opinion

Letter from the Editor: 'The old adage about sticks and stones isn't true - words really can hurt us'

LGBTQ people must fight hateful language, and sometimes recognise our own part in spreading it, writes Attitude Editor-in-Chief Cliff Joannou.

2020-02-27

In January, I received the news that a friend who I used to hang out with some years ago had taken an overdose and ended their life.

We’d lost touch over the years, but they struggled for some time with their gender identity. Having started to transition late in life, I understand they faced a barrage of abuse on social media, which ultimately wore them down to the point at which they could only see suicide as a way out.

This isn’t the first LGBTQ person I know to have ended their life. I don’t like to count how many others I know who have struggled to escape issues that plagued them. With some, the torment they endured was evident, and try as friends and family might to help, they still suffered.

One such young gay man was having difficulty coming to terms with his identity and ended his life rather than reveal his sexuality to his religious family. He was just 20 years old.

Attitude's April issue is out now (Photography: Taylor Miller)

 Not every story ends so terribly. I have seen people pulled back from the edge – be it with the support of friends, family or professional help – having managed to find the strength in themselves to get through another day. Then the next day. And so on. 

The news of Caroline Flack’s death made me reflect on these situations, to think about the strong people I have met who have battled seemingly insurmountable feelings to get through the haze that can spark self-harming, and how lucky they were to have found the strength to get beyond those menacing dark thoughts that can push others too far.

It was another reminder of how showing a little kindness, and taking a moment to bite your tongue before you judge, can be the difference between life and death.

The same weekend as Caroline’s news hit, Wendy Williams took it upon herself to attack gay men for wearing skirts and heels, to a wave of applause from her audience. I won’t get into how ignorant her argument was.

Attitude's April issue is out now (Photography: Taylor Miller)

 The next day, she followed this with a pathetic, disingenuous, half-arsed apology that entirely missed its mark. It all came across as a calculated move to generate publicity, hastily deflected by a substandard retraction.

The same day, my friend posted a statement about how we all need to be more kind in our online language. Somehow, one of our mutual Facebook “friends” then (somehow) turned the conversation in the post to Sam Smith’s choice of outfit on The Graham Norton Show, and the language became quite vile, very quickly. And all because of a glittery shirt. You couldn’t make it up.

My instinct was to react, but what good would that do, other than feeding another heinous person’s ego who was clearly looking for a reaction? I simply unfollowed, then blocked them. 

As I write this column, 18-year-old singer Billie Eilish told Radio 1 she could no longer read her social media messages because of the amount of hate directed at her. We have become surrounded by a rolling snowball of hate that continues to gather pace. There is increasingly no accountability for the hurtful things people feel they have a right to share.

Attitude's April issue is out now (Photography: Taylor Miller)

 The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” no longer rings true. Words grind us down, wear at us and tear away at a person’s sense of self.

To quote a meme from Instagram: “Mainstream media and social media have made too many people comfortable with disrespecting other human beings, and not being punched in the mouth for it.”

Now, I’m in no way advocating violence, but what kind of reaction would a person receive if they said to their victim’s face the kind of things that they feel at liberty to type on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram? Not everyone has the strength to stand tall in the face of the kind of hate and vitriol that has become second nature online.

Be kind, people. And if you can’t be kind, then keep your mouth shut.

Attitude's April issue is out not to download and to order globally

Buy now and take advantage of our best-ever subscription offers: save 45% on the cover price in print, 13 issues for £19.99 to download to any device.