Thursday, March 10, 2011

The rest of the story...

Awhile back, I wrote about Tyler Clementi's suicide and how it (and the suicides of countless other teens,) spurred me to recommit myself to speaking out about homophobia and also continue to examine my own heterosexist thoughts and feelings.

Well, wouldn't you know it, just a few days after I wrote that post I had the opportunity to put my proverbial money where my proverbial mouth was. Here's how it all went down...

I was on Facebook and I noticed that one of my friends (a member of my extended family actually,) was making comments every so often about gay people that seemed to be intended as jokes, but were very liberal in their use of gay slurs. It's interesting because even with the Public Service Announcements that are around these days, it would seem that using derogatory language around being gay is still pretty prevalent among young people.

So I'm reading my news feed, seeing these comments and thinking to myself, "Ok, I need to say something about this because I consider myself a person who cares about these issues. And if I am a person that truly cares, I have to show it through my actions."

Not long after having those thoughts, these strong feelings of fear and anxiety came over me. "What if Ken (that's my fake name for my relative,) gets really angry? What if he defriends me? What if he talks to some of our other relatives, and it turns into this big thing?"

What's funny about this is that Ken is not someone that I talk to often and see even less frequently; so my concern about what he would think didn't make a whole lot of sense. But as I type that last sentence, I understand that my fear actually does make a lot of sense. Because I (like most other people,) have a basic need to feel liked and accepted by others. Especially members of my own family. And I was considering risking that like and acceptance to speak out about something that many would argue doesn't directly affect me.

So, after I decided I needed to say something, I also just happened to decide that I needed to clean my house. So I did some vacuuming. Then I did some organizing of my books and papers. Then I did some straightening of my couch cushions. Next thing you know it was almost 5 o'clock, and time for me to go pick my husband up from work. As I was driving to pick him up, I thought to myself, "Making this decision to speak to Ken is really hard. Maybe I won't say anything. Then I can make a blog post about how hard it is, and how my difficulty helps me understand why my white friends don't speak out about racism."

[Spoiler alert: Luckily, that is not what this blog post is going to be about, and I will explain why later.]

Eventually, I decided to stop my procrastinating, and started to take some steps that were going to help me say what I needed to say to Ken.

I went for help to the same place that I go to find answers to many of life's burning questions: Google. Google is actually my homepage, so I went there and typed in: How to respond to homophobic comments or something like that.

I came across a British site that said if you hear a comment like this, you should turn to the person say "Well, isn't that a disgusting comment?" and turn away.


I think reacting in that way would primarily serve to make the person making the comment feel shamed, which would most likely lead to anger and defensiveness. That was not the reaction that I was going for.

After, clicking on a couple more links, I realized that I would pretty much be on my own when it came to crafting a response to Ken. This is what I came up with:

Yo Ken-

I wanted to write you about some stuff that I've seen recently on your wall. I've debated writing this message for a couple of days, but finally decided that it was better to say something than to not.

I think that the gay related comments that I've been reading recently are not very cool. I know that you and your friends are probably just joking around, but anti gay comments, lead to anti gay feelings, which lead to anti gay behavior. Maybe not by you, but I'm sure you've got some young impressionable people among your FB friends.

Besides, you are a funny guy, and I know that you can find other ways to show that fact that don't include putting other people down.

So, that's it. I hope that I can still maintain my favorite [insert familial relationship here] status. If you want to talk more about this--you know where to find me.

Change Ken to his name and to my name and you've got the actual message unedited. There are a couple of things that I think are important to point out about what I wrote.

1) I tried to make the message as brief as possible. I didn't want any extra words, because I felt like the more extraneous words the greater likelihood the message I was trying to convey would get lost.

2) I tried to speak his language. He's young and hip, so I tapped into my young and hip side by using totally up-to-the-minute slang like, yo and cool. :p

It's important to note that I wasn't being inauthentic, I use those words even when I'm not talking to teenagers. The point is that since he's a young guy, I used a more casual tone than I would have if I'd been talking to my Grandma.

