Saturday, January 29, 2011

"This is Gayer Than AIDS."

For the past hour, I have been trying to write about why that statement chilled me to the core when I heard it in one of my courses. A student didn't see the value of an activity, and he used that statement to express his displeasure in front of the entire class.

He's a straight, white, football-playing freshman from a small Midwestern town (population 2,500). There were probably no black students in his high school despite being located only an hour outside of Detroit. He's probably never encountered a real live homosexual. Unfortunately, that's not an atypical profile for our students.

The poisonous comment hung in the air for a moment. I stood at the front of the room, stunned. A few of the other students egged on the bonehead who thought it was perfectly OK to say "That's gayer than AIDS" in my class. They asked him to repeat himself, which he did. They laughed. My "I'm stunned" level skyrocketed. And then he said it a third time, at which point I regained my speech.

"Don't talk like that in my class. I won't put up with that in here."
"You won't put up with what?" He wasn't being snotty. He didn't get it.
"I won't put up with disrespectful language."
"What do you mean?"
"That's hate speech and I won't tolerate it."

The room got quiet. My students stared. They were incredulous. They couldn't believe that I was having a hissy fit over a comment that they were quite obviously amused by. I even got a couple of eye rolls at the mention of hate speech. That someone might be offended by the word "gay" was beyond comprehensible.

What is wrong with these kids? Are they really so self-absorbed that they can't understand why this kind of statement is harmful? Students can dislike the activities in my class -- that's fine. What students cannot do on my watch is create an environment where others could feel unsafe, discriminated against, or inferior. They can't stereotype. They can't uphold unfair labels that limit other people. They can't use language that promotes hatred of another human being, especially when that hatred is based on outdated nonsense labels that don't stand up to the scrutiny of reality.

If I didn't call this student on his hate speech, I would have been up upholding the institutionalized hatred of homosexuals -- the same institutionalized hatred that contributes to the tangible oppression that is manifested in the denial of marriage rights and hospital visitation rights, among other important things. If I didn't call him on it, I would have sent the message that his statement was acceptable. I'm sure the students thought I was overreacting. They probably gathered in the cafeteria after class and said things like, "She was bitchy today. She must be on her period." (I'm not.) Or worse, "What's the big deal? It's just words" or "sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me" or "He didn't mean it; he doesn't really hate homos."

Are you fucking kidding me?

Words become infused with layers of meaning through their usage. It's not all that long ago that "gay" meant happy. How, then, did it come to indicate "men who make love to men"? Common usage. It wasn't because linguists decided to shake things up, and it wasn't because the OED decided to change the definition. It was because people began to use that word in that way, and more and more people used it that way until "men who make love to men" became the predominant meaning. "Gay" has now morphed to take on a third meaning, one with a severely negative connotation. (As in, "That's so gay.") Logic would indicate that using "gay" as an insult suggests that to be gay is insulting. That's the leap my students seem incapable of making.

Maybe I'm more susceptible than most to accepting the notion that language is powerful -- that language can shape reality -- because I'm a writer. Still, I'm flabbergasted by the extent to which my students seem to reject that premise. To my students, "gay" is just part of the lexicon, and associating "gay" with "AIDS" is equally natural. I'm flabbergasted (and disturbed) that they see hate, especially such open hate, as natural.

And I'm even more flabbergasted that they assume there's no one to offend when they say that something is "gayer than AIDS." For all they know, the shy quiet kid who sits in the front row and never says a word is gay. Or the quarterback, who sits with his football buddies every day, might have a gay brother. Or the QB might be gay. Their professor might be a lesbian. Their classmate's godparent might be gay. The hot chick who sits by the door might have an HIV-positive cousin. Their Spanish professor and his boyfriend might be going out of town this weekend to celebrate their anniversary
. But none of that occurs to them.* They seem to truly believe that everyone on the planet is just like them, holds the same values as them, sees the world exactly as they do.

I won the battle against the student who said, "That's gayer than AIDS." I am not delusional enough, though, to think I have a chance in hell of winning the war.

