Commentary: Words can send wrong message

Matt Calkins: Commentary




Ten days before NBA Commissioner David Stern sent a $100,000 message to Kobe Bryant for uttering a homophobic slur during a game last week, 53-year-old Cheri Jackson sent a message to me.

I had just penned a column about a rabid Trail Blazers fan who tries to distract opposing free-throw shooters by making what I described as “a kind of epileptic ‘wax-on, wax-off’-type motion.”

The piece elicited an overwhelmingly positive response from many readers, but not from Jackson, who sent me a respectful email describing her struggle with epilepsy, and how her “heart sank” when she read that line. I wrote back immediately with an apology, explaining how it didn’t even occur to me that I might be offending someone.

And this is where Kobe comes in.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, cameras caught the Lakers star calling referee Bennie Adams a “faggot” after being whistled for what he thought was an unjust foul. Gay rights organizations quickly demanded disciplinary measures, Stern hit Bryant with a $100,000 fine, and Kobe took to the airwaves to express what seemed to be sincere remorse.

Much of the media still chastised Bryant for his word choice, and while the criticism is warranted, I’m not going to pile on here.

I don’t think Kobe is a bigot who was implying something about Adams’ sexuality. I’m more concerned about how effortlessly he and so many others can spew that kind of language — equating homosexuality with negativity and unknowingly insulting people.

Thursday, my friend posted on his Facebook page: “It’s my favorite time of the year!” to which one of his friends commented “what? Gay Pride month?” Another friend couldn’t help but rib his buddy online about how “gay” he was acting for not going to a concert. A couple years ago, I was interviewing a high school swimmer when his teammate strolled by and asked sarcastically, “Are you telling him about how you want to come out of the closet?”

Feel free to not see the humor.

The thing is, these aren’t necessarily prejudiced people. But when someone with a sympathetic disease like Cheri is hurt by a comment such as mine, what are homosexuals going through when they overhear far nastier remarks every day?

Honestly, I didn’t know. So last week I popped into some local gay bars to ask around. My primary discovery? Words hurt — even if they’re not meant to.

“Anybody who’s not out or who may be dealing with issues, words like that — they cut you,” said openly gay Portland resident Josh Hart. “Even after I was out, when straight friends would casually say ‘Oh, that’s so gay’ about something that was just dumb, I’d be like, ‘How is that gay?’ I’m comfortable with those words now, but there are other people who aren’t.”

Brent Bartling, owner of The Northbank, Vancouver’s sole gay bar, said he constantly corrects his friends when they substitute “gay” for stupid or uncool. Battle Ground resident Jason Harnack said that he wouldn’t have come out had he been called “fag” growing up.

And while about half of the 16 people I interviewed said they’re no longer rattled by hearing the “F word,” reigning Miss Gay Pride of Vancouver, Victoria Pauley, asked, “but what about that 13-year-old boy with sexual identity issues who sees Kobe as his idol?”

When reading old books or watching periodic films, I often marvel at the nonchalance with which people deliver ethnic slurs. And then I wonder, “What are we doing now that will cause our grandchildren to cringe?”

I think Bryant may have just shown us. Can you imagine the implications of a white NBA player yelling the “N-word” under any circumstance? Can you fathom the reaction if a Facebook poster said, “Stop being so black?”

And if it truly is causing pain, should straight people really get more leeway when conjuring up the gay community’s most malicious term?

Sports are funny, though.

They played a significant role in breaking racial barriers via Jackie Robinson. They played a significant role in smashing gender stereotypes via Billie Jean King. They played a significant role in mollifying political tensions via the Olympics.

And yet, with an athlete from a major American sport yet to come out, they appear to have the opposite effect when it comes to gay tolerance.

But maybe Kobe accidentally aided that cause last week.

Maybe he opened our eyes upon opening his mouth.

Matt Calkins is the Trail Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or Follow him on Twitter at