Every morning, I spend my 30-minute commute from D.C. to Lorton, Va., listening to the Sports Junkies – four guys shooting the crap about all things even tangentially sports-related. Over the years, I've brushed off gay-related references by the hosts, some funny, some not so funny, all the while convincing myself they're not homophobic at heart. Recently, though, when they unceremoniously and humorlessly referred to Fox News anchor Shepard Smith a ''burglar,'' the moment struck me as one that must be profoundly galvanizing for straight and gay teens alike.
This schoolyard taunt for being gay didn't come in a vacuum; it came on the heels of bullied gay teens shooting themselves in the heads in their parents' closets and hanging themselves from trees in their families' backyards. It came as society is attempting to connect the dots between words and actions in the land mine-ridden journey teens must navigate.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) can say the classroom is no place for the ''openly homosexual,'' and New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino can share his concerns over children wrongly thinking homosexuality is ''an equally valid or successful option.'' And, after the required feigned outrage, we are capable of branding their words anemic because, even to average Joes, politicians are known quantities.
We are able to put in tiny, discounted boxes the Bishop Eddie Longs of the world, who preach God's message is if you're gay, ''You deserve to die,'' because it is comfortable to think of lunatics as undeserving of opinions.
We are even able to disregard school board members like Clint McCance in Arkansas, who promised to wear purple if homosexuals ''all commit suicide,'' because we accept as truth Marge Simpson's belief that ''one person can make a difference – but most of the time they probably shouldn't.''
With such a spotlight on the crisis of gay teen suicides, it's impossible for me to understand how those whose words matter can't – or won't – acknowledge the role they play.
What stuck with me most about the Sports Junkies slur was that it came as second nature, unquestioned and unacknowledged.
To our straight teens, the message is permissive: ''See, even we adults subtly bully, so go ahead, your gay peers are faggots, flamers, homos, burglars, and they're fair game.'' Almost as if authorized, they go to school and treat their gay equals as anything but, because that's what's done by the adults in whom they place their greatest respect.
The subtext received by our gay teens is as potent: ''See, even we adults subtly bully, and we just took a seat in the opposing bleachers in your little 'Them Against Me' game you've got to play.'' Vulnerable and confused, this realization shreds their souls and eviscerates their spirits.
Effortlessly delivered comments meant to belittle, ones made by coaches, parents, teachers, athletes, and, yes, sports radio show hosts, set in motion what happens with straight and gay teens in that dark area between words and actions.
These comments factor disproportionately into the equation gay teens must solve – an equation where the all-too-often solution comes in the form of a gun or noose or bridge. This belittling multiplies on itself, and, when added to the mountain of inconspicuous bullying that gay teens must climb, becomes unmanageable and insurmountable, ultimately showing them they aren't worthy of living a full, blessed, equal life.
The beautiful thing is, as Americans, we have rights and responsibilities. One of those rights is that we can say whatever we want, whenever we want, to whomever we want – limited only when that right conflicts with other rights. The other beautiful thing is, as Americans, the majority of us realizes that just because it's a right, doesn't make it right.
However, the responsibility too few of us seem to remember is that our straight and gay teens are as impressionable as instant film, accepting whatever messaging we expose them to. And that is where bullying is born.
Shawn Gardner is a local teacher.