*I should note that our college is small and, for the most part, the students know one another. For that reason, they can be reasonably certain that none of their classmates are gay (at least, not openly). This does not make it OK. It does, in combination with their inability to think beyond what's immediately in front of them, make it slightly easier to see why they might assume nobody will be offended.


  1. You know what i hope Mitch? I hope that when the room fell silent, and this ignorant, hateful boy was stopped in his tracks, and everyone was a little dumbfounded at what had transpired, that at sizable number of them gave a moment's thought to it. The dipshits will say what the fuck is her problem? But those that are growing into their adulthood will have had the benefit of seeing a rational adult confront a hateful display of immaturity and insensitivity, and they will think about how such behavior is going to be received outside high school, and off the football field.

    Good for you.

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  4. "He's probably never encountered a real live homosexual before."

    ....that he knew about....or that he didn't make fun of...

    If he's a freshman and you're a writer and this is a composition class, there may be a true teachable moment (even though that's phrase that tightens my jaw) looming on your horizon.

    If he's homophobic or a simple bigot, you're shoveling against the tide. But if he's simply uneducated, you've got a shot.

    It didn't happen during my college-age years (when I was mostly *not* in college), but my views of homosexuality changed over time. The changes came when I realized they weren't trying to seduce me, that I couldn't tell who they were by the way they walked, talked or dressed, and that they no more decided to be homosexual than I decided to be heterosexual. Oh yeah: And they were serving honorably with me in uniform...and terrified of being outed and discharged in the years before --and after-- DADT.

    Can it hurt to assume that such change is possible, that he possesses some noble intent, or even that the learning that might not fully evolve in the course of a semester..but that it can begin to ?

  5. "Unfortunately, that's not an atypical profile for our students."

    With that one sentence, you indict yourself as one who harbors loathing for a group of people from a different demographic. You're no different than those you deign to condemn.

  6. "With that one sentence, you indict yourself as one who harbors loathing for a group of people from a different demographic."

    I'm close to the demographic she describes.
    Indeed, if I'd heard the "gayer than aids" comment, my reaction would probably be "like eh whatever." Yet, somehow, I don't feel the least bit insulted by Mitch's comments.

  7. It doesn't seem the issue is about any particular demographic, but about a failure to extend the moral imagination.

  8. Bruce, that is completely ridiculous. Mitch didn't condemn her students' straight, white, Midwestern identity. What she finds unfortunate is their provincialism and ignorance (a demographic of students with very little experience with gay or black people, who nevertheless feel entitled to say negative things about other groups). Unlike sexual identity and skin color, this attitude can be changed. We are under no obligation to be "tolerant" of ignorance, and yes, as college professors, we should condemn it.

    I would have stopped dead too. Then I would have said, "Actually, AIDS is most predominant in heterosexual populations now. And 'gay' isn't an acceptable negative. Can you rephrase that?" But I like that you took a stronger stand.

  9. "You're no different than those you deign to condemn."

    The false equivalence logical fallacy is, sadly, all to prevalent and powerful.

    Politicos who are passionate in their expression are lumped as the same with those who LIE when they yell.

    Standing up for the principle of expression without denigration is bundled into the same basket as intolerance.

    Just remember, academics are all liberal elites who advocate an evil meritocracy and facts have a known liberal bias.

    Keep fighting the good fight, Mitch!

  10. The students can be sure that there are no other *openly* gay students in the class... but unless you're at Liberty University (and even then!), you can be sure that there are gay students at even a small college. Homoesexuals may be a small minority of the population, but it's not *that* small a minority. And, our society being what it is, a lot of them are in the closet.

    The small college I teach at is a hippy greenie type college, which the other day had a "rainbow day" where people where supposed to dress in many colors to indicate support of folks of varying sexualities. (There was something going on at a nearby town, which is why the day was chosen.) Yet, even here, I'm only aware of two (out of 250 or so) openly homosexual students (one woman, one man), and I guarantee you there's more.

  11. @Mitch
    So pleased you stood against hate speech. I'll never forget the first professor who did that. I came from a family who didn't believe gay people existed and told me that it was a social perversion that hippies introduced to society.

