Use Your Words

In 2011 anti-LGBTQ murders increased 11% and were at an all-time high according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program's (NCAVP) report released on May 31. The same day the report was released the New York Court of Appeals held that calling someone gay isn't defamatory because being gay is no longer considered shameful and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that the definition of marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutionally discriminatory. The day after the report was released I came upon David Mixner's thoughts on anti-LGBTQ violence where he pointed to a t-shirt slogan: "I KILL GAYS FOR FUN."

I've been thinking a lot about words, particularly in light of President Obama's statement about marriage equality. I've been thinking a lot about policy, particularly in light of the unfathomable argument that LGBTQ victims of domestic and sexual violence should not be included in federal protections because they are not "true victims." Not all words lead to policies, of course -- for example, the president's carefully parsed statement did not convey nor endorse any legal rights to LGBTQ people and I doubt (but have yet to be convinced) that North Carolina is going to start penning up "the gays."

So, for a few days I've had this word cloud formulating in my head: Marriage. Murder. Shame. True. Equal. There is fierce competition for the most prominent word and, in the headlines I read, that word shifts daily. But the word that means the most here is gay. We're at a juncture in history where the word "gay" and our collective reaction to it is at the forefront of a debate about who we are and who we want to be as a nation. The thing about the word gay, and all of these words, is that they hold weight -- not just in the potential laws and policies they could engender but in the moment they are spoken. I feel the cognitive dissonance of living in a country where one day people are cheering about my right to get what everyone else has and the next they are talking about murdering me.

At AVP, I use words to describe the progress we make toward equal treatment of LGBTQ people in this country and the backlash that we face -- with increased visibility comes increase vulnerability. LGBTQ face alarming levels of violence in this country -- and, like positive progress, this backlash is growing. Increasing murder rates are now a three-year trend and, if what we've seen in the first half of 2012 is any indication, we're headed toward a fourth year of record-high murders. These are words from the NCAVP report, but at AVP, and throughout the country, these words have form: they are terror, risk and harm. They have substance: they are people we love.

There is a way to stop this violence -- actually, there are lots of ways. At AVP our job is to strategically and simultaneously use each one at our disposal: organizing, policy change, engagement, prevention. But the most powerful strategy that we have is not an organizational one: it's a societal one. We have to understand that words matter. Calls for equality lead to equality. Calls for death lead to death. Using gay as an epithet may no longer be legally shameful, but it still leads to violence, suicide, murder. And each of us contributes to that national word cloud when we speak -- whether we're joking or advocating or just talking. We can choose to use words that perpetuate hatred, derision and scorn. We can choose to use words that create safety, acceptance, respect. At AVP we have an "I'm anti violence and pro "____________" campaign where you can choose the one word that describes what you support.

Which word do you choose?

Sharon Stapel is the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP). AVP empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected communities and allies to end all forms of violence through organizing and education, and support survivors through counseling and advocacy.