I Used To Say ‘That’s Gay’

I have been mulling over this piece for weeks. To write, or not to write, that was the question.

On the one hand, I’m not even sure it’s of any value, and the admission brings me great shame.

On the other, I have this inexplicable urge to share.

I don’t know if it’s rooted in a need to confess, to repent, to seek forgiveness, or if I simply want to contribute to ongoing conversations around social justice and cancel culture.

Whatever the reason, despite the fact that my face is flushing and the tips of my ears reddening as I begin to write, I feel compelled to disclose this ugly truth:

I used to say, “That’s gay.”

“I can’t make it out tonight,” a friend would say.

“That’s gay,” I would reply.

As if the term were an easy substitute for an unfavorable expression.

To be clear, I do not understand to this day what possessed me to use this word as a pejorative. I have never once harbored an unkind thought about the LGBTQIA+ community. Not once. I have always supported same-sex marriage rights and protections against discrimination. And I have never believed that one’s gender identity or sexual orientation had any bearing on their inherent value.

And yet, when I reflect back on memories from college, I can distinctly recall using the term in a derogatory manner.

I have confessed this to people before. Not in writing, but verbally, in person. And they always excuse my actions as a juvenile mistake. After all, I harbored no ill will, they argue. There was no malice. My actions lacked mal-intent.

But does that matter? I mean truly matter, in a functional and practical sense.

Sure, intent is informative. But it is not dispositive.

If I intend to throw a ball three feet to your left but instead hit you square in the nose, you may not be as angry at me as you would be if it were on purpose, but you would still hurt all the same. And to me, that’s what matters: not the intent behind the action but the natural consequences of it.

Now, I never knowingly said this to or in front of a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. But what if I did so unwittingly? What if there were someone aching to come out, to reveal their true selves, and yet my words dissuaded them from doing so? Made them feel as though they were somehow inferior? That I wouldn’t be supportive?

Of course that wouldn’t have been the case, but such a deduction would have been the logical inference of my word choice. And the mere prospect of that is horrifying to me.

“But it was a common term when we were in high school and college. You can’t blame yourself for adapting to your environment.”

First of all, yes I can. And secondly, that justification is likely what compelled me to write this piece.

We are all a product of our environment, and yet some people seem to think that we should exert no control over its influence.

We live in a society where we are constantly being told that “political correctness” and “cancel culture” abound and that we are all one clumsy word or action away from ostracism.

But political correctness is not the dirty word that some make it out to be. Because, the truth is, we have been ostracizing marginalized groups with our words and actions for years. Raising awareness about that, suffering the consequences of that, that’s not cancel culture; that’s progress and personal responsibility.

Because if you were to say that using the word “gay” as a pejorative was commonplace, you would be correct. But that doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t shield marginalized groups from harm; to the contrary, it only increases their exposure. And that is precisely why we must, as a society, identify and condemn destructive language when we see it.

Because it shouldn’t have been commonplace. And yet it was perpetuated writ large, even by those with no ill intent. Even by me.

So that Halloween when you dressed in blackface to better resemble a Black public figure?

That rebel flag you flew because, to you, it was a symbol of heritage and not slavery?

That vernacular you used that may have been popular but was also insidious and damaging (e.g. gay, the r word, etc.)?

You may have had the most innocent of intentions, but ultimately, intent does not equal impact, and the impact is injurious.

What is my point in all of this? To be perfectly honest, I’m still not quite sure. I guess I just want people to know that it is okay to admit mistake. That it is okay to identify where you have fallen short in the past, because, in doing so, we best learn how to rise above in the future.

I also want people to understand that while intent matters, it is not decisive. Outcomes are. And we should work to engage in behaviors that produce the best outcomes for all. You might not understand why someone is offended by your conduct, as we all have differing backgrounds that inform our capacity for understanding. But you needn’t understand. You need only be conscious of the fact that others are adversely affected, and then adjust your behavior accordingly.

Because “cancel culture” doesn’t exist. Not really. Cancel culture is simply the moral and societal equivalent of the free market. You are free to engage in whatever enterprise you please, but then society is free to decide whether your product is worth consuming. Whether your books are worth reading. You, worth employing. Your views, worth hosting. It is, in essence, a purchasing decision based on your perceived value, or lack thereof.

We act as though we have a right to employment. A right to use the platforms provided by private companies. And that the imposition of an expectation of consideration or kindness is the ultimate attack on our freedoms, when it’s really just free market principles at play.

Take this post, for example. If someone were to read this piece and decide to unsubscribe from my media outlet, that wouldn’t be cancel culture. That would be an aftereffect for which I assume personal responsibility. Because mistakes have consequences. It’s something that we teach our children in youth, and yet, as adults, we suddenly eschew the wisdom when we wish not to suffer the repercussions of our actions.

For some reason, it has become taboo to be kind in this country. It is uncool to consider the thoughts and feelings of others, as our own take precedence in the hierarchy of importance. But that kind of egoism and self-regard is not conducive to an inclusive and prosperous community, and it is long past time that we stop thinking in terms of “me” and think, instead, in terms of “we.” It is long past time that we look outside of ourselves and our limited understanding of the world and make space for those of diverse experience.

Because, as someone who once used the term “gay” as a pejorative, I have all the compassion and grace in the world for those who make mistakes. But if you are alerted to your mistake and continue on undeterred, then it is no longer a misstep but a conscious decision for which you bear accountability.

Who decides what is a “mistake” and what is not, you ask? Simple, the free market. After all, what is good for the economy is good for our code of ethics and morality.

So let us not evade accountability with ominous warnings about political correctness and cancel culture. Let us not entreat our peers to place freedom from consequence above social responsibility. And let us not place intent above impact.

Let us instead act in the interest of others and hold each other — and ourselves — to account when we fail to foster an environment of inclusion.

Because, ultimately, to err is human, but to continue to err in the face of pain is inhumane.

And it is high time that we choose humanity.

Every year for my birthday, I host a fundraiser for The Trevor Project — a national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth. Services that are made necessary by a life lived in a society that is often blind to their pain. A society where their state of being can be reduced to a pejorative.

If you would like to get involved with The Trevor Project, you can sign up to volunteer here or donate here.

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