GUEST POST for #SpiritDay: "That's So Gay" Why Words Matter

Maurice Jamal is an award-winning filmmaker, actor, writer and according to his niece “kinda eccentric.” Jamal is best known for his films Dirty Laundry and Ski Trip. His niece Ammar is a high school senior living in Oakland, CA hoping for a high score on her SAT’s. Together, they have written an uncle/niece reflection for Spirit Day.

By Ammar Lee-Fowler and Maurice Jamal

I remember picking up the phone, tears in my eyes, and calling a good friend. I needed one that day. I had just heard about another young person who had taken their life. Teased, bullied, shamed into feeling like there was no loving place where they could be. While I was making all these amazing strides in my professional life as an out, gay. African-American, I still felt an overwhelming sense of unfairness. There was a deep knowing that while we have achieved much, there was still much remaining to do.

The past year, I decided to take some time away from my life as an entertainer and spend time being a son, brother and uncle. While success in the industry and the accolades of a supportive public are great, there’s nothing quite like the love of family and the advice of old friends to help put your life in context.

So as Spirit Day approached this year, it felt even more personal than it ever had before. As I thought about my role as an LGBT leader, I kept coming back to my role within my family. And before I knew it I found myself sitting down with my 16 year old niece Ammar. Ammar just started her senior year, is an accomplished dancer, wants to study nursing and help kids in need. Like most girls her age, she’s thinking about grades, boys and how to find her own voice. As a young, straight African-American teen I really wanted to get a sense of her experiences and thoughts around bullying.

When my uncle said he wanted to talk with me, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about. He’s kinda eccentric and I had no idea what was going on. Once we started talking about Spirit Day, and LGBT kids and what it was like at my school, I really thought it wasn’t a big deal. My family lives in the Bay Area, my school is pretty accepting, and I didn’t think I saw a lot of bullying.

But as we started talking more as a family, he said some things that really made me think. The next day, I went to my Leadership Class to ask my classmates about bullying, gay teens and the phrase “that’s so gay”, which I hear a bunch.

I was talking to my niece about what it feels like to try and fit it. To make yourself seem “normal”, when there’s something on the inside just screaming to get out. I talked about the pressure to be a “good, strong young Black man”, when you’re sometimes made to feel like being gay is the antithesis of that.

At first, I didn’t think that saying “that’s so gay” was a big deal. There are out students at my school and I didn’t see anyone harassing or bullying them. A bunch of people I know use it, and some friends and I’ve even said it myself. When I told my uncle that, I say his eyebrow raise, and he gave me that look I’ve seen before. He just listened, but I definitely saw that look. He talked about what it was like for him when he was my age. What it felt like in high school.

So I asked the people I know. At first most of us felt the same, that no one meant “that’s so gay” as an insult. But when I asked, when they say it, almost everyone agreed that it’s as a put down. One of my friends said it was something they just said “in the moment” and didn’t really think about it. Most of us have friends who are gay or LGBT and didn’t think they’d be upset. But then I thought about the fact that no one has asked them. Even more than that, I remembered my uncle telling me about what high school was like for him…and for lots of gay teens. He got really choked up talking about feeling like he had to hide who he was. I really thought about how hard that would be to stand there, and hear your friends say hurtful things about you.

I know that there are LGBT students and friends of mine who are not out yet, and who may need a “safe place” to be themselves. So to really make a difference I need to try and prevent any bullying towards any of them.

If I hear someone calling a member of the LGBT community a word that may offend them, then whoever the bully is I need to go up to them and tell them their actions are not acceptable and explain to them why.

My friends and I can create a public page on Instagram which could advertise why bullying is cruel and how people who are straight/gay/bi/trans should not be considered as different from anybody else.

Looking at how things were for my uncle, things are somewhat better but not a whole lot. As time progresses, I want to work so that bullying towards the LGBT community can end. While there may always be people who judge others that they feel are “different” from them, I want to make a world where people can come out and be a part of a non judgmental community.

I’ve accomplished a lot in my career. I’m probably most proud that I’ve given a voice to our stories, and did so while living my life authentically. But better than opening weekend, box office sales or red carpet moments, is looking at my niece and her generation. Day by day, friendship by friendship, young people are making a world more open, more loving, and more true. I can’t wait to hear the stories she tells as a family elder, and see the amazement in her kids’ eyes, because the world they live in is truly just.