‘That’s so gay’ is not OK
Faggot. Queer. Homo. Pansy. Poof. Fruit loop. Diva. Those are just some of the insults slung at me since coming out as a gay man, some from members of my own extended family. There are numerous other examples of the vitriol I’ve endured, but those are not suitable to actually put into print. Once, I was returning from a six-week work trip and my boyfriend at the time was waiting for me at the baggage claim in the Phoenix airport; we were so happy to see each other that we shared a kiss. “Holy shit, did you just see that?!” shouted an old man, pointing at us. A mother covered her young son’s eyes and turned away from us in disgust.
And then there’s the common phrase “that’s so gay.” You’ve probably heard somebody say it. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. I hear it constantly out in public, sometimes from young kids. I’ve heard it here at Brandman University in Irvine too, and it is not OK. I feel compelled to do what I can to end the use of that derogatory phrase, especially at a university that serves one of the most diverse student populations of any institution in higher education.
It has not been an easy road to where I am in my life today. Regardless of what some political or religious ideologies would have you believe, I can tell you that being gay is not a choice. I was born this way, and I’ve always known that I am gay, in spite of my attempts to hide it for the first 21 years of my life. That’s why it is also offensive to the LGBT community to use “sexual preference” in reference to somebody’s identity. In fact, the Associated Press and New York Times style guides instruct journalists to use “sexual orientation, never sexual preference, which carries the disputed implication that sexuality is a matter of choice.”
Growing up in a deeply conservative, rural Iowa community made things even more difficult for me as I struggled with my identity as a teenager, exacerbated by the fact that I have an identical twin brother who is not gay. Even though he did not understand, he was my biggest supporter when I made the choice to come out. “Well, why am I left-handed and you’re right-handed? I see this as no different” he told me during the tearful conversation where, for the first time in my life I uttered the words out loud: I am gay.
Sadly, not everyone in my family shared my twin brother’s acceptance. If it weren’t for him, I might not be here to share my story today. My struggle to accept myself spiraled into a deep depression and ultimately led to a suicide attempt. In my young and troubled mind, it would be better to be dead than gay.
You tried to kill yourself? That’s so gay.
But things did get better. On April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres changed my life. When she came out on national television it inspired a whole new generation of Americans, especially the young and those struggling in places like rural Iowa. Growing up, there were no gay role models for me, but Ellen’s courage gave me strength and hope, ultimately starting me on the path towards self-acceptance and my own coming out, first to my twin and slowly to other members of my family.
The following year, however, my path toward a life of truth was derailed. In October of 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, was beaten and left for dead; six days later he succumbed to his injuries. As a young journalist just starting my career in TV news, I had to help with coverage of his death for the Midwestern station where I worked.
I watched in horror as homophobic religious groups protested his funeral and at the subsequent trial of the two men accused in his murder. I remember crying myself to sleep many nights during that painful time and kept my sexual orientation deeply hidden out of fear.
It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to interview Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, that my journey towards being true to myself resumed. It was about a year after the trial and she was in the area to speak at an event. Judy and her husband Dennis had formed the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and she became a leading national activist for hate crime legislation at the federal level.
“Progress can only be made when people speak up and stand up” she told me. “We must break the silence. We are trying to do what we think Matt would want us to do with this opportunity of having a voice. He’s with me every day when I do this – I know it or I couldn’t do this because I’m a shy, private person.”
Her unwavering love for her son and powerful message reignited my inner strength, and I eventually came out to everyone. I was rejected by the church where I was baptized and spent nearly every Sunday of my formative years. Many members of my large extended family disowned me. I was told I was not welcome at the family Christmas gathering.
People from your own family disowned you? That’s so gay.
Through every challenging moment and the adversity I faced on my journey, I thought about Judy and her mission. There was hope in the world for me, and the people in my life who truly mattered were supportive. My parents would eventually leave that church; it took many years, but they came to accept their gay son.
In society, significant progress has been made as well, but we still have a long way to go. This week CBS Sunday Morning featured a story about Joe and Jane Clementi, the parents of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old gay Rutgers student who jumped to his death after being cyber-bullied and outed by his roommate.
Like the Shepard’s, they have launched a foundation to honor their son. This week the Tyler Clementi Foundation will roll out a new campaign called ‘Day 1.’ It’s premised on the idea that if you stand up on the first day of school, the first day of work or the first day on a sports team and say “You will never treat anyone here differently because of who they love… there will be consequences for that.” They are focusing not just on bullies, but also on the witnesses, asking bystanders to become what they call “upstanders” by reporting bullying and speaking up when homophobic statements or jokes are made.
June is national LGBT pride month. While I might not be marching in a parade this year, I am taking a stand here and now to say “that’s so gay” is not OK. I hope you’ll join me by becoming an upstander, speaking up and encouraging a zero tolerance policy for derogatory remarks and the bullying of LGBT people in the Brandman community. It is happening here.
I long to live in a society where one does not have to be “openly” gay or lesbian – where we are simply allowed to be true to the people we were born to be; where love and acceptance have replaced hate and bigotry. Until then, I must continue to speak up. As the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
You’re standing up to inequality, discrimination and bullying? That’s so gay.
About the author
Joe Cockrell is the vice chancellor of Communications and Chief Communications Officer at Brandman University.
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