It's hard to believe that John Lennon would be 70 this week – in my mind's eye he's still the handsome young Beatle. He gave the world so much and his song, Imagine, is probably my favorite. Filled with ridiculous optimism and longing for a better world, it gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. But the world changes because people can imagine a better way to live, a better way to be in world. My daughter is applying to college this fall – actually she sends in her early admission application to her first choice school today. All I can think about is the day she was born and how the time in between has gone so quickly in retrospect – it has by turns been exquisitely beautiful, fun, joyful and exhausting and astonishingly painful at times. Life. At the urging of my friend Lisa, I wanted to share her "Personal Essay" for her college applications. It gives me hope for the future. She, and many of her generation, are imagining a world of true change.
One day this fall I sat down in my English class and heard my English teacher, a man who I deeply respect, use a gay slur.
“Did you really just say that?” I said, speaking almost without thinking about it. As I said it, I realized how disrespectful I sounded, but I knew that it was too late to take it back.
“Say what?” He said, illustrating a fundamental issue with people- they simply don’t know that words have consequences, which was ironic, because this teacher taught English.
“Fag. You can’t say that.” The Gay-Straight Roundtable had been on a crusade to eliminate that word from my school's vernacular, and here he was, only a summer after we had pretty much been successful, tearing down the very real progress we had made in making the community safer for everyone.
“Yes, I can. I just did.” He stared at me, waiting for my response.
“No, you really can’t.” I was taking every word he said personally; it was all a blow to everything I fundamentally believed about people’s ability to change and evolve.
“I make a point of being politically incorrect.” That was the final straw; I knew I couldn’t win this battle, not in front of the class, not with all eyes on a battle of wills. I didn’t say anything more, but I knew I could win the war, because bigotry and intolerance are not acceptable.
Despite your feelings about gay rights, I don’t think it’s right for a teacher to ever use a slur against any group of people, especially a man who is deeply respected in the community. I’m not someone who usually fights with teachers. I speak up in class, but very rarely do I openly disagree with teachers, especially ones who I respect. I was deeply shaken by the events of that class. I talked to my advisor about what had happened in class, and the next day I got an apology from my teacher, but something had changed about the way I saw him, and although I’m still in his class, and I still respect him on an intellectual level, my personal respect for him has taken a hit. The idea that someone could secretly be a bigot was not something that had ever crossed my mind before that day. In my mind, there were loud supporters and vocal dissenters, but I had never accounted for the people who stayed silent.
It’s not about political correctness; in fact – the politically correct thing to do in our culture is to ignore the issue of gay rights. As I write this, five people in the past week have committed suicide because they were ashamed of their sexual orientation, and those are only the ones in the news. These people probably would not have taken their own lives if someone had been openly disrespectful; it’s the disapproving glances and the side comments not aimed at anyone. The silent, moderately disapproving public creates the negative paradigm that gay people have to live in, and that’s what I’m looking to change. True change will occur when the silent public has changed their minds, not when the vocal public speaks louder.