it’s almost the association of the words that hurts most. That I’m going to do something in a certain way or act a certain way or I can’t participate in something because it’s a gay version of that.
Even now as an adult and parent, it’s interesting to be told that I won’t be able to do it as a Mom would or that I’m just a gay mom. It’s funny for me to be around my peers who are in heterosexual relationships or have children, and being asked the differences of how my children are going to be brought up because I’m a gay parent...but at the end of the day, I’m just a parent. At the end of the day, I’ve always been an athlete. At the end of the day, I’ve always just been who I was brought up to be and who I am inside, and the fact that I’ve had to be a gay version of that just pauses you because it makes you feel you can’t be your natural self...that you’re already set into this secluded portion of the world that is unique and identified instead of just being who you are.
Even before I came out in high school when I was playing every sport I could play and becoming the captain of the teams, I remember a teammate calling me a faggot. Just the thought it put into my head caused me to not want to be part of a team I was supposed to be leading. So how do you manage through that especially as a young adult where you’re not supposed to be in control of your emotions yet and figuring out who you are, but as you’re trying to do that and excel, you’re getting pigeon holed by your peers and it wasn’t corrected by anyone. It was just let go.
We live in a big big bubble here in New York and I’m terrified for people that live in places like Missouri where I grew up. My husband, kids and I went out there for Thanksgiving and I was nervous. When we come to town, it’s like there’s big talk - when we go out there, we’re the gay family that brings two kids, and when we go to the grocery store, people stop us and say, “Oh, you’re Linda’s son, aren’t you?” It’s scary to think that because of who we are and how we are, we’re special to them, and they know of me. I very much question that they know everyone’s son that comes into town, especially on a holiday weekend and can pinpoint who they are.
It’s really scary that it’s been talked about, and then you tie it to this world that’s been unleashed and been given this ok to not be quiet anymore - people feel they can say whatever they want to us in front of our kids. And then what’s next? Our kids turn 8 and then they say something back? Where does that lead? Violence from the other people? And then how do we manage that? Their hate on us and then our child’s response to that? I worry that this is giving people the ok.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? Keep pushing, keep moving forward, and finding ways to stay in a positive mindset in knowing that being your true self is the most positive outcome that you can achieve. Figure out how to find that safe space whether through new friends or new outlets - find a way to not let it take you to another place.
You gotta find your own frame of safety, and give you the positive outcomes that you’re searching for in your life. If you want to become stronger, focus on the things you can change and achieve in your life and put aside the people who are making you feel less than what you are.
I really hope what I’m conveying to my own kids is that they will be that rock for their friend who’s going through some sort of discovery in their life. It could be so simple, but showing support and openness and showing that it’s ok to explore and ok to be who you think you might be. I hope we raise our kids to be supportive of any of that whether it’s straight, gay or anything.”
TED Speaker & Executive Coach
“Words matter and they matter a lot, but to me they matter because words truly harm people.I come at it from a slightly different perspective because I’m now an older gay man at 55 years old. I came of age when the world was still cooling and I remember specifically fighting very hard for the right to be gay - not to be LGBTQ - but just the right to be gay.
In the 70’s and 60’s, to be called gay was an incredible insult, and it’s interesting now to see gay men of my generation wear it as a source of pride. But the words that are like nails on the chalkboard are words like fag and sissy - words that have the dual effect of insulting the person they’re aimed at and simultaneously cutting down another group. So when you call a presumably gay kid a sissy, or saying they act like a girl, there are two things embedded in there...it’s denigrating because you’re not fitting into that stereotype that that person believes you ought to fit into, and denigrating women at the same time as it’s insinuating women are weak and to act like a girl is less than…
One thing that’s really difficult for me is when I hear lines of conversation that reinforce intolerance. I feel like in the last quarter, we’ve done an about face and said we’re going to go back to a time when intolerance was ok. We’re going to go back to a time when people would say to me as a gay man that you don’t have a right to be married...we have the right to impose our values on you, and take it back. So for me it’s words like fag, but it’s more so now being sensitive to the line of thinking that is that about face...that I’m going to tell you if you’re trans that you just need to get over it - there’s something wrong with you.
