My daughter Riley and I were strolling through our neighborhood on a recent Sunday afternoon, down to our favorite nearby coffeehouse. She knows that her father needs his java fix about two hours after lunch. Daily. Not only does she understand this, she’s started anticipating it, putting down her book around 2 p.m. and calling from her room, “It’s almost coffee time, right?” And off we go, down the block to Mystic Mocha.
The walk over was fine. Beautiful, sunny early Autumn day, endless field of blue sky above us, barely scuffed with the faintest of clouds. We listened to the sounds of music and football games coming from the open windows as we passed our neighbors’ houses. We’d chosen a Discussion Topic for our walk, as usual: “Halloween Costumes: Store-Bought Vs. Homemade?”
At the coffeehouse, we got the usual: for me, a Super-Large Industrial Strength Coffee which comes in a cup the size of a Slurpee. For her: a non-coffee faux mocha with extra whipped cream. We thanked the barista, turned around and headed back home.
All good. All nice. Me and my girl, doing what we do on lazy Sunday afternoons.
Our walk home took us up a different side of the street. And as our flipflops slapped against the pavement, we came across some graffiti. Just one word, scrawled in three thick, dark letters.
Riley noticed. She read it, and I saw her falter a bit as our steps took us past it. She didn’t say anything about it, though. This in itself is noteworthy. This is a kid who observes and interprets everything she sees, and voices it all, without hesitation. It’s weird for her to see something, make with the brow furrowing, and not verbalize.
She knows the word “fag.” She knows it’s mean. She knows it refers to gay people, and not in a nice, rainbow-flag kind of way. She’s heard it shouted across playgrounds and ball fields. Not often – but enough to understand the intention behind it: to bully gay kids, to turn being gay into something worth insulting.
As we kept walking, I glanced at her to see if she was going to say anything. She, girl with gay dad, has been trying to assimilate different viewpoints about homosexuality for about nine months now, ever since I came out to her last January. I’ve made sure she knows she’s allowed to ask any questions, express any feelings, and approach me about any concerns that might surface. And she’s done so. Which is awesome. Her questions have been frequent, honest, and healthy.
So the fact that she read “Fag” on the sidewalk a block away from our house and didn’t say something was strange, and troubling.
My own relationship with the word is interesting. Even before I came out, before I understood my own orientation clearly, I always despised it. It’s up there with the N-word for me in terms of offensive hate speech. I’d watch as bullies would corner other kids in school, the weaker members of the pack, and use the word “Faggot” to instill fear. We all remember that happening, right? Didn’t matter if the kid was actually gay or not.
After I came out in Spring of 2011, my relationship with the word changed. Coming out meant I was suddenly part of a minority group. Apparently, I was now a member of a marginalized culture. I was officially a person who was now not given the same rights as everyone else. I was always an advocate for equality – and now, suddenly I was all… oppressed and stuff.
And since I had no intention of hiding my orientation, the word “fag” was now an insult that someone, at some point, might sling at me. Interesting.
Gay friends of mine actually use the word all the time when they talk to each other (or about each other). It’s the typical practice of extracting the power out of hate speech by taking ownership of that speech, changing its definition, etc., a tactic practiced by many minorities. I get it. I know it’s meant to be playful. But even when my gay friends are the ones using the word “fag” about other guys, they still seem to be using it to criticize someone; usually for demonstrating some higher level of fastidiousness, or femininity.
I haven’t brought myself to throw the word “fag” around in a playful way yet. Mainly because I know that when my daughter hears or sees it, she only knows the vile intention behind it.
A week later, she and I again made our coffee walk. I considered avoiding the side of the street with the graffiti, but I was curious to see if it was still there. I was hoping it was, that Riley would see it, and that she’d say something this time so we could have a conversation about it. I wanted to tell her that even though there are still people out there who have the Big Hate on for gay people, times are changing, people are evolving, and no one is going to bully her dad.
The word was gone. The square of pavement was clean.
Riley noticed that it was no longer there. She even glanced behind us as we kept going, to see if it might reappear as if by magic after we passed. I could tell that the memory of it was still bothering her.
But she never said a word.