A couple years ago, Chuck—my partner of 22 years—and I were invited to speak to a health class at a local high school. We were participating in a program that sends LGBT folks into middle and high school classrooms to promote tolerance by telling their stories of what it was like growing up.
The room was noisy as the students settled in. And then we heard it over the hubbub. “Don’t be such a faggot,” one teen lobbed at another. The word sent a cold flash through my arms and legs. That was a fighting word. But it hadn’t been directed at us, or even said in the context of the class. I had no idea how, or whether, to respond.
Not Chuck, who had plenty of experience as a teacher. He stood, took a step forward, and shot his voice like a particle beam through the din. “Hey … Hey!” The kid looked over, startled to be confronted by someone he didn’t even recognize. “I resemble that remark,” Chuck said. His eyes were locked on the boy. The room quieted.
The boy shrugged, embarrassed to be in the spotlight. He said, “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“So if someone in here used the N-word on you, or someone else, how would you react?” Chuck asked him as the class looked on.
“I’d be all in his face about it.”
“Why?” Chuck asked.
“I’m not going to let anyone get away with that. No one talks to me that way.”
“Something wrong with the word?”
“So what if the kid says to you, ‘But I didn’t mean anything by it’—what do you do?”
He still wasn’t getting the point, but lots of other kids in the class were. He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. The guy said it. It’s asking for a fight. It’s, well, it’s in-my-face dissing me.”
Chuck nodded. “I agree with you. But just to be clear. I’m gay. And what you said was up-in-my-face dissing me. And I agree with you. It doesn’t matter that you meant nothing by it. You don’t get to say it.”
Finally, the point landed. “I’m sorry,” the boy said—but not sheepishly, and not reflexively. He was standing up, shoulders square. He looked Chuck in the eye and nodded.
Chuck said, “Cool. You want to stay for this? You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“It’s okay. I’ll stay.”
Then Chuck addressed the class:
“But hey, lots of you use that kind of language. Lots of you hear it, and don’t do anything about it. Many of you don’t care. You don’t think it’s a big deal. You’re wrong. All around you are gay kids who are hiding, who are hurting, who are scared. They hear those words and they take a hit.”
It had been an impressive teaching moment, and Chuck nailed it. It showed a fiercely firm yet respectful way to call someone on a slur. And if there were LGBT kids in that classroom, I hope it showed them that their elders were out and on watch, that they were not alone and that they didn’t need to swallow their self-respect.