Words Can Hurt: Gay and Retarded Aren’t Okay Descriptors

Not so many years ago I referred to things, situations, and people as gay, or retarded. Meaning they were worthy of ridicule or were less than ideal. I don’t know that I gave the meaning of the words that much thought at the time, but that is what I was saying.

Not only did I use those phrases, but so did most of my acquaintance to some degree or another. I don’t know why. We didn’t talk about it. We just said it.

Maybe you’ve been known to use the phrase “That’s so gay” or “That’s just retarded” in a casual manner. I get it. I’ve done it. Words become habits.

Here’s why I don’t say those things anymore.

  • I’ve held the hand of a gay person as they’ve agonized over what it means to be who they are, how to relate to God, and why they were born the way they were. And I’ve held the hand of people who were born with different intellectual abilities, who as a result, live in dependence that makes them vulnerable.
  • Touching real people in those real situations has helped me see beyond my narrow view of life. I’ve lost the indifference to what that means for them and their families.
  • I’ve recognized it is only divine grace, not favoritism but grace, that I don’t wrestle with those realities myself. And because of that I have great compassion for those who do.
  • I’ve also come face to face with the things that do make me vulnerable. And I’ve learned I don’t want those things exploited. One of them is an ADHD diagnoses as a teenager. Do you know how often people talk about giving someone Ritalin in a joking manner? (Which I took for a while.) Or refer to someone as being “ADD” – whether they are or not? The answer is a lot! I’ve developed a thick skin.

I grew up in fundamentalist, Bible belt, 1980’s America. When I look back to my childhood I remember standing in a sanctuary filled with white, straight, middle class, Christians. I didn’t know people with vastly different lifestyles than myself. Is that where making fun of people who are different came from? Were we scared, or is that just human nature? I think it’s probably a mixture of all of the above.

I don’t know why I thought using those words in that manner was okay. Compassion is always in order. Care with our words is always a good idea. I suppose that’s the journey toward maturity. What we know now we didn’t know in our youth. But I regret my carelessness.

We never know who we are talking to, or who might overhear us. Is a mom of a child with disabilities listening? Does that person who doesn’t ‘look gay’ have homosexual feelings they don’t know what to do with? Our words should come from a heart of humble compassion. When we think of our deepest vulnerability and our fear of its exploitation, we should want to protect others from the same discomfort of exposure or ridicule. Life is hard. We should never make it harder on someone else. Ultimately the words we choose reflect our heart attitude.

Now I cringe when I hear people use derogatory labels or flippantly use words like retarded. Because to refer to people as broken or bad, with disgust in our voices, means we haven’t looked into the desperate heart of humanity and seen ourselves there.

Let’s be careful when we talk. People with real hearts are listening and as long as it’s in our power to encourage we should take that opportunity.

Ephesians 4:29. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

How about you? Do you use phrases you need to rethink? Or maybe you have been hurt by people’s words. How do you deal with that?