So Tennessee, my home state and the setting of many of my stories and novels, has again made the national news. The State Senate passed a law dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill which outlaws even mentioning the existence of gay people in elementary and middle school. I doubt this also includes not mentioning the various slurs and code words Tennesseans have always used for gay folks; in fact, I’m sure the sponsors of the bill often employed those terms in closed-door meetings prior to presenting the bill, right after the opening prayer.
As a child with little aptitude in sports and an interest in literature, science fiction and movies, my schoolmates often teased me with those same slurs. A cousin, in fact, once taunted me with some of them for reading Star Trek: Log Five, just before he beat me up. The fact that I wasn’t gay didn’t particularly matter, as it never does in such situations. But it was, and remains, the way kids often are, and while I disapprove of it I also comprehend the reasons for it, especially in the South.
Still, it was nothing compared to the contempt adults showed for kids they deemed “different,” “odd” or “weird,” and that included a term of such surpassing brilliance that I still marvel at it: tender-hearted. It sounds almost like a compliment, much as does “Bless your heart,” which is now generally known to be Southern code for, “You’re so stupid.” In the same way, “tender-hearted” is code for “gay.” Or more precisely, it’s synonymous with one of the pithier terms used to derisively describe gay males.
The first time I cursed (we called it “cussed”) in front of other people got the term “tender-hearted” applied to me. When I was about ten or eleven, some older good ol’ boys dragged a turtle from a pond and cut off its head in their driveway for no reason other than to do it. I told them I found it ignorant and cruel, and when they laughed at me for that, I let fly with every curse word I knew. I was also so mad I started crying. Between the tears and the general knowledge that I liked to read books, I was quickly pegged as “tender-hearted,” and to this day (nearly forty years later) the people in my home town still think of me that way.
So the “Don’t Say Gay” bill disappoints and saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. Good ol’ Tennesseans have a long tradition of not saying “gay.” Instead, depending on the situation, they either use slurs or euphemisms, as they do for everything else. Bless their hearts.
(Please visit and support It’s Okay to be Takei, George “Mr. Sulu” Takei’s brilliant response to the Tennessee law.)