A few years ago in my school, I was part of a group of openly gay teachers who organized “A Day without ‘That’s So Gay,'” in which we brought awareness to students about the ubiquitous term. At the time, students were saying it a lot.
My mom told me I couldn’t go to the party this weekend.
That’s so gay.
You’re homework is to read chapter six tonight.
That’s so gay.
I got the lead in the musical!
That’s so gay. (Okay, maybe this is an appropriate use.)
When I heard it, I usually called students on it. I remember at my previous school, the building was literally falling apart. A ceiling tile fell out during one of my classes, and this girl screamed, started laughing, and said, “That’s so gay.” I asked her in front of the entire class, “So what exactly was either homosexual or extremely happy about that ceiling tile falling down?” Everyone laughed, and I left it at that. I’m sure it didn’t change any habits that day, but that’s all I was ready to do at that moment in my career.
So a few years ago, a colleague of mine spearheaded this “Day Without ‘That’s So Gay'”; we held a homeroom session where teachers read a blurb about the reason the phrase might be offensive, equating the word “gay” with “stupid” or “dumb” or “annoying.” We supplied some talking points in response to the typical response: “Well we don’t mean it like that.” We talked about the history around other colloquial expressions, like when “Jew” has been used as a verb or when I was growing up how we said everything was “retarded,” and the ways in which the normalization of those terms can hurt people who are already marginalized. I know in my homeroom class, we had a great conversation about intent versus impact. While the intention of saying “That’s so gay” might not be to offend someone or to equate being homosexual with being stupid or annoying, the impact on people who are gay or who love someone who might be pretty awful. I opened up to my homeroom, telling them that every time I heard it, it hurt me. I told them that the big difference between being gay and most other minority groups is that you usually can’t tell who is a part of that group by simply looking at them, and therefore, you typically can’t tell who you might be offending. “I know you don’t mean it to offend, but now that you know it does, what does it say about you if you keep on saying it?” My little group of ten or so students seemed to be coming around, and while I’m not aware of how the other discussions went in other homerooms, I know that today I really don’t hear it very often in the halls of my school.
I was thinking about all of this yesterday when I heard someone make a similar comment on a subject about which they are clearly ignorant. I was spending the day with other teachers at a delightful professional development workshop focusing on dystopian literature. During our discussion of the commentary that authors who write in the genre are making about our current society, we of course brought the conversation around to power in society: the haves and the have nots. The former constantly fearful of becoming the latter; the latter often pushed down by the former. And that’s when Little Miss Contrary decided to pipe up. She is a high school English teacher who had spent the two days of our workshop saying how much she hated dystopian literature, contradicting our interpretations of the novels, and refusing to answer questions about what kind of books she does like. When talking about the power in society, she brought the conversation around to economics, and went on and on about her sad little son’s inability to find a job:
“He just graduated from college, and he’s been trying to so hard to find a job, but this economy is just awful. And then I see people like this Philip Seymour whatever who has all the money in the world and he just pumps himself full of drugs with it.”
I did a double take. Was she really linking her son’s job search to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death the day before, the death of a wonderfully talented actor who had succumbed to an addition he had been battling for more than two decades? How did one have anything to do with the other.
I immediately piped up, “Well, I’m not sure that the economy has anything to do with Hoffman’s drug and alcohol addiction.”
“Well, I mean, he just spent all that money on drugs. He has no idea what other people are going through.”
Another teacher joined my crusade, “How about Justin Bieber? That might be a much better example of what you’re talking about.”
Little Miss Contrary simply huffed and rolled her eyes. A few minutes later during a break, she turned to the woman sitting next to her and said, “You know, I really don’t blame that Justin Bieber. He’s too young to know better.”
This seemingly idiotic conversation hurt me far more than it should have. Just like “That’s so gay,” when I hear people talk with such contempt for people struggling with addiction, I am reminded of the years and years of struggle my own mother endured at the hands of her alcohol addiction, a disease that eventually claimed her life six years ago. And it hurts. It hurts that people would think of my mother’s death with a huff and an eye roll like this woman did of Philip Seymour Hoffman, like she surely did a few years ago when Amy Winehouse died, or any of the other high profile addiction-related deaths in recent years.
What probably stings the most is that I went through a period of ignorance myself about my mother’s sickness. I remember yelling at her once, “Why don’t you just stop? I don’t understand why you don’t just stop drinking!” I was in my twenties and my mother’s functional alcoholism that she’d lived with for most of my life had just turned gone over the precipice; she was often belligerently inebriated, had a few drunken car accidents under her belt, and had recently endured the demise of her 20+ year marriage. She had been to rehab and back, and nothing seemed to be taking. Like Little Miss Contrary, I didn’t understand why this woman who had enough money to live comfortably, who had friends and family who loved her, who once had a vibrant and exciting life filled with joy and happiness was now consistently choosing to drink her life away.
Even when she died after laying in a hospital bed for nearly two months, fading in and out of reality as her liver slowly stopped functioning, I didn’t understand. At that point, I’d done all the reading, gone to counseling, attended Al-Anon, and logically I understood that my mother simply couldn’t stop. She had a disease and the only real treatment that is available to addicts–counseling from professional and support from other addicts–didn’t work for her. As a person myself who is able to say, “I’m only have one glass of wine tonight” and actually only have one glass of wine tonight, it didn’t make sense to me that someone could say that and then be unable to stop drinking four, five, six glasses of wine tonight. It’s taken me several years beyond my mother’s death to come to terms with the fact that I really can be no more angry with her for dying from alcoholism than I could be if she had died from cancer.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death this week reminded me of all of this. A good friend who has struggled with these issues herself immediately wrote to me with the news. We had worked with him in New York briefly about fifteen years ago when he was doing some theater productions, so we felt a bit more connected to his departure than some of the other recent celebrity deaths. Little Miss Contrary’s sentiments about his choice to inject himself with drugs shows the limitations of her understanding, limitations that are certainly the majority in our world. To people like her, Hoffman’s overdose is another indication of the self-destructive decadence of the uber-wealthy, and while his tax bracket may have made the instruments of his death more readily available than others, this is a disease that doesn’t check salaries before attacking its victims. Hoffman left behind three kids, and even not knowing really knowing him, I’m positive he wasn’t sitting in that apartment thinking, “What am I going to do with all of this money?”
Loving someone with an addiction is probably one of the only things that will help perpetuate a better understanding of the disease, and in my personal experience, sometimes it’s moving beyond that love when the addict leaves our lives that really brings that understanding. Sharon Rush suggests in her book Loving Across the Color Lines that being a white woman who loves her black adopted daughter taught her to see the realities of the racial divide in this country, and I think this is true of the significant strides in gay rights over the past two decades as well. When a loved one comes out to us and we do not allow the knowledge to affect that love, we begin to understand the implications of subtle heterosexism that exists in our society, and we maybe speak up when we hear a kid say “That’s so gay.”
Likewise, when we love an addict, and particularly when we lose that person, we come to accept the realities of this disease. It’s not knowledge that is easily come by, and it’s not a lesson I want anyone in my life to really endure. At the same time, a shared collective understanding might provide a safer place for us all, one filled with empathy, especially for the victims that succumb to addiction and the ones that are left behind.