The thing that’s frightening to me is the way we’re allowing fear to narrow our focus. We’ve gone down a line where we’re doing that about face because we’re faced with a really complex world. I’m disturbed with this trend through a couple perspectives in the fact that ten years ago things that were unacceptable are becoming acceptable. Hate is becoming acceptable. Intolerance is becoming acceptable. Words like gay that have been reclaimed by the LGBTQ community could do an about face in the near future where it becomes an insult again. Even worse than that is there’s a tight coupling of intolerance with distraction from real problems. It’s almost like this is a masquerade where it’s become ok to barrade those that are perceived as different and it’s a distraction which has happened before in history from the real problems that are difficult problems.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? I have three messages:
1) No one is more worthy than you. The message that comes behind these harmful words is that for whatever reason, you are less worthy than someone else, so you must always remember that no one is more worthy than you.
3) Things will look different in time. Now with the history of 55 years to look back on, looking back 40 years ago to when I was a 15 year old who was terrified of being gay - because at that point, it was the worst thing you could possibly be - things look differently now. You have to be aware that when you’re 10, 12, 15 years old, it’s going to look different in a way that you probably cannot imagine right now. The "It Gets Better" campaign’s words weren’t chosen casually and there is so much truth to them.
3) You, with all the difference you bring to the table - whatever that might be - are part of the solution. So you need to do the full arc that no one is more worthy than you are despite what you may be told. Things will be different in a way that you can’t currently imagine, and with that, you are likely to discover that the fact that you are different is going to shift from being the liability you thought it was to being an advantage. So as a 55 year old gay man who came of age during the AIDS epidemic, the fact is that I wouldn’t trade who I am for anything in the world because I really believe that my experience for all the difficulty gives a unique perspective on the world which I believe is very valuable. To come full circle in that the thing that was the problem before is actually going to be part of the solution and something you treasure.”
Style Coach & Personal Stylist
"Fortunately, I don’t internalize these harmful words. What kills me though is knowing how they affect vulnerable individuals and communities. It breaks my heart thinking about the impressionable young kids who haven’t built up their coping skills and aren’t able to deflect, and it’s equally as heart-breaking realizing our lack of progress, and how much hate still exists culturally.
What’s clear is that the world needs more empathy for all diverse groups. We have to rise-up, get involved, listen, connect, share and create a space for relatability to understand each other's disposition and circumstance so that we can appreciate and embrace the differences, instead of becoming afraid of them.
We need to close the gap of fear and hate, and fill it with connectivity and love. The amount to learn from one another is endless. We all have the same red blood running through our veins. We all want to be happy, and nourished and fulfilled. We all want to love and be loved. The nails on the chalkboard for me is the reminder that after so much fight, we still have such a long way to go.
The word "homo" is used to describe someone as weak, but how ironic is that? To me, someone that is fully transparent about their identity/sexuality is actually brave as hell, fearless and insanely courageous.
When I was in college I got into an argument with one of my close friends at the time, and in the heat of it she called me a “f____ing lesbian”, using my sexuality to hit below the belt. I was in the beginning stages of exploring my sexuality, and while I don’t view the word ‘lesbian’ as negative, her tone and the context in which she used it was crushing. I felt judged, and couldn’t resolve why another human being (let alone my friend) would negatively label my identity. From my perspective, it was all about love and how could that be wrong?
I’ve come a long way since my coming out days, have grown extremely proud of the way I love, who I love, my wife, my relationship, the family I’ve created and am eager to raise our daughter in an environment where her only reality is love IS love and comes in all different shapes and sizes.
It’s all of our responsibilities to join/start the conversation to educate those around us, whether we are gay or not. Raising awareness, and becoming part of the solution is the only way to evolve. We need to truly grasp that even if we are not directly affected, we ARE directly affected. In the truest sense, we are one.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? Exploring identity is hard regardless of gender, sexual preference, race, ethnicity, value system, etc. The best advice I can give a young person moving through this process is that the more you get behind who you are and become empowered by that, the less shakeable you will be when faced with adversity. We are diverse beings, and there is incredible beauty in that. But that needs to become ingrained in your values and self-image. Understanding at an early age that uniqueness should be celebrated, embraced and not shunned is a necessary component to a strong foundation. The moment you become solid in your soul, is the moment that others ignorance becomes impenetrable."
“Fag is the hardest word for someone in the community to hear.. For me, I hate hearing the word fag because it takes me back to that earlier time and place in my life of feeling like I’m that 11 year old hearing it for the first time, even though I’m so comfortable with myself walking the streets of NYC.
