A recent conversation with an old friend was brought to an abrupt halt when a single word came between us.
Three letters that wield
A hurtful word between friends
may open door to wider understanding
The word flowed out of her mouth so easily that the stark, naked impact of its power hit me between my eyes and settled some place in my heart like a burning coal.
As soon as she uttered it, she stopped in mid-sentence. She must have realized it was a hot, hateful declaration that burned not only the moment but immediately threatened a relationship.
She muttered an "I'm sorry" with a nervous laugh and proceeded with her story.
Yet the pain of her word petrified me. It reflected a whole mindset of judgment, recrimination, discrimination and oppression. How could such a normally caring, sensitive, compassionate person use such a hate-filled word?
The word was "fag."
Fag is a shortened form of faggot. Faggot is a bundle of kindling. In the Middle Ages, this bundle of kindling was used to feed the fires built to burn witches and other undesirables at the stake.
One famous person who met this death was Joan of Ark. Today, she's a saint, but that didn't stop her from burning to death.
Now, the word faggot is used liberally to burn people by marking them as undesirables regardless of their intelligence, compassion, talent or other positive traits. This word sets people apart, beneath others and at the mercy of some.
There is a movement among some in the gay community to take back the words that have been used to maim, hurt and, in some ways, kill. Unfortunately, this was not how the word was being used in this conversation.
From the story she was telling, it was in the context of disapproval for the person she was referring to. For me, I'm not that brave or courageous to use any of the hate-filled words to reform their meaning. Plus, in this instance, I had not used the word. The word was used on me.
You see, I have a gay son whom I love very much. The woman knows this and has been supportive in the past. Now, I wonder if the word reflects her real feelings about my son. The pain this thought causes is deep and aching.
Her word is a loaded word -- loaded with hate and so much more. The word separates my son from the rest of accepted society.
Her word in 41 states of this country could cost a person his or her job. This word denies equal rights in all 50 states.
In some churches, her word brands my son and others as sinners. In the Christian tradition that prides itself on love by commandment of their leader, the word has caused parents to disown their own children. Yes, this word is powerful and painful.
One organization has identified the powerful misuse of such words and declared war on hate-filled speech. This organization is PFLAG -- Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. One of its projects is Project Open Mind, which has always seemed like a natural, really good way to address hate-filled speech.
Only before this conversation, the project was rather academic. It was a project that I was going to work on as soon as I could get some spare time.
All of this has been changed with the use of one little word by a friend on another friend.
I have a mission. Before this moment in time, we had made arrangements to dine with our husbands in a week. Now, I have a week to put my hurt, anger and betrayal behind me.
Now I have to prepare to share some words of enlightenment, a fact sheet on teen suicides that result from society's lack of acceptance of diversity and a wonderful PFLAG-Los Angeles brochure in five different languages that explains sexual orientation.
If I don't share this information with her, who will?
I firmly believe that people can change oppressive behaviors and speech as they learn to accept others. Sometimes, it's one person at a time.
Carolyn Martinez Golojuch is
president of PFLAG-Oahu.