Faggot. Fag. Homo. Lezzie. I have heard these words used as insults by both girls and boys in church school and at youth group events. This shouldn't surprise us, because people of all ages in our culture often use them. When hurtful words are so commonly used, its easy to overlook their impact. This certainly is true for the word faggot.
In earlier times, one horrible punishment was to tie a person to a stake and then burn him or her alive. In order to get a roaring fire, bundles of sticks—called faggots—were piled around those tied to the stake.
Because those accused of being homosexuals were so frequently burned at the stake, the word faggot eventually became an offensive slang word for a homosexual person. The British slang word for cigarette is fag, a smaller burning torch— and again, in this country fag has come to refer negatively to a homosexual person.
When I hear a student use the word faggot or a similar epithet, I respond. This in itself is often a first time experience for the student. Many adults don't confront verbal insults, apparently believing that a certain amount of teasing is part of growing up. I explain to the student that these are hurtful words, and that it is not OK to use them against another person. Depending on the situation, I may explain the history behind the word.
As adults, we need to remember that children growing up today hear things we wouldn't have heard years ago. Children and young people count on their parents and other adults to serve as guides for what is right and wrong. They need to hear from us that a word like faggot is hurtful and inappropriate, just as any racial or ethnic slur would be.
Why not initiate conversation about words that hurt? Begin by understanding that sometimes children use words without really knowing what they mean. Explain what words mean, tell why they are hurtful, and be clear that using such words is unacceptable.
By talking with our children about hateful words, we give them tools to process and filter what they experience when we are not around. We are teaching them to "do unto others" as we would have them do unto us. It is a tangible way to show children how to use their Christian beliefs to guide their words and actions in a world where the words we use can hurt.
Linda Cloutier-Namdar, editor of the Vermont edition of United Church News, also serves as the Director of Children's & Youth Ministries at First Congregational UCC in Burlington, Vt. We welcome contributions for In My Opinion from laity and clergy.