The Power of Language

Editor’s Note:  A 12th grade final assignment was the impetus for Sam to pen this moving essay that I am proud to share.  This marks the first of hopefully many essays Sam will contribute in this space to provide Transparenthood readers with a glimpse of what it has been like for him growing up transgender.

Heading off to debate camp, it did not really occur to me to worry about my safety as a transgender teenager staying in the dorms of a New England University for five weeks.  As with my previous two years of camp, I was assigned a room in the boy’s dorm — the world knew me as a 16 year-old young man from Minnesota starting his fourth year of debate and none of my fellow campers needed to know any thing more.  But this time was different: the quick peak that my mom and I took into the bathrooms to confirm there was enough shower privacy did little to prepare me for the emotional toll that my friend’s language would have on me.

Sticks and stones will break my bones but can words really hurt me?

On the second day, I was walking through the quaint, one-street downtown with my roommate, feeling relieved that we already seemed to be quite compatible.  Then he looked at me and said the unthinkable: “Man I was SO worried that I was going to get a gay roommate, I’m just so relieved that you aren’t gay.”  A rush of logic preceded my emotions rendering me silent as his bigoted words hung heavily in the air – silent so that I would have a safe place to sleep for the next thirty-four nights.  Then, I was ashamed that I didn’t stand up for what I believe in, for the rights of my family and friends, and for my own humanity.

Sticks and stones might break my bones but words will hurt me even more.

After orientation activities and dorm festivities, a group of eight guys from around the country, including me, effortlessly became a tight knit pack of friends.  We quickly formed an inseparable group that I am conflicted about to this day;  in a span of just a few days, I heard every one of those guys make gay slurs and jokes.  Every time I heard them, I felt as though they were hurling stones at my weakening armor.  I felt as though they were joking about me, and would hate me if they “found out.”  I knew that they respected me, but I was left to imagine their world tilting off its axis upon discovering my secret.  It took me a few weeks to even stand up to their homophobic language – if they are all using gay slurs, how could I stop them by myself while feeling personally victimized?

Sticks and stones could probably cut my skin but words will render me speechless.

When these guys started making intersex and transvestite jokes, I felt powerless and realized that their words affected me more because of the respect I otherwise had for them.  I lay awake at night and asked myself several questions over and over again: What would they think of me?  Could we be friends if they knew?  Without even knowing about me they made me feel weaker than ever before, as I did not have any power in their spaces.

Sticks and stones could sting for a little bit but words can take away my agency.

On the last night of camp, my roommate was telling me that he had to explain what LGBT was to his parents, “…there are gays, and lesbians, and bisexuals… and then there are transgenders.”  Continuing on with his story he said, “My mom was really confused about transgender people so I just said, ‘yeah there are freaks out there like that.’”  Half of me really just wanted to make him uncomfortable and tell him right then and there that I was transgender.  The other half of me wanted to get the hell out of there and never look back.  If it had not been the last night of camp, his words would have driven me to find a different place to sleep.

Reflecting now, I feel conflicted about being their friend.  They had complete power over me without knowing it because they made, what they thought to be, harmless comments, but in reality, they were comments that made me question my capacity for friendship going forward.  They made me question my capacity to hold social positions, and worst of all, they made me wonder about the power of my voice, as I felt like I was yelling for help on a deserted island.

Your sticks and stones will never hurt me, but your words hit me at my core, and they hit hard.

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8 Responses to The Power of Language

  1. Yann says:

    For as long as I know that I am queer, i can’t keep asking myself what people would do if they know that i am romantically and sexually attracted by humans no matter they’re cis or trans*, no matter their gender. Would they have asked me their way? Would they have worked with me? Would they have invited me to their party? Etc. It is not that i am hiding but people always presume you are like them.
    I advise you to choose friends and family who will love you for who you are and not for who they think you are. Because no one should hide themselves to be loved, because no one should doubt about love or friendship, because everyone should be loved unconditionally.

  2. Yukimi says:

    It’s a beautiful post. I hope those boys grow up to realise the error in their ways and be better men. Sam, you are an awesome young man already ^_^

  3. Monica says:

    Sam,
    My heart aches for your experience. I hope you know that there are young people in the world who are not this bigoted; who do love and support you, and who are not stuck in the dominant rhetoric of the sex (and sadly gender) binary. I also wonder if any of those boys were struggling with questioning their own sexual orientation or gender identities, but didn’t know how to talk about that in any other way than degrading those who don’t fit the heterosexist norm. Regardless, the way they talked is offensive and I’m sorry for how it affected you, your sense of self and experience at camp.
    The problem of how we teach and talk about gender with boys is another problem. And our homophobic culture, particularly with boys, promotes this behavior in so many ways. It is disheartening, but I truly believe change is happening. Stay strong and be true to the beautiful person you are!

  4. Liz says:

    Sam,

    Thank you for writing this very important reminder that thoughtless spoken word are dangerous and divisive. There is no easy way of dealing with the hurt you felt over these young men’s words. Giving voice to your experience is a powerful and courageous place to start. I applaud your resilience and integrity.

  5. Anita Brown says:

    As a trans-woman who spent 7 years in an all-male college dormitory living as a male – because the college wouldn’t let me stay in the girls’ dorm (because of the gender in my birth certificate), and I wasn’t about to make my life a living hell by coming out to THIS rowdy crowd that I was a transwoman – I hear you. There is no fear more chilling nor a source of panic more stupefying than trying to hide your identity from your closest buddies who have such deep rooted hatred, lack of respect, and utter disregard for the person you are. I hear you loud and clear!

  6. Pingback: Language Matters | The Brainwork of an Idealist

  7. E. Jackson says:

    Dear Sam,

    Such a courageous act to capture this experience in words. Whether you realize it, sharing your experience brings strength, enlightenment, inspiration, and education. Thank you for your courage… Your a wonderful gift!

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