Part two of a three-part report on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) issues at Evanston Township High School.
“I don’t mean it like that,” said the talkative sophomore, standing among a group of three friends on the sidewalk near Evanston Township High School’s main entrance only minutes after the day’s final bell. “I’m not saying it to someone gay, and I’m not saying that the dude is gay. I don’t care. It’s just like, dude, you’re a faggot.”
His friends laughed. One nodded his head in agreement.
"Faggot" is just a word, said the student, who declined to provide his name. An insult you might casually toss at a friend or aim at someone during a dispute. He doesn’t hate gay people, he said. To him, that’s not what the word means.
But to other ETHS students, the word is an earsore spoken as part of a larger anti-LGBTQ rhetoric they say is uttered both frequently and unceremoniously by their classmates.
According to ETHS faculty and LGBTQ students interviewed, the high school is rarely, if ever, a place where LGBTQ students have cause to fear for their physical safety because of their sexual identity. Instead, harassment comes in the form of phrases and vocabulary, said sometimes maliciously and other times offhand, but almost always insinuating that homosexuality is a negative and shameful lifestyle.
Eric Linder, a 2011 ETHS graduate currently studying communications at Boston University who has been openly gay since his freshman year of high school, said he thinks most students who use anti-LGBTQ language are ignorant or thoughtless, but not bigoted.
Rather than call a male student a “wimp” or a “sissy,” today’s youth insult by substituting the word “faggot.” When students find something unsatisfactory or dislike an occurrence, they might say “that’s gay” instead of “that’s bad” or “that’s lame,” a trend currently being battled by a series of ad campaigns cosponsored by Ad Council and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, starring celebrities expressing their own disapproval of the popularized phrase.
More recently, students have taken to saying “no homo,” a modifier added to the end of the sentence, popularized by the hip hop community, which attempts to assure the listener that the speaker is not gay and that the preceding statement was void of homosexual undertones (e.g. “I love Derrick Rose. No homo”).
Linder said the use of such phrases is so normalized that even his friends, who are knowledgeable and comfortable with his open homosexuality, sometimes use the terminology, much to his annoyance.
“I have friends who still use gay slurs and make no effort to stop,” Linder said. “I know that they don’t mean anything by it, but it does bother me when people use it. I mean, I understand that it’s hard to stop using a word when it’s in your vocabulary and in your brain, but some people make no effort to stop when they know they should, and that’s what bugs me…Other friends used to use it and decided they were going to stop.”
Telling people to change their language or behaviors is hard, Linder said, because it singles him out further as someone who is different. So he picks his spots, speaking up against anti-LGBTQ phrases sometimes and letting them slide at others.
But according to Hannah Melton, a 2008 ETHS graduate and self-identified queer person who did not come out until college, much of the language that people use to discuss sexuality is inherently divisive and separated into binaries, regardless of whether the wording is politically correct or not.
Anti-LGBTQ language attempts to establish distance between the speaker and homosexuality, Melton said. In a sense, the term “that’s gay” separates the speaker from what he or she perceives to be negative or not straight. Similarly, the other person is a “faggot” because the speaker is not.
Melton extends this line of thought to more conventional terminology, as well. She said she views sexuality as she does race, something to be viewed along a spectrum and heavily dependent upon self-identification rather than a box she can simply check off on a form.
“To be gay you have to…first identify as a male or a female,” Melton said. “I personally don’t identify as male or female, or as gay or straight, or as [cisgender] or [transgender], or as white or black. I very much believe in the gray area.”
But others might identify Melton as a white lesbian the same way President Barack Obama is often identified as black rather than biracial.
To Melton, these concrete descriptors that are used to categorize people are also one of the reasons LGBTQ students face harassment. If being straight is perceived as default and expected, she said, then consequently anything outside of that definition is viewed as deviant.
But Melton said this binary worldview becomes most harmful to students when applied to gender identity.
“The reason that I think people get bullied is not because of sexuality, but because of gender conformity.” Melton said. “They’re bullying the boys who aren’t hyper-masculine. They’re bullying the girls who don’t take an interest in femininity. And that’s the sort of harassment I experienced throughout my entire life…Because your sexuality isn’t something that is inherently written on your body in the same way that your gender is. But people think that your sexuality is visible and they associate your gender nonconformance with a non-heterosexual sexuality.”
