The don’t say gay laws a rash of frightened sheep in red state legislatures have been passing, or trying to pass, lately are absurd on their face. “We don’t want our children learning about queer people! They’re too young to learn that!” This argument, of course, begs the question, how old is old enough to learn about alternate sexualities?
I say it’s when kids are old enough to start using slurs in a bullying way on their schoolmates.
For the record, I was only eight years old the first time I was called a gay slur, and I didn’t understand anything about it, let alone the word itself meant.
Why, my eight-year-old mind wondered, is he calling me a ferry? That doesn’t make any sense.
But what the older brother of the girl who lived down the street actually meant was ‘fairy,’ and now it amuses me to remember how naïve I was at age eight, how I had no idea what this older boy, who seemed so enormous and grown-up to my younger self (he was in high school) meant. Somehow, I knew he was insulting me, but eight-year-old me didn’t know what he meant.
But I did know, was very aware, that whatever he meant, it was a bad thing.
I already knew I wasn’t like the other kids on the block or in my grade at school. I was a boy who liked to read, who preferred to go off in my own mind on flights of imagination where I was writing stories and creating fictions, inventing characters and how they related to each other. I much preferred that to playing catch or catching bugs or any of the other, more traditionally masculine things little boys were supposed to be doing in their spare time. I liked to sit on our back porch in the shade of the big tree and read my library books or my recent Scholastic Book Club paperback treasures.
I was in the seventh grade when I first heard the word fag hissed at me contemptuously in the hallways of my junior high school, and even then, I still wasn’t sure what it meant, I could tell by the tone used that it wasn’t meant as a compliment, especially when followed by cruel laughter. That was the first time, but it was by no means the last—even now, in these more enlightened times, I doubt that I will go the rest of my life without someone saying it to me another time, because there’s always another time.
I don’t remember when I finally learned what they meant when they called me fairy or fag or faggot, but I do remember this: it was true, and it was something unusual, not normal, something I should be ashamed about. I did my best to change my camouflage, like a good chameleon, to hide it so no one else would know my shameful secret, what I had to disguise from the world: that I was, in fact, a homosexual. A fag. A fairy. A Mary. Faggot. Queen. Homo. Nelly. Pansy. Sissy.
I was ashamed of who I was, because I was taught by the world around me that my sexuality was suspect, wrong, bad.
So, when I see the words politically correct (or more commonly now, woke) used in a sneering way, as a methodology of trying to shut down honest conversation and derail discussion about the realities of what non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender, and non-male Americans experience every day, I get angry. Because none of those people, for one example, who sneered “well, this is just political correctness out of control” about the American Library Association’s decision to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award several years ago due to concerns about problematic racial overtones in her work were ever called a fairy when they were eight years old, or had the word fag hissed at them in the halls of their junior high school; were ever called any slur used for non-white people, or non-western European lineage, or been told to go back where they came from, or been called the n-word (which I can’t even bring myself to type out, even for a column about slurs).
Frankly, people who argue against “political correctness” are people I assume want to be able to use slurs with impunity–they aren’t arguing about freedom of speech as an abstract legal principle, but because they want to use slurs and not suffer consequences.
Merriam-Webster.com defines “politically correct” as the following: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated. Wikipedia goes still further: The term political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct; commonly abbreviated to PC or P.C.) is used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society. Since the late 1980s, the term has come to refer to avoiding language or behavior that can be seen as excluding, marginalizing, or insulting groups of people considered disadvantaged or discriminated against, especially groups defined by sex or race. In public discourse and the media, it is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive.
So, the next time you want to sneer something about “political correctness being out of control”, here’s what I want you to stop and think about before you say it: an eight year old boy being called a fairy by a high school kid, or a ten year old tomboy being called a dyke, or a seven year old kid told to go back where he came from, or a nine-year-old Native American reading a book where Native Americans are dismissed as “not people, just Indians”—and ask yourself, would I want something like that said about or to me?
I feel pretty confident that the vast majority would say no.
Words have power, and no one should know that better than a writer.