Language hurts when you don’t understand who you are and what it is that you can become because you’re so self conscious of the way other people perceive you...especially in the early stages of whether you’re identifying with LGBTQ. So, in my own way, growing up in middle class neighborhood outside of Cincinnati being perceived as more effeminate even if I probably was, only helped drive me back into the closet. So someone would whisper “he’s a fag,” or whatever else, just reinforced the negativity that I thought about myself.
It took a long while to understand that because of those words, I wasn’t able to become the actual person I was, at least in my own sexuality. I came out almost twenty years ago, so today people are identifying and understanding themselves much earlier, which is great, but those words still very much hurt.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? The easiest way to shut down the bully if someone was to call you fag is to say, “Ya, I am” because then you’ve cut the bully’s power.
Words in a lot of ways hurt more than fists because you can heal from a surface wound but takes a lot longer to heal from an emotional wound.”
Ali Forney Center Transitional Housing Case Manager
“I hate when people say “that’s gay” and fag really bothers me. I’m trying to get my male friends to get that out of their vocabulary. It mostly bothers me because they don’t realize that it’s a problem - they’re so desensitized to it.
As a queer woman myself it’s bothersome to see language being so casually used that kids and adults just think it’s ok. I just don’t like boxes so using that kind of language boxes you into what people think gay people look like or act.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? It sound cliche, but it really does get better. Growing up, I never had a space within my family that felt safe enough for me to be my authentic self, and it’s really important to me that people realize you should do whatever you can to get to that place. If you can’t be yourself around your family or loved ones, where can you be yourself? In school, you’re supposed to feel safe, but as a child figuring out their identity, you don’t feel safe. Just wait it out, and be you...there are people who are going to love you for you, so just be yourself. It may not feel that way right now, but it will.
Ali Forney Center Meal Coordinator
“If I hear something harmful coming out of someone’s mouth, I like to ask them questions about it because people learn better when they make their own conclusions about things so they don’t feel like they’re being lectured. If they say a word that is harmful, I’ll ask them if they know what the word means, and I’ll tell them personal stories as to why it’s hurtful. It shines a spotlight on it, and something they’ll remember and that feeling of saying something ignorant and not realizing what they were doing.
The advice that I offer regularly is to be the best version of yourself that you want to be. Meet harm with love.
Just hearing somebody can be so helpful. Saying I’m sorry that happened to you, I’m sorry they said that to you. What can I do for you now? Making sure there are places people can go to recover is vital.”
Fashion & Celebrity Stylist
“Fag is an awful thing to call someone but "that's so gay" has always bothered me because one conflates something bad with being gay. When children start hearing this or using it, it becomes a habit and hard to break. I've had to educate people how wrong it is in the past and I think we all have a responsibility to teach today’s youth the power of words.
The other day I was talking to a guy who grew up in the south that was ten years younger than me, and he was telling me how his parents were supportive, his community was accepting, and it gave me the sense that the world is changing. He had a really open experience in an area where you would think wouldn’t be...which gave me hope that things are evolving.
I also see my friends educating and exposing their kids at an early age and it’s just normal, and they don’t even realize what’s happening around them, which leads them to be accepting. It’s taught that it’s not a big deal which starts from the top in every family.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? #ItGetsBetter. The early stages of life and figuring out who you are can be challenging even with the most supportive of friends and family. It’s important to do whatever you can do to find a mentor or surround yourself with people like yourself and once you do you'll realize that life is great and you wouldn't want it any other way!”
Ali Forney Outreach Specialist
“The word faggot is really triggering and harmful. So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? I’m more of a half full type of person so I try and tell people it’s not their fault. Our society is so messed up and there’s so many things we’ve learned that we have to unlearn. When you get into situations like this, you have to be an educator and tell people that’s hurtful to me...it’s not ok to say that to me. Every moment is a teaching moment and that’s what I tell the youth. If you have the space to educate someone on the word and how it makes you feel, then go for it!”
Ali Forney Center Job Developer
“I hate the word fag, and any words that has a lot of violence associated with it, and have been used as ammunition in the past to target people and have been thrown at people while being assaulted or harassed. Whenever I’ve heard someone say something like, “that’s so gay,” the confidence dig that happens every time you hear people who are your friends, family, or role-models to describe anything that’s negative, it sends a really clear message whether you’re in a secure place with your identity or not. Just hearing people’s stigmas or judgements towards anything that reference the LGBTQ community there’s this fear of being associated with that. For me there was a lot of back and forth in my own identity exploration, there was that fear of being gay - how people are using the word. Hearing that just makes you think, I don’t know if I want to be associated with that...what if I am like that?
