I think kids are quite hysterical. They say the darndest things. But, in education kids are disciplined to not say certain things while being encouraged to say other things. The comical kindergarten technique of addressing an upset kid by asking them to “use their words” illuminates the power and precarity of language. The teacher wants the kid to “use his/her/hir words” but what words that kid can use are already, most likely, limited and if not limited will garner some form of discipline very quickly. By this I mean, if a teacher told a kindergartner to “use your words” and that kid told the teacher to “fuck off,” the teacher would while being highly amused and laughing on the inside find it necessary, due to professional standards, to inform the kid that such a phrase is inappropriate and discipline the student accordingly. We do not want little kids running around cursing because that would show poorly on them, their family, and the community in which they were raised. One could reference Paul Rudd's Role Models where we see a little black boy (shocking I know) who seemingly only knows how to cuss (and garners significant laughs from the audience since we rarely see the kid as black minstrel).
But, my concern is not with cussing kids. Rather, my concern, or perhaps interest is when kids - students - use phrases often labeled as “homophobic” such as “that's gay,” “no homo,” or “fag.” These phrases are common parlance on the playground, hallways, and classrooms. Homework is referred to as “being gay,” compliments to other same-sex classmates are ended by saying “no homo,” and refusing to do something seen as cool is met with “don't be a fag.” Pre-service teachers are often told that it is necessary to address such phrases when they hear them uttered, but GLSEN's research shows that unfortunately such phrases are rarely addressed by teachers. According to the 2009 report "62.4% of students who were harasseed or assaulted in school did not report the incident to school staff, believing little to no action would be taken or the situation would become worse if reported" while "33.8% of the students who did report an incident said that school staff did nothing in response." This finding is not unique to this study, but has been consistently found in various studies on school climate. And this finding speaks directly to teacher preparation. What type of preparation do pre-service teachers receive in their programs and what are the complexities of such preparation?
There seems to be a particular fear about addressing phrases and harassment hinged on sexuality. Some teachers - new and old - comment about being unsure what to say or how to address such phrases. Other teachers - new and old - note how they just address the comment head on, informing the student who said it that such a phrase cannot be used and will not be tolerated. Often though, the intervention ends here with the student not being informed as to why they are not supposed to use that phrase. And still other teachers - new and old - address the utterance and discuss why such an utterance is inappropriate. Within education, I would argue, it is this third option that is seen as the “gold-standard” practice. It addresses the language and teaches the user of such language of the problems using such language.
However, I find such interventions quite problematic - perhaps because I find most forms of pre-packaged advice problematic. I find it problematic because it does not take into account the context - who is saying it, how they are saying it, who they are saying it to, and why? I can't but wonder if a gay student speaking to another gay student and using, for instance, “fag” in an endearing way is ever told not to use that phrase. I imagine that this will become more prevalent in schools as Gay-Straight Alliances become more visible in high schools and middle schools. If schools provide a space for gay students in the form of GSAs, how does that space disrupt the traditional hetero-normative ways of addressing homophobic language? At an earlier time it seemed to be adequate to simply make certain words off limits. But as the times change and "gays" receive more legitimacy within the political realm, do schools have to alter what language counts as appropriate?
What do I mean by this? If a gay student utters "faggot" and is told not to use that word, what does the gay kid learn? Does the gay kid learn that they just cannot win? That schools are simply too straight for their gay ways of recuperating words? Do they learn that as they find words to use within their group of friends that allow them to "recuperate" injurious speech and create a space to survive that in fact, their survival space is not the "right" kind or not "appropriate"? Are they straightened out and re-oriented towards the more acceptable approach to language? I am not sure, but I think it is an important issue to deal with.
We might also think about the use of the phrase "no homo" as not only does it allow us to engage issues of sexuality, but also race as this is a phrase that is racialized - most often heard within the African American community. Many people find this phrase problematic. I think this phrase is interesting because it illuminates the inability within masculinity to compliment another "man" without being accused of same-sex attraction. It illustrates the limitations of masculinity. But, it also produces a space for compliments to take place. Rather than remaining silence and not telling another boy that his shoes are fabulous, "no homo" allows a different form of intimacy to emerge - an intimacy that is distinct from an intimacy that is associated with "homosexuality." So, while this phrase, on one hand, can be read as being homophobic. It might also be read as challenging the homo-hetero divide allowing for some "same-sex love" that is not "gay." And I think we should produce more forms of intimacy - ways of relating to others that are understood outside of sexual attraction...but this is quite difficult and is not a move to ignore the violence that "no homo" and other "homophobic" insults can inflict when uttered in particular contexts or dynamics.
Moving in a different direction, recently I heard the use of “fag” in a way that seemed new to me. The use of “fag” was in reference to being jealous. The person being called a fag was the person whom the person uttering "fag" was jealous of - “A football game already…ugh fag…you're so lucky”. In this comment, the fag is not the abject subject it seems, but rather the subject that is supposed to be admired for being able to “go to a football game already”. The fag is the lucky one. Of course, this is quite obvious. Fags are rather lucky. And I am quite interested in this lucky fag. Fag is most often used in a derisive manner, but this moment seems to completely challenge the derision and instead deride the alternative position - the position the utterer is in - namely the "straight" position or the "not-fag" position.
Now, I am not sure if the person using this phrase thought about the use in this way. But, that is really of no concern because you are reading my blog post about this and hopefully now might think about how words are quite complex and must be explored within the context they are uttered...and perhaps this illuminates why grammar and sentence structure is so important. Recognizing how words operate within a sentence impacts the possibilities instilled in that sentence. When "fag" becomes the "subject" of a sentence instead of the object of that sentence's derision, I think that is significant, but I will let you decide as you are more capable than I...