    After I graduated high school and attended a family funeral as an adult, I was introduced to my Uncle -- an Uncle I had never heard of, because my parents had refused to talk to him for 22 years after he came out to them.

    And until that professor said something in my first semester away from home, I never had any idea.

    Good on you.

  12. Good on you indeed. "Gayer than AIDS"? Even beyond being homophobic, that's just vicious and hateful. (What exactly is his beef with people who have AIDS?)

    Sometimes "PC" = "Plain Courtesy."

    Though, I confess I'm thinking of (and self-censoring) all sorts of nasty, hateful things I would write on his next essay in order to offend him into a state of consciousness. But you're a better person than I.

  13. Good for you.

    maybe I'm old, but when I was young "politically correct" was simply being polite. One did not use hateful words simply because it was rude. When I hear someone brag that they're "politically incorrect" I automatically hear them brag that they're rude bigots...

  14. What an awful moment for you. If I'd been in your shoes, my heart would have started to race as I tried to figure out how to deal with this.

    You're absolutely right that words have power and you're right to call your students' attention to this fact. Very few people seem to think about the perspectives and prejudices they reveal in the words they choose. They confuse "intent" with "effect," thinking that, if they did not intend to offend, then anyone who is offended is uptight, on the rag, a fucking feminist, a prude, or otherwise someone whose reaction is to be dismissed. Keep up the good fight.

  15. My first reaction, too, is "good for you" (and also "actually, they just don't know they know any gay people").

    But I wonder whether thinking of such moments as battles, and/or asserting our authority to control what is said in our classrooms, is the best way to provoke actual change, or whether we just end up playing into some of the stereotypes Aware and Scared mentions, and so confirming rather than challenging our students' world views. As Miserable Adjunct and Academic Monkey point out, many students are at the beginning of a learning curve on this subject.

    Mind you, I've been lucky enough never to encounter "that's so gay" used in a pejorative sense in my classroom (or even in the halls of my institution, which is not tremendously liberal, but is pretty diverse in a number of ways, and proud of it). And I admit that I, too, tend to freeze, followed by stammering out something not particularly apposite, when shocked. But in the few somewhat parallel situations where I've actually managed to gather my wits about me fairly quickly, I've found that asking questions designed to draw out the underlying (incorrect) assumptions can be helpful, and actually puts the student more on the spot than my rushing in to take an immediate strong stand of my own. I also like Frog and Toad's "could you rephrase that, please" approach, especially if there isn't time to get into a full discussion. And, of course, there's always something along the lines of "well, there are a lot of things that bother me about that statement, starting with the assumption that there's anything wrong with being gay, but, assuming you're straight, it's important for you to know that AIDS is becoming increasingly prevalent in the heterosexual population," perhaps followed by a brief disquisition on audience and what language is appropriate in a professional context (which the classroom, of course is), followed by the request to rephrase (the other, lesser, problem with the statement, of course, is that it fails to communicate any specific, useful information about the student's unhappiness with the assignment).

  16. (continued from above)

    I've been following with interest news reports on the military's preparations for the repeal of DADT. They plan on trying to change behavior (including language), but not, at least explicitly, thinking. My guess is that, in the end, the behavior and language changes will change thinking as well. Language is, indeed, powerful, as are habits (it's the old "I whistle a happy tune" effect; if you act like you're not afraid, or like you think gays and lesbians are regular human beings, eventually your thoughts suit your actions). I don't doubt that they will succeed fairly quickly in getting at least surface compliance (soldiers do, after all, have to accept the concept of authority, or at least act like they do -- far more than our students do). Now that we have a volunteer army, it will be interesting to see how much the change in the military will drive change in the larger U.S. culture; it certainly did, albeit slowly, in the case of racial integration, but, in this case, my sense, partly from reading about the results of surveying younger soldiers -- who aren't exactly a "liberal" demographic -- is that societal change may be out ahead of the military . That, of course, is all the more reason to tell our homophobic students that they will, at the very least, need to learn to censor themselves unless they're certain they're among like-minded intimates.

