What’s in a name?


For the moment, the Tennessee House Education Subcommittee has deferred the "Don’t Say Gay" bill for consideration in the future. Who knows what happens from here?

What I do know is that my childhood and teenage years in Catholic schools in Chattanooga, Tenn. were “Don’t Say Gay” at a level that the Tennessee lawmakers pushing the current bill could only dream of achieving. Adjectives referring to any of the initials along the GLBT spectrum were rarely even whispered. I might not have heard them at all if it weren’t for the fact that my father had the awful (and slightly odd) habit of muttering, “Must be queer” whenever a driver cut him off in traffic. His tone when he said it clearly communicated the idea that queers were not only contemptible, but also very bad drivers.

(A disclaimer on my dad. He had many good qualities both as a man and a father. Unfortunately, his devout Catholic upbringing and military background trumped any card I could ever play to alleviate his fear that I was going to hell, but that is a different article entirely.) There were no openly gay characters on network television. Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares was “high strung.” Disney’s Chip N’ Dale were “buddies.” There were no out celebrities or athletes making the talk show rounds and, most importantly, there was no Internet where a student could Google “gay movie star” or “gay clergy” and get more information than is possible to absorb on the subject.

Which is why my world stood still the one time an educator said “gay” in the classroom. My eighth grade homeroom teacher was new to our school. She’d moved to town when her husband, a physician, took a job at the local hospital. They were young, hip, smart, and sexy. He played the guitar. She wore wire-rimmed glasses with tinted lenses. There was a worldliness about them both that was totally foreign to me.

I don’t remember what comment led up to it. Someone said something pejorative (possibly about Paul Lynde or Chip N’ Dale) and my teacher looked up from whatever she was working on at her desk and stated, simply, “There are women who are attracted to other women and men who are attracted to other men,” and then looked back down and continued what she was doing. No judgment one way or the other. Not good. Not bad. No hint that these people should be ashamed about their sexuality (or their driving, for that matter). Just a statement of fact spoken in the same tone you would you use if you said, “The Pope is Catholic.”

Let me be clear. The simple statement, “There are women who are attracted to other women” did not create or increase that truth in me. That train had been out of the station for as long as I could remember. What it did do was plant the seed of the idea that there were other people like me. Period. We existed. Just as importantly, there were people—good people—whom I admired, who could say the words that described me without inferring that I was a contemptible outlier. And, just for the record, I am an excellent driver.

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