Repealing ARS 15-716 matters, but so does how we talk about it
Updated: May 11
Dear Arizona Daily Star,
My name is Chris Tompkins and I am a teacher in Los Angeles. I was born and raised in Tucson and my mom is a longtime reader of the Star. In addition to being a teacher, I am a writer and an LGBTQ advocate. One of my forms of advocacy is bringing awareness to language and the messages we use that can continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes of the LGBTQ community.
My mom just sent me the Feb. 5 article written by Howard Fischer titled, “New school chief seeks repeal of law about gay lifestyle.” I’m grateful for your coverage of such an important matter as changing ARS 15-716, which in allowing for education about AIDS and HIV, also prohibits an open and affirming discussion of people who are LGBTQ.
But although the article was speaking about something positive Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s new superintendent of public instruction, is seeking to accomplish, there is some terminology used that was quite shocking.
Using the term “homosexuality” is problematic and actually restricted by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Associated Press because of its clinical history used to denigrate gay people.
Also, using “gay” and “lifestyle” in the article’s headline sends a conflicting message. I understand the specific law being referenced in the article may include the use of “lifestyle;” however, being LGBT is no more a lifestyle than being right- or left-handed. Using “lifestyle” to describe being gay or lesbian implies there is choice involved. Some people are born right-handed and some left-handed, but it’s not a choice. In fact, if we were to try to remember how we made the choice to start using our dominant hand, we couldn’t. It’s just something inherent in who we are and not a lifestyle.
A lot of my work focuses on addressing the more subtle, nuanced, and subconscious forms of homophobia that continue to cause harm in the lives of LGBTQ youth. The subconscious mind is powerful and absorbs everything. What consciously may not seem like anything harmful, is subconsciously informing our beliefs and influencing how we interpret the world, including how we perceive gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.
As someone who was bullied and spent his high school years in the closet while attending Santa Rita High School, I can speak specifically to the harm caused by both the explicit and implicit use of language.
All kids are the future. Regardless of their treatment or our beliefs about them, they are members of society. They make decisions and will make decisions that affect our lives in ways we may never realize.
The youths referenced in the article and for whom this conversation is centered on are actual people. They’re the lives of children who are getting bullied or who have to hide who they are for being gay, lesbian, or transgender. They’re the lives of kids we may see on the street, interact with at the grocery store or talk to at a restaurant in our own neighborhood. They’re the lives of our friend’s family members. They’re the lives of fellow human beings who may even be reading your newspaper.
My hope in bringing this subject to your awareness is to help convey that the argument is no longer whether or not being LGBT is a choice, the argument is around the choice whether or not to unconditionally support a child. And that includes being more mindful of who is in the room and how we speak about them.