    Or maybe I'm becoming overly pragmatic in my old age? I do think that this is very much a moral issue; I'm just not sure whether the best way to effect the change I want -- which is, more than anything else, to create a safe climate for GLBT students (and non-students) to be themselves, in whatever way and with whatever degree of openness they choose -- is to tell a student who makes a statement underlaid with homophobic assumptions "I won't allow you to say that in my classroom." I won't, of course, let such a statement pass unremarked; the tricky part is figuring out exactly what to say.

  17. If he plays foo'ball, I would say that Mr. Gayer than AIDS picked that shit up from the coach or the assistant coach in one of their BS pep-talk speeches. If it wasn't those people, then it was GTA's teammates or the scumfucks he illegally drinks with in parking lot 9B at 2AM Saturday morning. Shaming the little mofo might open him up, but you are working against a load of macho jock horseshit.

    If only he had said "gayer than eight guys blowing nine guys" we could blame Patton Oswalt and his bit on `80s hair metal.

    The bit starts at 2:47.

  18. Am I the only one alarmed by the underlying thread assumption that it is our duty to suppress speech?
    Stupidity should be met, IMNSHPOV, with irony and sarcasm, rather than censorship.
    Some times, ideas that sound absolutely stupid, and offensive end doing a lot of good. If any possibly offensive discourse were to be suppressed Darwin would have never be allowed to defend his ideas.

  19. Quoting Allan Bloom, "moral indignation, not ordinary selfishness or sensuality, is the greatest danger to the thinker."

  20. I'm fairly positive I've heard that saying fairly recently on Family Guy or some other stupid show that my spouse watches but that I purely tolerate. While I generally don't think that the students and kids mimic everything they hear on tv, I've noticed students uncritically miming things they hear on such cartoons. They don't always recognize the sarcasm or hate in the original and so don't realize that there's any problem when they use the phrases outside of the original show.

    And yes, I've totally been fighting with my spouse endlessly over similar things. Ugh.

  21. @French Professeur: I'm all for the free play of ideas, and agree that overly-simplistic or vehement moral statements can, indeed, be a danger to complex thinking. On the other hand, I don't think there's any question that we can and should suppress certain kinds of speech in our classrooms: off-topic chatter is the first one that comes to mind (it's an extreme example, but remember that Jared Loughner felt that his speech rights were being violated because his cc professors insisted that he stay on topic, and generally speak in a way that made sense to the professor and his peers, when he spoke in class). Threats are another, and I'd say that language that makes students feel threatened or demeaned due to their membership in a particular group is a lesser instance of the "threat" category. Of course the line is hard to draw; I'd have no problem whatsoever with a professor (or student) explaining at length, if it were germane to the subject at hand, which Biblical passages have been used to condemn homosexuality, and why/how (though I hope he/she would also point out the weaknesses of those interpretations, and the alternatives to them), any more than I would hesitate to explain some of the Biblical and/or scientific arguments for racial inferiority that were prevalent in the 19th century (and, of course, the alternatives, which are much better-accepted today -- and which might, in fact, offer some insight into how to counter similar arguments about homosexuality). I also don't hesitate to say the word "nigger" if it's present in a literary work I'm teaching, or serves as an example of a phenomenon I'm discussing. But I'll avoid repeating it any more than necessary, and I certainly wouldn't stay silent if any of my students were to use it as an epithet for anyone else, inside or outside the classroom, any more than I'd let "fag" or "that's so gay" pass unremarked.

    Since I mostly teach composition, I do have the "out" of addressing the issue in terms of audience and discourse communities and what helps to establish (or serves to undermine) an author/speaker's ethos -- and, on that basis, to encourage, as I put it above, self-censorship, which, for better or for worse, as MA&M pointed out, is one of the foundations of civilized discourse. Remember, the student remark that titles this post was not a well-thought-out speculation on the connections between homosexuality as experienced/practiced in a late 20th/early 21st-century American context and how the AIDS epidemic played out, and is playing out, in the U.S. (a subject on which one could make various well-thought-out statements, some of which I'd agree with, some of which I wouldn't), it was a complaint about an assignment that somehow, and completely irrelevantly, managed to drag ill-founded assumptions about both homosexuality and AIDS into a conversation that had nothing to do with either.

