Wil Wheaton's locker room story shows exactly why homophobic jokes are a problem
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Wil Wheaton | Wil Wheaton speaking at the 2018 Phoenix Comic… | Flickr

Comedy can be uplifting. And it can also be downright destructive. The rise of cancel culture has made us take a hard look at what we normalize for the sake of a good joke. And with Dave Chappelle’s controversial comedy special, that includes jokes which can be perceived as cruel or homophobic jabs by the LGBTQ community and allies.

At the same time, comedy is supposed to be disruptive, is it not? It’s meant to be audacious, bawdy, outrageous. And let’s not forget it’s often said sarcastically, meaning we don’t really believe what what's being said … right?

Wil Wheaton has previously given a brilliant take on how to separate the art from the artist. This time though, he’s confronting the art itself and what makes it problematic.

For anyone who genuinely doesn't understand why I feel as strongly as I do about people like Chappelle making transphobic comments that are passed off as jokes, I want to share a story that I hope will help you understand, and contextualize my reaction to his behavior.

Wheaton started off his story by sharing how he used to play ice hockey when he was 16, and one night enjoyed a warm welcome as a guest goalie. After a fun practice, Wheaton joined his teammates in the locker room.

Before I tell you what happened next, I want to talk specifically about comedy and how much I loved it when I was growing up… One of the definitive comedy specials for me and my friends was Eddie Murphy's Delirious, from 1983. It had bits that still kill me… Really funny stuff.

There is also extensive homophobic material that is just…appalling and inexcusable. Long stretches are devoted to mocking gay people, using the slur that starts with F over and over and over. Young Wil, who watched this with his suburban white upper middle class friends, in his privileged bubble, thought it was the funniest, edgiest, dirtiest thing he'd ever heard… And all of it was dehumanizing to gay men… I didn't know any better. I accepted the framing, I developed a view of gay men as predatory, somehow less than straight men, absolutely worthy of mockery and contempt. Always good for a joke…

…A comedian who I thought was one of the funniest people on the planet totally normalized making a mockery of gay people, and because I was a privileged white kid, raised by privileged white parents, there was nobody around me to challenge that perception. For much of my teen years, I was embarrassingly homophobic, and it all started with that comedy special.

Here Wheaton pivots back to the locker room:

So I'm talking with these guys…We're doing that sports thing where you talk about the great plays, and feel like you're part of something special.

And then, without even realizing what I was doing, that awful word came out of my mouth. ‘Blah blah blah F****t,’ I said.

The room fell silent and that's when I realized every single guy in this room was gay. They were from a team called The Blades (amazing) and I had just ... really fucked up.

"'Do you have any gay friends?" One of them asked me, gently.

"Yes," I said, defensively. Then, I lied, "they say that all the time." I was so embarrassed and horrified. I realized I had basically said the N word, in context, and I didn't know what to do. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to apologize, I wanted to beg forgiveness. But I was a stupid sixteen year-old with pride and ignorance and fear all over myself, so I lied to try and get out of it.

"They must not love themselves very much," he said, with quiet disappointment.

Nobody said another word to me. I felt terrible. I shoved my gear into my bag and left as quickly as I could.

That happened over 30 years ago, and I think about it all the time. I'm mortified and embarrassed and so regretful that I said such a hurtful thing. I said it out of ignorance, but I still said it, and I said it because I believed these men, who were so cool and kind and just like all the other men I played with (I was always the youngest player on the ice) were somehow less than ... I guess everyone. Because that had been normalized for me by culture and comedy.

A *huge* part of that normalization was through entertainment that dehumanized gay men in the service of "jokes". And as someone who thought jokes were great, I accepted it. I mean, nobody was making fun of *ME* that way…so…

This stuff that Chappelle did? …For a transgender person, those "jokes" normalize hateful, ignorant, bigoted behavior towards them. Those "jokes" contribute to a world where transgender people are constantly under threat of violence, because transgender people have been safely, acceptably, dehumanized. And it's all okay, because they were dehumanized by a Black man……Literally every queer person I know (and I know a LOT) is hurt by Chappelle's actions. When literally every queer person I know says "this is hurtful to me", I'm going to listen to them and support them, and not tell them why they are wrong…

Wil Wheaton brings up some powerful points. While this is a complex issue, the insidious nature of dehumanizing jokes is pretty blatant. At some point we have to ask ourselves: Is it really worth harming someone else for the sake of a joke? When put that bluntly, the answer, I hope, is a resounding no.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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