Why Progress Should be Praised
February 9, 2011 § 22 Comments
“You wouldn’t want to get beaten by some random homo,” my coach said, trying to invoke some form of energy from a teammate. Sitting on the center of an indoor track, we loosened up before our open 400 race. After 3 days of workouts we had both grown tired. 3 nights of restless sleep led to my unusually hazy mindset which forced me to question what I heard; eventually I grew certain. Upon further clarification my mouth began to hang agape and a feeling of perpetual free fall loomed in my stomach.
I wasn’t offended as much as I was shocked by my coach’s usage. Having just written two posts about this exact thing, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the situation’s timeliness. It was a bitter moment, proving how relevant such things are to my everyday life.
Prior to the meet, I had debated what the third installment of an anti-homophobic slang series should be; now I honed in on an idea. A 5 step process of dealing with homophobia intertwined with my coach’s and my experience. It would allow me to laud my coach’s expected ease in acceptance and refusal to ever use such slang again. Surely it could be a positive example for all athletes and coaches. Fortunately, things did not pan out as well as expected – at least not at first. And through the experience I was reminded of the complexity of all situations and the greatness that lies in every small step towards progress. Sometimes we forget how even the first step towards acceptance can take the greatest amount of effort.
Before I continue, I want to clarify just how amazing my middle distance coach is. While he did slip up, his devotion to my teammates and me proves that he cares about us. None of my achievements would be possible without him and his unwavering support – the hours he spends every night planning workouts, his days lost to outdoor track meets, his late night pep-talks via text etc… If there’s one person on my team who is most accepting, it is him. This is why I have such a great respect for him, though my eye rolls at his jokes don’t always suggest it. I can say with certainty, he would never mean to offend one of his runners.
Step 1: Breathe.
The first step I would take more out of necessity than by choice: breathe. As I stood watching my coach, words failed to leave my mouth. One breath. Two breaths. Three breaths later I began to comprehend the situation and regain my composure. While we often want to react immediately in such situations, responding with a fonzie like poise is harder than it seems. Taking a few breaths to clear your mind can save you from responding offensively. The point of dealing with homophobic slangs should never be to get back at someone, but to further understanding and taking a breath is essential to this process.
Step 2: Examine the context.
Step two followed quickly after: examine the context. Some questions which I try to answer when observing such a scene – normally from a bystander perspective are: Who said what? How did he say it? To whom did he say it? Why did he say it? I admit it‘s easier said than done but the effort taken pays in large dividends. My coach was just trying to pump up my teammate, sure I couldn’t condemn him for that. He was just speaking my teammate’s language, not trying to be offensive. But I was put off. Realizing his intention did ease the perpetual free fall of my stomach and subsequently my mouth could finally close. This sort of understanding makes communication easier, and with a new mindset I decided to start a conversation with my coach…
3 days later. While I think an immediate response to such slang can be effective, my objective was to create progress – not equally put off my coach. Confronting him on his usage during a track meet surrounded by a mass of people is neither beneficial to him nor me and seems extremely counterproductive. Instead, I chose to wait till I could have a proper one on one conversation. These conversations are less offensive and intimidating and can be easier for both parties involved. This decision also allowed me to focus on my race – my reason for being at the track meet.
Step 3: Start a conversation.
After 3 days I texted my coach, asking if he was free for a chat. His name immediately popped up on my phone with a ringing symbol next to it. He was calling me. I admit to being nervous, not so much out of distress but because I wanted to talk to him in the right way – to not offend the coach I respected so much. At the same time I was excited, I was sure my coach would understand completely and jump alongside me.
We chatted about a basketball game, briefly about the previous meet, and then I asked him about his phrase. His immediate reaction was not what I expected – a short response saying he thought he said something else and an immediate topic switch. That was all. No “I’m sorry.” No “my bad.” Nada. And that is okay.
What my coach said clarified two things – the phrase he said to my teammate was negligible in his mind as it is in most people’s minds. He was using “locker room” speak and his lack of remembrance fortified my belief that he didn’t mean to be offensive. Furthermore, his reaction showed me he was offended but not because I was calling him out (I was politely asking him more or less). He was offended because he felt bad for putting off a teammate and that I truly appreciate.
Something I forget when talking to close friends and even coaches is that I can’t assume they’re immediate support – glorified by my imagination. While I knew my coach was anything but anti-gay, it was wrong for me to build up what his immediate reaction would be. The purpose of step 3 isn’t to have a conversation which accomplishes everything I could ever hope for – it is to start a conversation which over time will grow and can lead to further understanding for everyone.
Step 4: Give it time.
The one important part, perhaps the most important part, that I overlooked was the necessity of time needed to process our conversation. I doubt my coach had expected such a conversation, maybe he was shocked just like I was 3 days earlier. And while our phone conversation had not gone as well as expected – his text later that night surely made up for it.
He apologized for the comment, saying how he believed he did say “homo” and never meant to offend me, followed by his reassuring me that he’s not anti-gay. We texted more about the conversation and our track meet the next day until he began watching the super bowl. Perhaps all he needed was time. Isn’t that what we all need anyways? Before coming out I needed time to think. My parents need time to think still after 3 years. It doesn’t mean that progress wasn’t made. Immediate progress wasn’t made – true. But the conversation acts as a catalyst for further progress and that is how we should see it.
Step 5: Appreciate any progress made.
The next day at a track meet in NYC, my coach and I spent a good deal of time together – none of which was awkward. His conversation with all of us flowed easily and lacked any homo jokes or comments. Not that he usually peppers his speech with them, but it was nice to see none being used. Our 4×800 rewarded him with a broken meet record, new school record, and personal indoor prs for each of us. To say we were pleased is an understatement, as we all admitted how fortunate we are. We appreciated the opportunity to run well. The chance to run uninjured. The success which we had as a team.
In this same manner, we should appreciate any progress made when dealing with slurs and slang. While not as seemingly large as a new school record – each step should still feel like winning a medal at a race. Each step towards acceptance is progress and however small it may be we should be happy with it.
Ps. My coach is awesome.