The first time I was aware of someone using the word “gay” as an insult was in sixth grade. Though I knew it happened at other schools, I had a belief that, since I was at Quaker school, I would never have to face such a problem. Coupled with the unexpectedness of it occurring was the unexpectedness of why I felt so affected by it. In addition to knowing that it was generally wrong, I felt affected because it directly applied to me, as I had just begun to question my sexuality.
Hearing others use the word in that way felt like a villainization of an identity, and I was beginning to relate with a sense of fear and paranoia that I was the cause for the language. I would go outside after lunch and hear boisterous insults with “gay” as the punchline and would swear others could see how I was affected. This created a destructive cycle where I would jump back and forth between the concern that they already knew about how I felt and that if they did not, my reaction would allow them to figure it out. This fear created an environment where I felt both unable to be authentic and distanced from safety. These emotions resulted in a suffocating silence for me that extended the impact beyond a single moment and into the fiber of my self-image and life.
Beyond these inner personal feelings, I also felt appalled at the apparent disregard for Quaker influences at our school. The unkind language went against the values that I hold close to my heart. From a young age, I’ve been taught about the premise of equality. From behavior inside the classroom to the art dotting hallway walls, this idea of everyone being equal had become unquestionable in my mind. But no one else seemed to be upset by the language. Was I just reading too much into it? Were my values not shared by others? Due to this disconnect with my classmates, I felt there was a break in the community that was worsened by my choosing to socially isolate in an attempt to minimize any chance of hurt. I couldn’t help but wonder if others around me were experiencing similar emotions.
This emotional wound took two years to truly close up enough after fresh openings and restless healing. Then I felt it was time to assess the problem at hand instead of letting it continue to grow and be ignored.
It would have been incredibly easy to reciprocate and point an accusatory finger: using language as a weapon against those who had caused me pain. Yes, the thought had crossed my mind, but it flew past without question, for equality was something that had been ingrained in me my whole life. As such, I chose to act in a way that honored the concepts of Quakerism as well as the emotions I felt. I began speaking on the topic more and more, yet after months of this, I knew it was not enough. The frequency of the harmful language seemed to have lessened a bit, but it still persisted enough to need something more.
After wrestling for months with the idea of making a speech to the middle school, the emotions and motivations were bubbling up so strongly that I knew it would be wrong to ignore them. As such, I helped organize the Day of Silence in our school: a day when students take a vow of silence to symbolically represent the silencing of the LGBTQ+ community as a result of bullying and harassment. This experience initiated a conversation that would stick with people both in the moment and in the long-term. By allowing for an open, raw discussion on both the honest hardships and soaring joys of identity, people were able to admit that things needed work. Along with the speech I had been grappling with, I worked on other performances that reflected both my own experiences and a broader view, all with the hope of creating an assembly that would serve to educate about the topic.
When writing, I experienced a kind of mental barrier of protection as soon as the emotions were quantified into language at my fingertips. So, with ideals of community and equality rushing through my mind, I stood there, palms shaking across my legs, and stared at the sea of faces before me. I stood there and made it clear to all those present, no matter their age, that the premise of equality was one to fight for, just as I had been told from the very beginning.
The after-effects were not as instant as the introduction of the writing. To say that a switch flipped and understanding became clear would undermine the very struggles, Quaker and personal, that went into each moment. Change was not spontaneous, and I doubt that it ever will be. However, seeing the small adjustments in demeanor and language around me, along with an ongoing discussion on the topic with my peers truly quantified the change for me.
When I first heard an insult related to sexuality, I remember the feeling of absolute hopelessness that took over me, as I feared never being accepted. When I think back to being part of a change I knew needed to occur, I remember the warm, complete feeling of reassurance in my chest. Although I know it’s not over, I am sure of two things: there is value in standing up for something that is central to you; and change should be viewed not as a black-and-white success or failure but on a spectrum, where even a little progress makes a difference.