The meaning of Bryant’s words

April 28, 2011

Keegan O’Brien describes the angry reaction to Kobe Bryant's anti-gay outburst.

"FUCKING FAGGOT!" Those were the words that Los Angeles Lakers basketball superstar Kobe Bryant yelled at a referee and into national television cameras during a game on April 12. His comment sparked a national uproar, involving both the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community and Bryant's supporters. Shortly after the incident, Bryant was fined $100,000 by the NBA.

He issued this public "apology" the following day: "What I said last night should not be taken literally. My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period. The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone."

This was a non-apology apology, amounting to Bryant saying that he's sorry people got offended. However, after a few days of intensive backlash, Bryant appeared to have a change of mind. On April 15, he was featured on The Dan Patrick Show, apologizing for his outburst and explaining that he hopes to use his mistake as a learning opportunity for others.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant

If you're still upset that Bryant would respond in such a way to begin with, you're not alone. Unfortunately, the problem isn't just with Bryant. If they were to read any of the comment sections of articles on the issue or the Facebook statuses of Bryant supporters, anyone who's upset would be made to feel like they're just uptight and overreacting.

As one poster wrote: "Should athletes now stop showing their true emotions while playing a game and play up to the camera, in case it's on them, at all times? When will enough be enough." Here's another: "I don't think this should be taken this serious...I really don't think he was trying to offend the gay community." Or my favorite: "This is getting ridiculous. GET THE HELL OVER IT!!!!"

Bryant's initial apology along with the backlash against LGBTQ people and their allies who challenged him illustrates the reality of continued homophobia and the way that oppression is dismissed in American society.

As one of those "faggots" Bryant was referring to, I have some thoughts about his initial non-apology--and those who try to excuse homophobic language on the basis of they "didn't mean it like that."

Anyone who thinks faggot is "just another word" should try asking one of the countless numbers of LGBTQ youth forced into a life of daily trauma and self-hatred, struggling with thoughts of suicide, depression, substance abuse and alienation as a consequence of anti-LGBTQ oppression.

I have an even better idea for holding Bryant accountable then having him pay the NBA $100,000. He should spend some time talking to Wendy Walsh, the mother of gay 13-year-old Seth Walsh, who was murdered by homophobia in September 2010. After months of ongoing verbal and physical anti-gay bullying in school, Seth hung himself in his own back yard. His mother walked outside to see her son's lifeless body hanging from a tree.

Maybe Bryant could then go on live TV and talk about the power of words from a new perspective.

He wouldn't be alone. Just hours before Bryant's televised outburst, Phoenix Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley were filming a public service announcement for the NBA, the Ad Council and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) against anti-gay language as part of GLSEN's "Think Before You Speak" campaign.

Put simply, faggot isn't just "another word." It's a homophobic and derogatory term that dehumanizes LGBTQ people. Homophobia and transphobia are very real and very painful.

Whether direct or indirect, anti-gay discourse reinforces a culture of homophobia and social marginalization. Being exposed to this abuse on a regular basis takes a toll on LGBTQ people, reinforcing feelings of self-hatred, depression and alienation, with the potential of serious consequences.

BUT THE debate that's emerged in response to Bryant's outburst can't begin and end with him--actually, it isn't really even about him that much. His outburst is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Instead, those who want to fight homophobia need to use the incident as an opportunity to address social problems far bigger then Kobe Bryant's individual behavior.

As David Badash, who writes at The New Civil Rights Movement blog, put it:

Kobe Bryant merely said what was at the forefront of his mind when he searched for the meanest slur he could find in a moment of anger and "frustration." And Kobe Bryant merely said what many Americans say every day, whether or not the subject of their frustration is a gay man, a lesbian, or a bisexual or transgender person--or not...

The problem with what Kobe Bryant said is not so much that he said it, it's that so many Americans say it every day, do not understand the damage words like that can cause, and do not see anything wrong with it.

Kobe Bryant's outburst sheds light on a broader social pattern of homophobic discourse and on the intersections of homophobia, sexism and masculinity in U.S. society.

