When my twin sons reached fifth grade, they started telling me about something that was new in their lives: the way kids tease each other at school. Their peers had started going through that phase where kids try to enhance their own status by humiliating others.
That came as no surprise. But what struck me as really weird were the two insults my kids told me their peers used most often: “racist” and “gay.”
Think about that a minute. When you use “racist” as an epithet, you’re putting someone down for showing intolerance toward people who are different. When you use “gay” as an epithet, you’re putting someone down for actually being different. They are, in a sense, opposites. How could those two insults coexist in the same schoolyard among the same group of kids? Was it that the kids could believe two contradictory things at once, or did the words simply have no meaning to them at all?
The answer, I think, is a little of each.
There is a constant tension between the outward forms we use - the language and symbols we employ to represent things - and the core beliefs we have actually internalized. The white kid who uses “racist” as an epithet is not necessarily free of racism himself, but he’s internalized the taboo against appearing racist - he’s been raised in a culture of political correctness where he’s been carefully socialized to believe that the outward signs of racism - like using the “n” word - is to be avoided at all costs. This, despite the fact that, if his lunch money disappears, he may suspect a black classmate first.
Meanwhile, the kid who uses “gay” as an epithet does not necessarily think about the morality of same-sex relationships - in fact, in fifth grade he may have only the haziest idea of what homosexuality is - but he’s internalized the taboo against behaviors culturally associated with homosexuality or, more generally, a lack of masculinity.
In other words, the kids don’t fully understand the epithets, but they have a very clear idea about the words’ social implications.
So what does that translate to in fifth-grade culture? For one thing, anyone who shows any awareness of the existence of race - for example, identifying someone as a “black kid” or a “white kid,” or for that matter using the words “black” or “white” in any context whatsoever (no, I’m not exaggerating) is liable to be called “racist.” And any kid who sets a toe outside the tight boundaries established for masculinity - the boy who is studious, artistic, or simply uninterested in sports - is liable to be called “gay.”
For an epithet to be effective, it doesn’t have to be true or even probable. It just has to do one thing successfully: push the shame button and humiliate the victim. Successful insults rely on shared cultural cues about what is shameful. TV, movies, peers - they’re all important sources of those cues, but most important are parents. That doesn’t necessarily mean parents are tossing these words around at the dinner table; it means that they’re sending cues which kids, like the intelligent, imitative primates they are, learn to interpret at a very young age. And kids have exquisitely finely tuned sensors for what embarrasses their parents. Pointing out someone’s skin color in a public place? Embarrassing. Seeing junior dress up in tutu and tiara? Cringeworthy.
Flash forward a few years, when the child reaches the stage where he believes that humiliating others enhances his own status, and “racist” and “gay” make perfect sense in the same schoolyard, among the same kids, because they both have the same effect - they call up a visceral shame.
For a while, anyway. Over time, one of those epithets seems to fade away, while the other becomes more common, and more cruel.
When puberty hits and the entire topic of sexuality becomes an intense, hot-button issue strewn with all kinds of personal and social land mines, a kid’s social life begins to revolve around one urgent need: to avoid embarrassment by seeming normal, with normal very clearly defined as heterosexual. And voila, “gay” becomes the epithet of choice, because it becomes the word with the most power to do harm.
My boys are in seventh grade now. I never hear anymore about people being called “racist,” but “gay” is bigger than ever. And now, there’s a dawning understanding among their friends of what the word means beyond a general lack of masculinity. Seventh graders have, to varying degrees, begun to learn what sex is, and they’ve begun to be interested in it themselves. It’s that age when sex is simultaneously the most fascinating topic in the world and also the most excruciatingly embarrassing; the need to fit neatly inside the boundaries of what your peers see as normal is intense.
All of a sudden, the epithet “gay,” which was bad enough before, is now brutally distressing, whether or not it’s accurate. Just knowing that your sexuality is being disparaged can be devastating. Sadly, recent media coverage of teen suicides has been a shocking reminder of just how devastating.
So if parental and social cues serve to teach kids how to embarrass each other, you have to wonder exactly what cues all those kids are getting on homosexuality. Many, no doubt, hear explicitly anti-gay statements at home. But even among those who don't, the message comes through loud and clear. At best, they may sense some grudging tolerance - a kind of awkward, bare-bones acknowledgment that gay people exist - they're out there, but we don't like thinking about it. To the average 12- or 13-year-old boy, the translation is: "Don't act like one, don’t hang around them, and for God’s sake, don’t EVER become one."
As long as people, especially parents continue to cringe at what they perceive as homosexual or unmasculine behavior, kids will continue to use “gay” as a weapon to wound. Schools can and should adopt anti-bullying policies; they can and should discipline kids who harass others in any way. But does anyone really believe that schools can make this problem go away on their own?
Every time a kid loses his life to the unbearable humiliation of being called “gay,” every parent should ask him or herself, “What have I done to give that word its power to wound - and what can I do to take it away?”