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I was openly gay on my high school team and heard slurs all the time

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It’s the nature of the high school locker room that causes immaturity, a water polo player writes.

Previews ahead of London 2012 Olympic Games Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images

If I had a dollar for every time I was in the locker room and heard the word “faggot” in high school, I’d be a rich man.

I’ve heard it spoken in my presence as a closeted gay man, been called it as a closeted gay man, and even been provoked by the word as an openly gay man. And more often than not, it’s been in a locker room.

When that word was spoken in my presence as an openly gay student in the high school locker room, my water polo teammates would pause, realize what they said, and slowly look at me to see if I was offended. I would look at them with a judgmental eye and say, “I’m not offended by your ignorance, that’s your own problem.”

Typically, they would still apologize for it, but it wouldn’t stop them from using it again the next day or the next opportunity they had to let the word slip off their tongue without realizing its damaging consequences.

I’m still not sure what made them more ignorant -- the fact that they were using the word or the fact that they were using the word in front of an openly gay teammate. I wasn’t shunned by any means for being gay — after coming out as a senior, I was chosen one of three captains.

My experience in the high school locker room was not, by any means, all negative. There was something special about sharing a space with my swimming and water polo teammates, like our own home, where we would convene every day after school.

My walks to the locker room after class were the most exciting parts of my day. We could all hang out there before a long, two-hour practice, talk, do homework, and do stupid things like play volleyball over the lockers.

It truly was a safe space for us to be more than teammates. It was a place where we became best friends and brothers. By writing this, I do not mean to demean or bring into question the character of the people with whom I share my experiences. I am guilty of engaging in inappropriate locker room talk as a high school student, and I know today that my teammates and I have grown out of this stage of immaturity.

But what is it about the locker room that fosters such offensive and foul language? Why is “locker room talk” a real phenomenon, and why do high school boys feel inclined to engage in it?

The locker room is seen as a sacred place for a team — a place where conversations should never escape the doors to the field or the pool. The enclosed walls of the locker room give young men a chance to do their own gossiping, where they feel they can sexually degrade women, let offensive words fly freely, and talk about the most vulgar of topics — things they would not dare to say in the presence of their mothers, sisters or coaches.

It must be something about the psychology of boys — the id, as Sigmund Freud terms it — that makes the human mind think and act in the most barbaric and savage ways.

But if they wouldn’t say it in the presence of their mother, then why say it at all? It must be morally wrong to say these things, and that’s the point. We’re all a bit morally wrong, some more than others, and this is the one place boys can do it without facing judgement.

I am by no means excusing it and I’m not even close to justifying it. It’s still disgusting and still offensive regardless of the explanation behind it. The term “faggot” is degrading — it gives a derogatory term to a word that in most cases is being used as a synonym for “gay.”

When a boy calls another boy a faggot, it is not only offensive to the person receiving it as an insult, but even more so offensive to every gay person having their identity being made an insult.

Locker room talk goes beyond homophobic slurs. I’ve heard the most degrading, sexist language used in the locker room against women. Slut-shaming, body ratings, everything disgusting you could ever imagine coming from a man’s mouth.

As a Penn State college freshman still waiting to begin a new water polo season, my experience is limited to the high school locker room, where I have had my most recent encounters with locker room talk. The reason I feel that locker room talk is so prominent in high school locker rooms and among young men, is because of the maturity levels that exist in high school.

At the ages between 14-18, a high school student has little experience in the world outside of the small environment he is exposed to at home and in high school. My high school was reasonably economically and racially diverse, located in the suburbs of the Reading, Pennsylvania, area. Despite the diversity that existed within the school, it was still its own bubble infested with cliques.

There is something secluding about childhood, where we lack the ability to see outside the bounds of our respective small towns and smaller high schools. When people step into the world, move onto college, and become professionals, they begin to see diversity and differences in a positive light, rather than being apprehensive about it as many high school boys are.

When we begin to learn to embrace diversity, we begin to appreciate individuals. We learn that women are more than their bodies and their body-counts, they are more than the make-up that they wear or don’t wear, they are more than the sexual objects they are made out to be. When we embrace diversity, we learn that offensive words like “faggot” and “slut” are, to their core, divisive and belittling.

What would happen if we began to instill this in our children at a young age? Rather than letting people learn this from experience, we should be preaching these lessons early on. We could avoid things like bullying, sexual assault, offensive language, and divisions in our society.

Racism, sexism, and homophobia stem from ignorance and lack of understanding for others. As long as we still live in a world where the effects of centuries of inequality are still ingrained in our society, we must indoctrinate our children at an early age with the idea that all people should be treated as equals, irrespective to race, gender and sexual orientation.

Tony Covell, 18, is a freshman of the class of 2020 at the Penn State University. He is majoring in International Politics and Spanish, and will be a member of the men’s water polo team this spring. He can be reached at anthonycovell2@gmail.com, @anthony_covell on Instagram, and Tony Covell on Facebook. You can read his coming out story.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski