One time in college, I was sitting in my friend’s living room watching an episode of Pretty Little Liars, a show in which the incredibly beautiful Shay Mitchell plays lesbian high school student Emily Fields. My friend’s roommate, let’s call her Sarah*, was cooking dinner behind us as we watched, and without looking up from whatever she was chopping she nonchalantly said, “Gosh, Emily is so gorgeous, it’s such a pity that she’s gay.”
I turned to my friend and muttered, “I mean…it’s not a pity for the girls who get to date her.” I wish I’d said it louder. I was so confused by what she even meant. Was it that Emily’s hotness was wasted on the world because men did not get to reap the benefits? Was it that lesbians should not look like that lest someone mistake them for being straight? Was it that gay people do not deserve to be beautiful because who they date is wrong? Honestly, Sarah probably didn’t even know what Sarah meant. She was just thoughtlessly chattering away while cooking her veggies.
When Sarah said what she said, she didn’t know there was a girl in the room who had been struggling with her own sexuality for over two decades. She didn’t know that this girl had spent the past two years entangled in a messy friendship with someone for whom she was finally realizing she probably felt something. She didn’t know that for many months this girl had been right on the cusp of accepting herself and had even allowed herself to consciously entertain the possibility that she was not straight.
Sarah didn’t know that it was comments like hers that made me force all of my denial right back to the surface of my mind, that made it feel impossible to leave the world of reasonable doubt in which I had let myself live for so long.
For me, it is these kinds of little swipes that sting far worse than the words of the fanatic religious haters. Those with the picket signs screaming “God Hates Fags” are appalling, but they don’t affect me on an emotional level because, let’s face it, those people are just idiots.
We still have to fight against them and we have to fight against the physical and emotional abuse LGBT people face everyday, but we also have to fight the smaller wars, the offensive daily chatter and conversation that has so deeply permeated society as to not even feel like a big deal to most people, the teenagers who say “that test was so gay,” the people who may not vote against gay marriage but cringe when they see two men kiss, the man who has the nerve to approach two girls he has realized are on a date to proposition them for a threesome, the girls who become a little more distant because they assume I cannot be their friend without falling for them.
These are not the people who believe gays are going to Hell. They are not radicals spouting hogwash on the street. They are not the bullies shoving people against their lockers. They are just people who have grown up in a world that hasn’t provided them with enough exposure to all the possible types of humans there can be. They are our classmates, friends, and colleagues, and no matter how much we don’t want to, we care what they think.
Those offhanded comments may not feel like they mean much or spread any real hatred, but for someone nearby (and there is always someone) who is struggling to come to terms with her own sexual identity, those words are everything. They are everything that scares her about coming out and everything that has taught her that whatever she is feeling is unnatural and the moment she stops repressing it, she will be viewed as an “other.”
If Sarah knew who was sitting in front of her, she probably wouldn’t have made that comment, but beyond the fact that we should hold our tongues because we never know who is listening, it is a thought that she should never have been able to have in the first place. What kinds of messages did Sarah receive growing up? What was she not exposed to that led her to conclude that physical beauty is wasted on gay people?
The idea that being gay means being different has been ingrained in all of us for a long time. We have all been brought up to believe that, whether we are accepting or not, being anything but straight is a divergent from the “norm,” which is what causes people like Sarah to think that a gay woman shouldn’t look like a “typical” straight actress.
The more that celebrities like Shay Mitchell are willing to kiss members of the same sex on mainstream television shows, the less people will cringe when they see it in real life, the more normal it will all seem, whatever normal even means.
LGBT representation in the media, as wonderful organizations like Glaad promote, are key to eliminating comments like Sarah’s. Watching Shay for the past five seasons certainly helped me and many other struggling young people through a whole lot of feelings, and it is characters like hers who help all of us see that there is no mold one must fit to be a certain sexuality. Shay and her character are helping break down stereotypes, and they are showing us that any two people in love are just people. The more characters like Emily Fields we have on tv, the less ignorance there will be.
In her 2014 Human Rights Campaign speech, Ellen Page said “the world would be a whole lot better if we just made an effort to be less horrible to one another.” This, in my opinion, is not only a call to end verbal and physical harassment. This is not only a call to just frickin’ let two people who love each other get married. This is a call to stop all language and behavior that has the potential to make someone feel like who they love is anything but right.
I am not in any way suggesting that one offhand comment kept me in the closet. All I am saying is that the words we say affect people far more than we think. It has been two years since that comment was made in front of me. It was a few words, a few seconds of my entire college career. Think of all the moments and conversations that I do not remember from those four years, but I still remember that one. What does that tell you?