Zero Discrimination Day: Syntax of Discrimination
I first heard the term “gay” when I was four years old. From the very start, I recognised its presence in the context of insult: two men throwing friendly jabs at each other, making fun. I asked my mother what the word meant, and she told me that it was when a man liked another man. The speakers laughed, and a tiny Monica understood that to be gay was something to be laughed at, to not take seriously.
The term as an insult become more common as I went through school, which I’m sure is a #relatable experience for most young Australians. Twelve-year-olds aren’t necessarily creative with insults, but you can’t fault their dedication to a particular term. On the radio, through my parents’ conversations, I heard a little about actual gay people. Discussions of real humans, with real problems of homophobia. But in the end, my exposure to the idea of homosexuality was as an insult. Something to be mocked, and homosexuals themselves something to be feared.
It continued as I entered high school. Even as we grew older, and discussions of actual queer issues entered our (conservative and Catholic) classrooms, even as gay people became something resembling human, the insults continued.
When you hear a thing used as an insult for so long, and then you come to realise that you are that thing, it tends to break you a bit.
I kept my mouth shut about it. I stayed as inconspicuous as possible. I hid the drop in my stomach in public when friends described something as “gay,” and hoped they wouldn’t notice when I fumbled and stuttered at the pretty store clerk. I went home and cried and hated myself.
It’s my third year out of high school. Things are easier. I’ve learned to say “I’m gay” and be unafraid (with repetition to a wearying extent, some would argue, and despite the fact that I don’t actually identify as homosexual). In my bubble, my sense of self, the language has shifted. The playground insults of “that’s so gay” are a ghost to me. And yet to hundreds of thousands of children across the country – the world – they are a reality of self-loathing.
Homophobia in language and culture is a lot like Chinese water torture. One drop onto the forehead is nothing. But tied down, unable to escape, seeing no way out, with the drops coming and coming with no end? Well, it’s no surprise that suicide rates for same-sex attracted children are fourteen times those of their heterosexual peers.
There are some who would argue that children just need thicker skin, that they should just brush aside the bullies and the slurs and stay true to themselves. The idea that it’s that simple is laughable. And what’s more, it ignores the other side of the issue: that the children using this language will make the same association. “Gay” is an insult, and insults are bad. It’s a simple logic, yet it can have lasting effects on a worldview. Although active homophobia may not be present, the association will, and it will inevitably affect, at least to some extent, the way heterosexuals view their queer peers.
The language starts young. The distress starts young. And so the healing must start young. Today, on Zero Discrimination Day, I’m thankful for the work we do at UN Youth. We give young people the opportunity to have conversations that lead to a fuller understanding of the world, and of each other. It’s the beginning of a narrative with a syntax of not ignorance, but tolerance and respect, from the most fundamental level of language.
Editor’s Note: Zero Discrimination Day is an opportunity to join together against discrimination and celebrate everyone’s right to live a full and productive life with dignity.
The UN first celebrated Zero Discrimination Day on March 1, 2014, after UNAIDS, a UN program on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), launched its Zero Discrimination Campaign on World AIDS Day in December 2013. The day is symbolised by a butterfly.