Words Haunt

Posted: 8th September 2013 by admin in Blog
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“The punches stop hurting. The words take longer to heal.”

I’ve been pondering this since an interviewee said it to me last week. Yesterday I ran training for new volunteers and we spent a fair amount of time on current trends in working with LGBT youth, during which we focus on different factors that can combine to drive kids to desperation. We talk about a lack of family support, homelessness, unsupportive communities, unsafe schools, a political climate that allows for open attacks on LGBT people just as a matter of getting through a normal business day. We talk about the shoving, the tripping, the outright beatings that some LGBT kids endure.

Can we talk for a moment about the less dramatic incidents? The moments that, over time, add up to drain our kids’ spirits? That drain our spirits? Let’s talk microaggressions. I did a post on this on the Facebook page a couple of weeks ago and I noticed that only one person spoke out in response. I couldn’t tell if that was because people didn’t know what to say or people didn’t find the topic all that appealing.

That comment during the interview cut right to the chase. For our kids who have come out of unsafe schools or unsupportive and/or violent homes, the punches do stop when they no longer have to navigate that space. But it doesn’t end the endurance test, so to speak. The words, as the interviewee pointed out, may haunt us for weeks. Or months. Sometimes years.

Y’all know what I mean by microaggressions, right? Those little comments that wear on you, force you to explain or defend yourself, or leave you feeling insulted or as if you suddenly need to defend yourself. Sometimes they come from people we love and trust, sometimes from total strangers. They call out our differences in a way that makes it very clear that there is judgment attached to whatever we’ve done or said…or whatever we are…and it’s not pleasant or positive. It’s moments of tiny, demeaning jabs that can have a disastrous cumulative effect.

Not long ago, as I exited a local restaurant with my partner and two friends, we walked by a table where a man in (probably) his late 50s or early 60s sat with a woman, presumably his wife. I was far enough ahead that when he spoke, I didn’t hear him but the last of us in our queue did. As we walked by, this man looked up at us, then looked at his wife and said, “What? Are they fags?”

When the friends who heard him repeated this to me in the parking lot, my sarcastic streak kicked in. I wanted to return to the restaurant and explain to him that flocks of lesbians are generally not referred to with derogatory gay male terminology and that if he insisted on insulting us, he might want to consult Urban Dictionary for the correct vile names. I didn’t and his comment bothered me for days. Have we not evolved even enough that a group of middle aged women out for dinner cannot get through an evening without being forced to explain or justify or defend ourselves?

“The punches stop hurting. The words take longer to heal.”

Admittedly, the man didn’t direct that comment AT us. He didn’t swear at us, shout at us or make us feel threatened. But we heard the judgment. We heard the contempt. And if we, in our 30s, 40s and 50s, came away from that experience feeling demeaned and dehumanized, I cannot help but wonder how kids in their teens (or even pre-teens) are dealing with these situations, and more importantly what the long term impact is going to be. I can go home with my partner after a nasty experience. We can proceed with our boring queer lives and rebuild our safe space, hug the dogs and feel connected. LGBT youth—kids growing up in volatile homes or more broadly, any youth who is being verbally harassed– often do not have that option. They must take those ongoing dehumanizing comments and try to make sense of them, try not to take them so personally, and try to go through the demands of adolescent development without those ninety or one hundred or one thousand comments they hear per day eroding the sense of adult identity that they are trying to forge. That they need to survive. That’s a Herculean task…attempting to grow into a healthy human while being systematically dehumanized on a daily basis.

In training the adults with whom the kids spend time and in offering education to parents this past year, this is emerging as one of the most important things we can do to care for those kids, when we’re looking for the reason for the depression or the anxiety or the desperation. Microaggressions accumulate—and apparently, even at 48, worlds past middle school and high school, one cannot consider oneself safe from hostility and judgment. Thankfully, I’m past the point of trying to forge my identity. But what of our kids who are not?

“The punches stop hurting. The words take longer to heal.”