If you’re surrounded by people who are using language like that in a hurtful way, the message that it sends is you don’t belong here. If your friends are using gay as an insult then the message it sends to you is that the worst thing you could be is gay, and I can’t be part of this group or community.
And you hear people say that it’s not a big deal or you’re being sensitive, and that’s a really easy thing to say if the language doesn’t directly affect you. If you’ve never had someone throw a word like gay or fag in your direction as a direct hit to your identity, it’s really easy to be like that’s no big deal, and I always find that really questionable because there’s this gut feeling that happens when someone throws out an insult like that.
It of course hurts when someone is outright attacking you with language but it almost hurts in a deeper way when it’s the casual use of some of these words that have negative connotation. Someone who claims they’re an ally or has friends in the community and then will throw out “that’s so gay,” there’s the subtle message that as many rainbow flags that get put up, as many times people say I love gay people, I love pride, but those little things that happen on a daily basis continue this feeling of I don’t belong, I should be ashamed or should hide an aspect of who I am.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? The first thing that comes to mind is to find your community. A big help to me that fueled my activism and drive to work with youth is finding people who either share your identity or have had similar life experiences because there’s a lot of power in someone turning to you in saying “me too.” Seek out safe spaces and spaces where there’s activism and justice organizing and being surrounded by people who have had similar experiences to me, and sharing that and using it as fuel when you are faced with negativity, discrimination or feelings of isolation.
That angst feeling that youth are feeling right now is actually really powerful and my favorite part of working with youth. We constantly dismiss the voice of youth as too idealistic or naive, but they have this incredibly powerful, critical lense on the world. I spend five minutes with this current generation of teenagers and their passion and fierce support of one another and unapologetic commitment to being themselves in incredible. I didn’t have that in my teens, and not until my early twenties and I see it more and more. This solidarity and desire to show the world who they are is forcing the world to shift. They’re going to blow us out of the water, and it’s going to be great!
Right now is a devastating time period as it feels like we’re getting pulled backwards, but I really believe that what we’re seeing now is a last ditch temper tantrum of people holding on to power that’s on its way out. This happens a lot in social justice movements in history when there’s this spike in awfulness, hatred and hateful language and pushback to inevitable social change. It’s going to be a tough fight in this chunk of time, but I have a lot of faith and confidence in the youth and the communities that they’re building online and in person - I think we’re already setting the groundwork for a world where gender, sexuality, relationships and support of each other’s differences is going to look really different in a couple decades.”
Ali Forney Director of Facilities
“There are so many words that we have reclaimed like queer, which is an old school derogatory word, but a word that I heard plenty of when I was growing up was faggot. That’s the mother of all put-downs.
#SoWhatDoWeTellTheKids? My message to the youth is that you are not alone. You are not these negative things that people are telling you - there are other people that are in your corner, other people that are fighting for you, there are other people that will stand up for you. I feel like I am that person now who is fighting for our younger people.
I do think we have become a little desensitized in our society when it comes to language in that some types of language or behavior has been normalized but we need to let them know that it’s not normal and is not something that’s ok or we should let slide and should stand up to it at any given chance.
I would tell my younger self that it definitely does get better. I am not alone, there are other people that share my pain and other people who are willing to fight for me.”
Ali Forney Center Vocation Education Specialist
"Everyone in the community fights for freedom of self expression of who they want to be and with the changing political climate, and the way things might change it kind of threatens that possibility of freedom. They’re already being kicked out of their homes for being who they are or due to sexual orientation or their gender identity. Not being respected for who they present themselves to be causes a number of conflicts. Hate speech can be triggering - people saying things like “faggot” or not respecting people’s gender. For example, if somebody presents themselves as a he but we’re still calling them she, those are things that trigger them feeling unrecognized for who they are.
When kids say “that’s gay,” it’s mostly attached to a very negative connotation so it kind of takes away from the empowerment feeling when someone says “I’m gay”. It’s now attached to things that are "not okay" or not socially accepted. When people come out saying I’m gay or queer, it’s kind of associated with a negative view so it doesn’t allow the community to have ownership over it the way they want to.