  22. @French: Your comments seem to contain moral indignation, not irony. Why?

  23. @Cassandra (while bowing): Madam, points well taken. There is a line between public argument and stupidity, and your student was way beyond that line. I confess to not understanding the whole argument of words as a tool of subordination. I might have to re-read my Lacan.
    At the same time, I deplore the ease with which an argument upon which we disagree is sometimes branded with the label "hate speech" and dismissed -- the point I was trying to make.
    I finally confess to have used the odious expression -- I commented on a colleague's really handsome footwear "Man, those shoes are so gay." He thanked my observation.
    @Bubba. You sure? Representing every previous comment as intolerant is quite ironic. I would go as far as describing it as satyric. Of course, and here you have a point, indignation is the foundation of satire.

  24. I think, as professors, we owe it to our students to challenge their assumptions. This includes challenging attitudes like complacency, general asshole-ishnes, sexism, etc, as well as challenging attitudes like "Shakespeare talked Old English".

    If students in my class make rude or offensive comments, I call them on it. Generally, I find starting by asking them to repeat the remark is a good way to call attention to it. Asking students to explain throwaway homophobic remarks is a great way in to a conversation, and it is more likely to make the point by getting other students in the room to engage.

    I want my classroom to be a space where everyone is free to express his or her opinion, but I also don't want the gay kids thinking I side with the homophobes, or the asian kids to think I side with the racists, or the budding feminists to think I side with the sexists.

    I might have been tempted, though, in the case Mitch describes, to have said "My gay brother has AIDS".

  25. It's all great and wonderful to say that we encourage our students to express themselves and that we value the freedom of speech. And, in fact, I suspect CMers mean it when we say that we value the freedom of speech.

    But part of that value comes in understanding the meaning behind our words. This kid was just saying something he thought was quippy, witty, funny. He didn't understand the enormity of what he was saying, or the various layers of meaning in that awful sentence. He needed context, and Mitch gave him context.

    Sarah Palin needed context when she claimed to be the victim of blood libel and shat on centuries of accusing Jews of kidnapping and murdering Christian children. One would hope she got it, but I doubt it.

  26. I have mixed feelings about the idea of hate speech, frankly, because I don't think ignorance is a hate crime, just a misfortune. I went to an uber-liberal college as a sheltered suburban kid and often felt I should not say anything at all, lest I be unintentionally racist or some such thing. It made learning difficult, since I learn by risking my own ideas occasionally better than I learn by only listening. Eventually I learned that when someone does call you out on your ignorance, you don't die from it. You apologize and go read some books.

    So as a teacher, I have to figure out how to treat the person saying the ignorant thing as educable (and thereby worthy of respect), while still sticking up for the students whom the remark offends (who are also worthy of respect, and deserving of an environment free of insult to them). It's incredibly tricky, especially when you are on the spot.

  27. Most of you have missed the major point:

    According to Mitch, "A student didn't see the value of an activity, and he used that statement to express his displeasure in front of the entire class."

    This arrogant jerk was openly being dismissive and condescending ABOUT THE EXPECTATIONS OF THE CLASS. He used a pejorative phrase (and I am disgusted that so many of you homophobic apologists think the statement is protected free speech--NOT) to openly insult a professor and the coursework not just once but THRICE. And he did so to cull the favor of others in class who egged him on. This was CLEARLY disruptive behavior and every campus I have ever been on has rules against that inapropriate behavior.

    All of those involved should have been kicked out of class and a report of the incident sent to the Dean of Students (or whoever handles that crap at that school).

    Sadly, that person is probably some ignorant boob like Bruce Thomas or French Professor, whose complete inhumanity toward defamation and offensive commentary would radically change if someone decided to attack them or the groups to which they belong.

  28. @ Cassandra:
    --The armed forces (in the US) were far ahead of the rest of the government and the larger society when the decision came to de-segregate the Army (and eventually the other services followed) under the Truman adminstration...a decade and change before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    The change from exclusion to to DADT notwithstanding, it's not unfair to say that the US military has lagged behind the general populace in its treatment of homosexuality.

