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Is It Ever Okay To Call Someone a “Pansy”?

My partner and I are white gay dads with two amazing sons, both of whom are African-American. This season, we finally gave in to their many years of begging that we allow them to play tackle football. We’d previously refused, thinking them too young. We were concerned about not only the possibility of physical injury to the boys, but also the enormous time commitment it would take. Now 10 and 12, we decided that the time was right, and finally acquiesced. What we failed to consider, however, was how our unique family structure might factor into the dynamics of such a macho team sport, and the potential for consequent emotional injury.

While the kids have practiced the last several weeks, loving and hating every grueling moment, last night found one son’s team on the field, in the middle of a drill, when one of the assistant coaches yelled, “What are you? A bunch of pansies?”

I heard his words, echoing across the grass, and felt like I’d been punched in the gut. All those taunts through the years stay with you, even if you’ve risen above them. I immediately walked over, called my son off the field, and told the coach we were done. We were going to switch teams. And he let us go…

As my other son’s team finished their practice, I sat with my 10-year-old, explaining why I’d taken such action. We talked about what the word meant, how it is used, and why such words can be damaging. We talked about how such taunts, even if in jest, can haunt a person and make them feel less-than. Finally, we talked about African-Americans, the struggles for equality that they’ve faced, and how one single word can sear into your soul. He seemed to understand.

Following practice, we received apologies from both the assistant and the head coach himself. Bafflingly, the assistant coach didn’t seem to understand how the word “pansy” could be offensive. I shared that I was gay and found the word personally offensive, and also how that word and other similar terms had driven kids to suicide. He promised to never again use the word.

Bullying doesn’t just happen in classrooms or playgrounds; it occurs on football fields, too. There are other ways to motivate athletes, which can both strengthen and toughen them, but still preserve their fighting instincts. Too often, however, the negative terms are casually tossed about, and those hurtful expressions lodge deep within, slowly affecting one’s sense of self and, I would argue, one’s confidence on the field as well.

After posting about this incident on facebook, I received much praise and support for my decision to pull my son off the field. Indeed, I was the only parent to do so. But I was surprised by one friend’s comment, which essentially said that I’d overreacted. Such roughness was part of the sport, he stated, and should be tolerated. While his comment in and of itself wasn’t surprising, I found it odd that this comment actually came from a gay man, who I know had experienced his share of bullying as a youth.

I’ve always believed in living authentically and helping to create a better, more loving world, and I can’t understand how calling someone a derogatory term can possibly help anyone. Have we gotten past the point where such words hurt? Does a comment such as that belong on the sports field? Am I being overly sensitive?

What do you think? Is it ever okay to call someone a “pansy”?

Cross-posted on Huffington Post , Bilerico Project and LGBTQ Nation.

8 Responses

  1. roger

    Guys,

    Pansy = wimp. Nothing more, nothing less.

    My two cents…if you don’t get thicker skin the world is going to swallow you and your kids up.

    It’s all good.

    August 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    • I think part of the problem with most folks is that their skin is too thick. They forget what pain is and lose empathy for the world around them. Sensitivity is not a bad thing…

      With this incident, I have tried to look at it both as a teaching opportunity to the coach, who yesterday shouted out another derogatory term — but this time immediately apologized, and a moment to teach my kids about the differences in people they’ll meet in life, and how what those folks say is not a reflection on my kids in any way.

      Hopefully, my kids will see that I am helping to create change in the world–sending a signal that they can as well.

      Thanks for the note!

      August 12, 2012 at 9:49 am

  2. Kergan, Some coaches think they can take young boys and make them tough and mean to win games. They don’t realize the power of their words, or the humiliation of their words. He called his team ‘pansies’ when he could have said “Come on, you can do better than that.” The second comment brings the best out of the boys by trying harder. The first comment just debilitates them. You did a wonderful job by confronting the coach and assistant by pointing this out. I’m glad you talked it over with your boys, too. How did the comment affect them? What did they say? Did you ask them if they wanted to continue to play under that coach?
    As long as they are having fun, try to keep it that way. Encourage them to stand up for themselves and voice their concerns. It’s time they make some decisions for themselves; helps them become independent.

    August 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    • Hi Nancy! My older boy, Mason, is on a great team. His coach is a police officer, so is tough, but very fair. He calls out mistakes, but not in a mean way, and uses humor to great affect. Marcus, however, is the one with this bad apple-coach, and given that Marcus is younger (10), I’m really watching this to make sure it doesn’t become a negative for him. Just today, for example, this same bad coach yelled, “Don’t be a bunch of sissies!” The minute he said it, however, he realized that was not much different than pansies and immediately yelled “Sorry!”

      It doesn’t really make it better, but at least he was aware of his mistake. Changing old habits doesn’t happen overnight, and Marcus wants to stay on the team, so I’m keeping an eye on the situation. I won’t hesitate to pull him again if something really negative occurs. I’d rather live with that than in knowing I hadn’t stood up for my kid–or myself.

      August 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm

  3. No, it’s never OK for a coach to call a pre-adolescent boy or group of boys pansies as an attempt to make them “tougher.” Really, what if that coach had called them “a bunch of little niggers”? Would you even be asking? Obviously not. There are plenty of words implying weakness and softness that the coach could have used. The fact that I hate football and most team sports is the subject of another debate. By the same token, drill sergeants in the Army can’t call their men pansies any more, either. Or girls.

    August 11, 2012 at 4:17 am

    • Thanks, Ulysses! Those were my thoughts exactly, but glad to hear your view. While I felt that I’d made the right call, I began doubting and second-guessing. I appreciate the support!

      August 11, 2012 at 4:01 pm

  4. Bob

    Kergan,
    I was the gay closeted father of two sons, and a daughter. Fortunately, neither of my sons were interested in playing football. I’m sure my wife wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. Having, of course, been a teenager myself, I know that I heard words like this used in gym class, if not on a practice field. I think,when I was their age, over 50 years ago, it was maybe even more common then, because it probably seldom entered the minds of the coaches and gym teachers that any of us even WERE gay (homosexual). So, no one would give it a second thought. Boys were just supposed to “be tough”.
    I’m glad that there are fathers like you (hopefully) today who call attention to the hurt that these comments can bring. I’m glad you posted the story. At least 2 coaches now know the potential their words have. I firmly believe, as so many state, that the one-on-one situations which make people aware of us and put it right in their faces, is a great thing. In incremental steps, perhaps we cease to be so much “the other”.
    Thanks, as I always say, for everything you write. I do look forward to the possibility of meeting you at the WeHo Book Fair.
    Bob

    August 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    • I appreciate the note, Bob. Everytime I think “wow, things are getting better,” something like this happens. Still, overall I think things are changing, but we have to insist on it and not wait for someone to magically hand it to us.

      I look forward to meeting you at the book fair, and thanks for the note!

      August 10, 2012 at 4:30 pm

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