The context in which people use words is huge, especially for people who aren’t in the LGBTQ community and aren’t educated about the culture or vocabulary used by the community. How people of the LGBTQ community identify with the term "gay" or feel about the words usage is different from person to person.
Respecting other people’s gender pronoun - their personal gender identify- is important to AFC. At AFC, we try to acknowledge how the young people wish to be seen. So they come in here and get this atmosphere of acceptance and respect no matter what, and whoever they say they are is who they are to us. If someone wants to be identified as a he, but people continue to call him a she, it’s the same things as someone calling a black person the n-word.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? Find empowerment within your oppression! Everyone is oppressed in one way, shape or form. So it’s important to be the example that you want people to associate with whatever it is you represent.
I try to not paint a false reality for them. They’re going to go into the world and experience real struggles. They’re going to see people who don’t agree with their lifestyle choice or image. Educate yourself - know what your rights are, what resources you have. I tell people all the time there’s tons of money for people who are marginalized to go to school, but if you don’t go to those places and tell them “I’m homeless, I’m gay, I’m transgender, what do you have for me?” then you won’t ever get help.
America is associated with being the land of the free and hopeful but it's difficult to believe such things because we’re so stuck in the social ideas of those before us; hence the current social atmosphere. We haven’t accepted the fact that our forefathers didn’t make the best decisions when doing things, and we are taking documents and things that preceded us and bringing it to 2017. Things like racism, sexism, facism - these are all things that were practiced by people who ran our country, but we know it’s not right, and we continue to modify a little bit, but not eliminate it. It’s a choice to have these things as part of our social norm - there’s no law, there’s nothing that holds us to these social ideas and practices, but it’s kind of like the elephant in the room but everyone has different plans on how to treat or what to do about this "elephant". We know these things exist and we know people are practicing things that aren’t right and we continue to see people do it, but we’re not standing up to say hey, maybe I don’t want to do this anymore...maybe I don’t want to continue standing by people’s choice to not give everyone equality. If we started to stand by what we really felt was right as opposed to what we know is normal, then a lot of things would change."
Ali Forney Center Intensive Case Manager
"Words like faggot really bother me, mainly because when I was growing up, it didn’t have anything to do with sexuality, it was something that was thrown at someone who was misogynist.
It had nothing to do with who they were attracted to, who they spent their time with, but it was literally about hating women. Then as I got older and the LGBTQ community started to appear in front of eyes, no longer just on TV, it was my peers, it was everywhere. I started to see that word being used with a different type of anger and energy behind it, attacking a part of a person’s humanity instead of actions.
I don’t like to hear it, and kids throw it around all the time, taking jabs at eachother, but you never know what someone’s been through, how that word has impacted their lives, impacted their ability to make choices.
So #WhatDoWeTellTheKids? Not to make it sound too easy, but they ultimately have to come to a crossroads where they have to make that decision for themselves. Our beliefs, our feelings, our actions all follow this linear line and it all comes from the things that we get from the environment. So it’s easy to say just ignore it, but it’s more than just ignoring it...in order for them to have some sort of self preservation, they have to make the decision to not allow these things to touch them at their core. If they’re strong enough they should speak out, and that doesn’t mean argue, just literally telling them that word is messed up...it’s been used violently against people and it doesn’t make me feel good and it’s harmful. Then it’s on that other person to make a decision to live with their own opinions or put that to the side in order to have a better moral ground.
You gotta depend on yourself, feed yourself positivity, making sure that you’re counteracting these negative words that are coming at you, whether that’s your own words of gratitude or hanging out with people that actually have that positivity to share with you."
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The #WhatDoWeTellTheKids platform was created to shed light, share stories, and continue to make sure we as a brand - and as human beings - are on the right side of history. We’re always building on the ways in which we can do that, so if there’s a cause or issue that you feel needs extra attention, send us a note! We are fueled by you… our State family!Give@statebags.com
Scot is State’s Co-Founder and ‘Give-Back Guy.’ Scot defines the term ‘social entrepreneur’ and has made it his life’s work to balance profitable business ventures with making the world a better place. Scot has worked to evolve their charitable model through STATE’s innovative giving initiatives and #WhatDoWeTellTheKids platform.View all stories by Scot here.
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