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I was eating dinner alone in Leverett dining hall the other night. Uninteresting meal. Uninteresting evening. I was minding my business, humming to myself, enjoying a brief break from emails, texts, and conversations.
You waltzed in with a swagger that could shame a Calvin Klein model. You saw your friends at a nearby table—the table directly behind me. You approached them.
“Hey, faggot, how you been?”
“Pretty good, fag, pretty good.”
You said the word three different times.
My muscles tensed. I gripped my fork too tightly. I wanted to stand and confront you. Ultimately, frustratingly, I didn’t. And I had my reasons: You and your friends were all easily 6’2" with muscles like melons, while I am 5’8" at best and considerably less intimidating; I was scared that you would dismiss my complaint with a harsh sneer, or at best a hurtful indifference; and it felt off kilter to cause a momentary scene over our chicken and broccoli penne in the middle of Leverett dining hall.
You, in all likeliness, thought nothing of saying a word like “faggot.” As a blissfully unaware heterosexual (which I’ll take the risk in assuming you were after hearing your unnecessary discussion of the tits on some girl at a party this past weekend), you have no connection to a term that for ages has been used to diminish and delegitimize an entire community of people. To you, it's just a term of emasculation, a harmless jab at a friend.
But like so many words in the English language that are no longer acceptable to toss around in casual conversation, your use of the word “faggot” has nothing to do with what it means to you and everything to do with what it means to me. My peers. The community of faggots at large.
True story time. On June 22, 1977, a gay man named Robert Hillsborough attended a disco club in San Francisco with his friend, Jerry Taylor. A little after midnight, after stopping at a burger place near Robert's house, they were followed by four young men until they parked their car, at which point the four men attacked them. Taylor managed to flee, but Hillsborough did not. He was beaten to the ground and stabbed 15 times in the face and chest by a man named John Cordova. As he stabbed Hillsborough, Cordova was reported as repeatedly shouting, “Faggot! Faggot!”
Now let me bring some other people to mind that you may have never even heard of. Matthew Shepard. Emonie Spaulding. Brandon Teena. Harvey Milk. These people were faggots like Robert Hillsborough. Like me. They're dead now, too, murdered by those who disagreed so strongly with who they were that they chose to end their lives for them. Many of their deaths were equally gruesome and humiliating, coupling insult and injury in some of the most inhumane fashions conceivable.
I was not present at any of them. I don’t know the specifics of their deaths beyond what newspapers and law proceedings say.
But look me in the eye and explain to me how you can freely throw around a word that was, at one point, the last thing an innocent person ever heard before being murdered.
Inherent in your petty attempts at emasculation are much harsher, subtler truths: that you consider faggots to be below you. That femininity is something to be ashamed of while masculinity is a point of pride. That, even in jest, reducing your fellow privileged person to the status of the underprivileged is how you get your rocks off. That you have no problem perpetuating the perceived inferiority of an entire minority group of people since you’re not one of them and you don’t have to deal with the detrimental effects such actions perpetuate. Effects like a stab in the face for committing the crime of being alive.
And if you think for one second that Robert Hillsborough’s case doesn’t hold weight because it happened a long time ago, and that in today’s day and age of nationwide marriage equality the faggots have it easier, I invite you to spend five seconds on Google. There were 1,402 hate crimes committed based on sexual orientation in 2013 alone, accounting for over 20 percent of all hate crimes nationwide. More than half of states do not have statewide legislation protecting LGTBQ individuals from employment, housing, and public discrimination. 2015 is on track to break a record for the most LGTBQ homicides in a single year.
These are not problems of the past, but glaring issues facing the faggot community in the present and immediate future, and your poor choice of words affirms this. Our problems cannot be solved in a day. You or I cannot solve them alone. They may even taper asymptotically such that they’re never fully resolved.
But progress begins with small steps. Steps like creating a safer, less aggressive, less hateful environment on Harvard’s campus.
I am a student in good standing at this school, just like you. We both have a right to sit in Leverett dining hall and eat our penne, live our lives, feel like we have a home here without experiencing the burn of a fresh, hot slur on our backs—shrapnel from an explosion you didn't even know you were making, or worse, knew you were making and didn’t care.
There is weight in the words you let loose into the air. There is power in the connections they have to the past. There is pain in the damage you do when you choose to be ignorant and uncaring. I invite you, and anyone like you who uses the word "faggot" despite their heterosexual privilege, to take a long, hard look at why you feel the need to sink so low. And then I invite you to grow up and be better. Because there is an entire community of people, both dead and still surviving, that deserves that from you.
A hot and bothered faggot
Kyle R. Whelihan ’17, is a psychology concentrator living in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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