To her, the word “faggot” has replaced “sissy” or “wimpy” because it implies the same perceived weakness in a male that accompanies a lack of stereotypical masculine traits.
A male student might be called a “faggot” because he dresses more stylishly, manicures his appearance a certain way, doesn’t enjoy sports or speaks in a softer tone.
To combat divisive language and beliefs, Melton aims to use her own words to alter “hetero-normative” viewpoints, employing writing, art and outreach to redefine how people perceive gender and sexuality.
She would like to see open discussions within schools to counter the notion that heterosexuality is the only natural sexual identity, saying that ETHS will only realize its vision of being open and accepting to diverse populations when it begins to looks at diversity beyond racial lines.
“These things were shared with me [in college], and that was how I gained my education basically,” Melton said. “All of the questions are going towards LGBTQ individuals, instead of straight people, when there are just as many questions that they should be asking. The policies and the support systems that they’re putting in place are not questioning that there is this ‘normal’ way of being, that it’s assumed that you’re heterosexual, and if you’re a man they assume you’re masculine and if you’re a woman they assume you’re feminine. Once you disprove that heterosexuality is normal and natural and original, that’s when they start freaking out.”
Melton said that challenging viewpoints some people see as fundamental will be difficult.
One group that is displeased with the idea of a school teaching students to challenge heterosexuality’s normalcy is the Illinois Family Institute, a Carol Stream-based nonprofit organization that describes itself as “dedicated to upholding and re-affirming marriage, family, life and liberty in Illinois.”
Laurie Higgins, cultural analyst and director of school advocacy at the Illinois Family Institute, called such education “homosexual activism” that was “exploiting anti-bullying sentiment” and claimed the teachings would seek to “normalize homosexuality.” She also argued that if school health classes began explaining safe sex practices for every spectrum of sexuality, including LGBTQ, that it would be similar to educating students on pedophilic practices.
And beyond external opposition, even if school administrators could gain universal support, high school students could already have firm enough views on the subject that educators might have a difficult time explaining gender identity on a spectrum.
Still, with , held Aug. 24 and 25, the high school is taking a step toward educating faculty on how to be more inclusive of LGBTQ students. The training included sections helping teachers to recognize curriculum that might alienate LGBTQ students, to identify anti-LGBTQ classroom language and to reassess their own perspectives in search of unexamined biases.
ETHS’s Assistant Superintendent and Principal Oscar Hawthorne said that while he could not make broad stroke comments on what individual students may have experienced, he believes that the LGBTQ-awareness has improved throughout the school in the past several years, both among faculty and students.
“I think that school wide, our awareness about [LGBTQ] students is greater now than it was back in 2004 or 2005,” Hawthorne said. “I feel safe in saying that because of how active the Gay/Straight Alliance club is here at ETHS. I think our understanding and our belief that we should be an ally for all students has continued to increases. We are at a different point now than we were ten years ago.”
Linder said he hopes that one day anti-LGBTQ terms become as socially unacceptable as racial slurs.
“[ETHS students] wouldn’t say the ‘n-word’,” Linder said, “because it’s just been beaten into society that you don’t. And that took a lot of energy, I’m sure. I wasn’t around for that.”
When asked how he would react to a white students saying the n-word, the sophomore who had spoken so cavalierly while uttering “faggot” became upset, saying that he might hit the person who said it. His friend, however, said he would not mind as long as the person didn’t say the term in a derogatory manner.
At a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting in December, Melton spoke to the student organization, emphasizing the importance of continuing to educate the student body and reminding them that even if anti-LGBTQ language wasn’t enough to get them up in arms, their struggle was part of a larger fight that had a long way to go.
“You’ve got to work with people,” Melton said. “In a place like this, it becomes really easy to forget that people still live in places where you can’t be out, that people still get shot on the street and beat up, and face very real discrimination that isn’t always so visible here.”
Next time: Part three of the series will focus on ETHS’s Gay/Straight Alliance and its sometimes conflicting identities as a safe space, social club and activist group.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Hannah Melton graduated in 2010. She graduated in 2008.