Tuesday, October 12, 2010

...but words can never hurt me

...yeah, right.

The recent news about bullied gay teens killing themselves reminded me of a recent incident on Facebook.

A month or two ago, a girl I taught six or eight years ago in St. Augustine posted an angry status update about a guy who cut her off in traffic. She called him a "faggot". She didn't mean she could tell he was gay; it was just a term of scorn, the same way teens say something's "gay" when they mean it's weak or stupid.

I posted in response that I wished she'd picked a different word. A Friend of hers (unknown to me) responded that I should lighten up, that it's only a word and words don't matter.

Well, I've spent the last twelve years of my work life telling people that words do matter. The language of Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Tug McGraw ("Ninety percent of my salary I'll spend on Irish whiskey and women; the rest, I'll probably waste") matters.

Don't tell the families of the dead kids that words can never hurt them.

Here in Korea, men have a completely different outlook from American men when it comes to expressing affection and to masculinity. Boys in school pat each other's hair and sit with their arms around each other. I saw a ballplayer sitting on his teammate's lap in the dugout. (Highly unlikely with, say, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.) Heck, men wear pink shirts. (To use a common expression among the kids, "OMG!") Some of the boys wear earrings and, I think, a little makeup and spend longer in front of the mirror than I do at an all-you-can- eat brunch bar.

But gayness per se (that is not pronounced "Percy") is an utter taboo. Some older people believe that it didn't exist here till Americans brought it over. I know some gay expats, mostly women, but the gay Koreans keep themselves pretty well hidden (though I hear there are a few gay bars in Seoul for people who know where to look). In a culturally and ethnically monolithic society, being different in any way is frowned on. This particular challenge to tradition is several steps beyond.

For myself, frankly, it took a while to move from snickering about "homos" when I was a kid to realizing that sexual preferences have nothing to do with morality, that everyone deserves happiness, and that it's none of my damn business who you want to sleep with.

What's in our hearts is more important than who's in our beds.

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