3) I started by telling him that I debated even writing him about it. The hope is that by expressing my hesitation, I am making myself a little vulnerable to him, which might make him feel less defensive.

4) I made the point clear that words can lead to actions, which is why something as minor as a status update is important.

5) I didn't claim to know what his intentions were, or make any assumptions about what him using that kind of language meant about him as a human being. I feel strongly that if I am trying to influence others to be more compassionate, the best way to do that is to be compassionate myself.

I've gone back and forth about whether or not I should tell you all about what happened next. I've decided that I shouldn't and I've got a pretty good reason.

I know, I know, some of you are now thinking, "Oh, it was a complete disaster." I will say that it wasn't. I will also say I was satisfied with the outcome.

But the reason I don't want to share the details is because if you go back to the first paragraph, what I am committing to doing is not changing the behavior of others. Since I don't have superpowers, I don't have the ability to control what other people do. What I can control is my own behavior. I can decide, "I'm gonna say something. And I'm gonna say it in the way that I think gets my point across most effectively."

I interviewed a guy once who was applying for a fundraising position who said, "It's not my job to raise money, it's my job to ask for money. And as long as I'm asking for money in the best possible way, I am doing my job." Love that answer.

When we confront people about -ism's--we can't control how they respond. All we can control is how we present what we have to say, and how we respond to whatever reaction they might have. Of course, we're doing it in the hopes that it will change behavior, but if that becomes the focus. it becomes really easy to stay in this place of doing nothing. We can psych ourselves out before we even take action by saying, " Oh, that is not going to work. She's not going to change her mind."

There's some other saying (I can't remember the exact wording,) about how if you don't try, you are 100% guaranteed to fail. My goal is to attempt to throw a wrench into the workings of the status quo. To be true to myself by refusing to remain silent. To say to people, "Everyone does not think like you do. Here's another way to look at this." I hope by sharing my message to Ken, I might be able to help you when you want to say something to someone but are afraid; or feel like you just don't know how.

I could talk about an analogy involving farming and therapy, but I think I've shared enough sayings and stories for today. If you have any thoughts, comments, questions--feel free to leave them. And if you'd like to share what superpower you'd choose to have (I think I'd go with invisibility,)...feel free to leave that too.


  1. Good for you. It is not easy to comfront someone close about some disturbing behavior. I guess my superpowers would be able to do any job without all the schooling. I always wanted to be a fighter pilot. I would like to be Maverick for a day and you can be my Goose. We would have fun setting the skies on fire.

  2. Way to go! I think sticking up for what you believe in is not only intimidating but makes you quite vulnerable – it’s hard to do. You’ve helped me in the past deal with comments I didn’t know how to deal with at first and now I have a little more confidence to speak up when someone says something I don’t necessary think is ok. Thank you.

    Still deciding on a superpower…I’ll get back to you on that one. ;)

  3. Aunt Sabria4:04 AM

    Well, Favorite Close Relative: I applaud you! Wish I'd seen the comments. I wouldn't have been quite so diplomatic.
    As for my superpower... SuperDebtEraser to the rescue! Yeah, just leave me to my fantasy world. It's cozy here...

  4. hey I think I've heard that metaphor before...

    I confronted a teen on the adjective use of "gay" and "retarded" in a session recently. Like you, I was careful to meet her at her register, and also where her values are. I know this kid--she doesn't want to be hateful--and so it's important for me to show her how that hurts in a non-hateful way.

    I won't tell you how it went...


  5. I hesitated about writing, but I just had to comment on how great your post is. I used to pride myself on my funny and mean witticisms (a skill that I thought was useful in addressing racism). If I could shame someone AND make people laugh at the same time, well, good on me! I excused myself by saying that comedy was always meant to target the privileged, and as someone who couldn't access male/white privilege, I had every right to humiliate and mock.

    Anyway, I grew up and got over that, and nowadays, as hard as it is to bite my tongue when the urge to make a cruel joke strikes, I try to behave the way you have with your relative.

    I've learned, as well, that comedy and humour can be used against discrimination without humiliating people. I gotta say that Dick Gregory has been a real inspiration on that front.

    Thank you for your post.