By Abby Fisher ‘19
“That’s the gayest thing I’ve ever seen,” one student said.
“Yeah, that kid’s such a fag,” the other responded.
While I wish this was a fabricated anecdote, one from fiction or one overheard at another school, this was an exchange I heard during the Harmonizers’ performance at our first night of communal candle-lighting. This isn’t the first or the worst instance of homophobia I’ve witnessed over the course of my four years at Heschel. It is, however, one of the most blatant.
One of the peculiarities of Heschel-specific homophobia is that it’s insidious. It masks itself as something milder and often remains unseen by teachers and administrators. For example, some of my classmates have taken to exclaiming, “Love is love,” in a tone of voice that to students is unmistakably mocking, but to teachers seems unremarkable. The challenge with these types of incidents is successfully calling them out. When I’ve taken my peers to task for the “love is love”-type comments, they are able to hide behind the tame surface-level meaning of the words they use. I’m typically met with something to the effect of, “What, are you saying being gay is bad? Wow, Abby.” Each time I hear my classmates speak this way, I’m forced to wonder what the use is in calling them out. On the one hand, I think of Rabbi Heschel and remember that letting a disrespectful comment go unchecked is tantamount to saying it myself. On the other hand, if I do call it out, those who said it can easily dismiss my criticism by hiding behind a seemingly innocuous statement. In fact, calling out these kinds of comments can sometimes just call attention to them, thus unnecessarily alerting their intended victim to their offensive connotation.
But the anecdote I recalled above was not one of these “should I or shouldn’t I” moments. I knew unequivocally that I had a responsibility to try to end these students’ derogatory comments, and yet I failed to uphold that responsibility. I won’t spend this article expressing regret for this failure, the likes of which could span paragraphs. I think it more productive to explore the reasons I didn’t step up, because I believe that many Heschel students struggle similarly when facing instances of homophobia and other forms of discrimination that happen in our halls.
- I didn’t want to embarrass myself or others. I was sitting near friends and didn’t want to call attention to myself or to them for fear of feeling uncomfortable. In these moments, there are two conflicting social pressures. I wanted to be a supportive member of the larger Heschel community, helping to ensure that LGBTQ+ students feel comfortable, but simultaneously worried that reprimanding these students would call unnecessary and embarrassing attention to myself and my friends.
- I didn’t want to be “that kid.” In the few seconds during which I overheard the conversation, I was overly concerned with preserving my own image. I worried about becoming a caricature of myself, rather than delegitimizing caricatures of marginalized social groups. Many students can picture in their heads the quintessential high school “social justice warrior” who polices everyday conversations and makes everybody cringe. I was more afraid of becoming “that kid” than I was of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment infecting our community.
- I didn’t think it was my place. These students were not part of my grade and the person about whom they were speaking was out of their earshot. I realize now that I need to trust my instincts. Of course it was my place. When nobody is there to defend themselves or a group they are a part of, it becomes bystanders’ responsibility to defend them in the fight for a more just and inclusive community.
- I didn’t think it would be effective. In the moment, I didn’t see the utility in highlighting the problematic nature of this behavior. My otherwise stalwart belief in the power of words and our responsibility in wielding them lapsed momentarily, and I convinced myself that calling these students out wouldn’t help end the issue of homophobia in our halls. I neglected to realize that these two students were underclassmen who, in an ideal world, could have learned from a thoughtful reproach and changed over the course of their high school careers.
I realize now that these daily occurrences of homophobia in our community, both casual and conspicuous, are what allow this shameful pattern to continue. And if students who relate to the thought process I outlined continue to give in to their doubts as I did that day during candle lighting, this discrimination will only continue.