  1. Joe Burns says:

    The words and this story are haunting indeed. As an “adult” I’m haunted by how quickly a situation can bring me back in time to feel like that awkward kid who was still figuring out my identity. Still navigating that thorny garden of self worth full of wonder and scary shadows where unknown cackling crow-like voices murmur and laugh…at me…? It’s amazing how “coming out” truly is a never ending process. Even when you think you’ve got it sorted, a random comment from a stranger in a restaurant, these ‘microagressions’ can start it all back up again.

    As I think through it, and that question of what do we teach our kids, and ourselves, about dealing with microagressions I think it has to tie back to self worth and that the words of the ‘microagressors’ tell us more about them than they tell us about ourselves.

    Like it or not, stereotypes are never going away. But if we really look at how they work, and WHY they work, they give us tools to prune and weed that garden of self worth.

    People use stereotypes to deal with difference. When they encounter someone who doesn’t fit into the picture of life people compare themselves to, they resort to stereotypes to explain that Otherness. And when we can put that judgement spin on it, it helps us build ourselves up and re-enforce our will to stay on the paths we think we’ve mapped out for ourselves. It’s tenuous, highly contingent, and fleeting, but our culture and our brains (?) are wired to do it. It’s a building block of the ego. Like thorns on a climbing vine, they protect those fragile growths as they stretch up to find the light…

    We are all guilty of it – even us “we’ll adjusted” gay adults. How many times have I sat in my fabulously perfect gay man’s dining room enjoying a sustainable, locally grown foodie dinner with my perfect husband and we indulge in a story about a friend, colleague or stranger in the grocery store that we saw struggling with their toddler. We roll our eyes and say “thank God that’s not us!”. The only difference between that moment, and the couple wondering “are they fags” in a restaurant is that we utter the words from the safety of our perfect little homo-cocoon.

    And it’s bigger than just sexuality politics – “straight people” wrestle with these judgements between their own little subcultures: school districts, little league, cars, careers, houses… We all tend a thorny garden of shadows….

    Does that make it right for any of us? No. Do I have a tenuously higher moral ground because I have to good sense to indulge this little ego game outside of the ear shot of the Other. Maybe.

    But here’s where I land after I spin around this thorny little bush… The tool our kids need (and we adults need) to navigate this stuff is that these microagressions aren’t about US. They are about the aggressor’s sense of identity and self worth. I love that your thought was to go back and educate the couple in the restaurant to differentiate more finely between their stereotypes. You would’ve done them a favor. They would have another tool in their tool box of stereotypes to help them understand themselves compared to the vast rainbow of people out in the world… And you would’ve shown YOURSELF that your self worth is bigger than their shadowy confusion. We need that feeling. And our kids need to see it.

    It may not take the sting out of the words that we felt in the moment. A sting that our kids feel even more acutely. But we are in a new world now. The gates or the garden have been blown off. And the world outside is starting to understand Difference in ways that I would’ve never thought possible when I was that age. So when we are haunted, are we just running back to that age? That shadowy corner of the garden when we got stung the first time? That closet?

    The tools we need now are the strength to walk out into the sunlight and no know that the strong, beautiful and wonderful things that grow in full sunlight have no need for thorns…

  2. The gates of the garden have, indeed, blown off! That was the upshot of yesterday’s exchange. As visibility increases for LGBT youth (and for any other group that has been so actively “Other-ed”), there is more pushback against us, as the people who fear and revile difference fight to hang onto their understanding of their world. The pushback only creates more visibility, which creates more pushback and cycle continues. Perhaps in this gentleman’s world, it is not common for him to find himself gazing upon several lesbians during his dinner, just as it is not common for me to have to endure having a slur flung around in relation to my presence at the end of my dinner. The Others will not be going away, whether we are talking about LGBT youth or adults, people with disabilities, people who weigh more than what other folks think they should or whatever the “otherness” is. The beautiful thing, though, is that we really are big enough to accommodate all those differences–when we are ready. I’m glad to be sharing this space with you, Joe. You make the space warmer.

  3. Georgia says:

    Beautifully said. We have no idea how long that hurt lasts, and what inside of us is being eroded, one hurtful comment at a time. Thank you…

  4. Thank YOU, Georgia!

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