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.
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