    There will be strident pundits --recently retired senior enlisted and officers who have yet to learn that once discharged, it's NOT their military any longer-- that will predict dire consequences. The amount on non-retirement eligible career military people will vote with their feet and resign on principle (for officers) or depart at their first end of obligation (for enlisted) will be minuscule.

    I'm many years past my last days in uniform, but I'm sure about this: the overwhelming majority of service members will not spend much time or engery on the repeal of DADT. They will skewer the required training sessions (because they are almost certain to be unintentionally hilarious and disconnected from reality...not because the intent isn't noble).

    Here's what folks in uniform will care about:
    -can you do your job?
    -are you a good technician ? If you're a technician, it's good when stuff works...
    -are you a good leader ? Are you fair? Will you advocate for us ?
    -are you ready to deploy (because if you're not, somebody else will have to take up the strain) ?
    -can I count on you when things get complicated or scary or dangerous...or have gone completely toes up?

    Affirmative responses to these questions will ALWAYS trump the non-issue whether man-parts or woman-parts are your preference in the bedroom...

  29. @The_Myth. I liked your tantrum, since it confirms my point. But invective cannot replace argument.

  30. I don't want to suppress anybody's rights to free speech. However, our college compact explicitly says that students are obligated to treat one another with civility, and that civility includes "speaking kindly" and not "speaking ill." When students aren't speaking civilly in my classroom, I think this document gives me the right -- perhaps even the obligation -- to put a stop to it.

    It's reasonable to demand standards of behavior in the classroom; if we didn't, there would be chaos. One standard of behavior in my classroom, and in just about every other classroom I know of, is that students should be respectful to me and to one another. They don't have to agree with me or with each other, but they do need to use appropriate language and tones when they disagree. If a student used racism or sexism to comment on a class activity, I wouldn't have stood for that either.

    I believe that each of my students has the right to a safe classroom environment. When students start using phrases like "gayer than AIDS," the classroom is no longer a safe place. If I allow comments like that, students with opposing views might feel unable to express themselves -- and then I, as the teacher, have inadvertently created an environment where freedom of speech has, in some sense, been suppressed. It's not that certain TOPICS are off limits in my class; if students want to have a conversation about homosexuality, using respectful language, then that's fine. What's not fine is discussing those topics in disrespectful ways.

    I also want to be clear that I would have been glad to explain if the student had simply said, "I don't understand why you're making us do this. Can you tell me your rationale?" I'm not in any way upset that a student challenged my pedagogy -- I'm upset that the student truly doesn't understand why he shouldn't say this kind of thing in the classroom.

    I do believe that my students can change their attitudes. I realize they're young and haven't had much experience with diversity yet. However, I don't think their attitudes will change unless their assumptions are challenged.

    Would I have handled this differently if I hadn't been caught off-guard in the classroom? Of course. Would I have made a more concerted effort to say, "I know you're just frustrated, but here's how that statement could be construed..."? Of course. If I was planning to give a lecture on proper classroom etiquette, would I have done a more thorough job of explaining my stance? Of course. But these weren't ideal conditions, and so the reaction was less than ideal.

  31. How, then, did it come to indicate "men who make love to men"? I'm sure it had something to do with the 19th century slang term for female prostitutes: "gay ladies." They would also be described as living the "gay life" and "gaying instrument" was slang for the male appendage. These terms may even go back to Chaucer's time, but they're especially prevalent in 19th-century pornography. The demimonde of 19th-century practicing homosexuals was even more clandestine than that of female prostitutes, so it makes sense that the word would transition from one to the other. At least it does to me - but etymologists say it arose in the United States in the 20s and 30s.

    If Mitch taught at the university at which I am employed, he would have been compelled to quash that comment because discriminatory speech is not permitted in the classroom. Nor is sexually explicit language, or verbal intimidation, or any form of harrassment. Referring to something as "gayer than AIDS" would probably fall under several categories - discriminatory and harrassing, at least. Clearly Mitch was acting out of a moral imperative, which is commendable, but even if he secretly approved of their remark, he may have still had to suppress it, based on the guidelines he cites in the comment above.


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