The Power of Language

A 12th grade final assignment was the impetus for my son, Sam, to pen this moving essay that I am proud to share here in my Huffington Post blogging space. His words providing 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 my fellow campers did not need to know anything 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 34 nights. Then I was ashamed that I didn't stand up for what I believed 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 have mixed feelings 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. Had it 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 statements 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.