John Amaechi, an African American and the first ever NBA player to come out as openly gay, explained it well: "The problem we have now is because of the way we don't address homophobia, the ultimate insult to a man is to tell them either they're like a woman, or worse, that they're gay."

The reason there was such a strong response to Bryant's remark is because it tapped into the very real experiences of homophobia endured by so many people. While anger at Bryant is justified, it's important to recognize the sources of discrimination and oppression in society.

The most powerful purveyors of structural and cultural homophobia today are the ruling institutions of this society--in particular, the federal government. Kobe Bryant may have cultural influence, but he doesn't determine national policy, he doesn't own and control the media, he isn't responsible for enforcing (or not enforcing) non-discrimination protections, he doesn't write marriage and immigration laws, and he doesn't control government spending.

CHALLENGING THE individual manifestations of homophobia and transphobia is important, but we need to change more then just the words people use. We need to fight for full federal equality and genuine social justice.

Millions of LGBTQ people remain second-class citizens under U.S. law, denied basic civil and human rights. In 29 states, it is completely legal to be fired or not hired due to your perceived or known sexual orientation--in 37 states, the same lack of protection applies to gender identity or expression.

Thirty-seven states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, and the federal government continues to keep the Defense of Marriage Act in place, restricting federal marriage benefits from same-sex couples. As a result, millions of same-sex couples are unable to receive the more then 1,000 benefits opposite-sex couples have access to.

In 2011, there's no reason why the federal government should continue to define and treat LGBTQ as less then human. We deserve full protection from discrimination and equal access in employment, housing and education. We deserve to be able to marry the people we love and be given full access to all the legal benefits granted to straight couples. We deserve to be treated as equal human beings.

At the same time, LGBTQ oppression reaches beyond legal inequality. Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to commit suicide then their straight peers, and transgender teens struggle with suicide at even higher rates. More then 50 percent of LGBTQ youth are rejected by their families and over 25 percent are kicked out of their homes.

Over 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT or Q. Some 84 percent of LGB students report being verbally harassed; 91.5 percent of LGB students report hearing homophobic remarks, such as "faggot," "dyke" or the expression "that's so gay," frequently or often; and 90 percent of transgender youth report feeling unsafe at school.

Gay youth suffer from depression and profound feelings of isolation at a rate five times higher than their straight peers. LGBTQ people suffer from much higher rates of substance abuse, mental health problems and incarceration. In particular, LGBTQ people of color and those from impoverished communities suffer disproportionately high rates of incarceration.

Addressing the injustices facing the LGBTQ community means looking at the intersection of race, class and sexuality. We need greater funding for queer homeless shelters, adequate mental health and social services, inclusive sexual education, increased funding for AIDS/HIV programs, and an end to the criminal justice system's war on LGBTQ youth.

Those in power have made their priorities clear--endless funding for wars abroad, unlimited corporate welfare, austerity for working people, instant bailouts for Wall Street and scapegoating oppressed people, while moving at a snail's pace to seriously address critical social, political and economic issues facing our community.

In denying LGBTQ people basic human rights, the federal government marginalizes us as second-class citizens and marks us as less then human, underserving of equality and justice. And that sends a wider social message--the structural dehumanization of LGBTQ people reinforces and legitimizes a culture of homophobia and transphobia, in which anti-gay/trans discourse become normalized and accepted.

As long as the laws of the U.S. government don't recognize LGBTQ people as equal human beings, there will be homophobia in attitudes and behavior in the wider society.

We need to call out and challenge everyday manifestations of homophobia, like the case of Kobe Bryant. But LGBTQ people need a whole lot more than this. We need a radical change in the priorities of this government if we want meaningful justice.

History demonstrates that change never has, and never will, happen automatically. If we want change, we need to move beyond writing letters to and holding expensive banquets with politicians. We need to look to the people of Egypt and of Wisconsin to see what it takes to win real social change--mass grassroots struggle.

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