CINCINNATI — Add another disappointment to our growing list in 2020.
I truly just want to understand why this one happened.
Anyone with a TV or smartphone has heard about -- probably even heard in full -- the Thom Brennaman clip by now.
I won’t recount it all; you can read about it, his suspension from the Reds and Fox Sports Ohio’s response here.
Hot mics have a funny way of revealing things we want kept private. To Cincinnati and sports Twitter’s credit, reaction was swift, and his comment was almost universally condemned.
Almost. Plenty of people don’t get it.
He has had a 30-plus-year career, they say. His father is a Cincinnati icon. We grew up with the Brennamans, and they grew up with us. It was one mistake. It was a slip.
Let me be clear: Dropping the f-bomb when you stub your toe is a slip. Using the word "fag" is a choice.
“What about forgiveness?”
As a gay man, I want to know why. As a journalist, I always want to know more.
We heard only a split second of the statement. I have so many questions.
What was Thom talking about? Why did he choose that word? Is that commonplace in the Fox Sports Ohio studios? Did anyone say anything about his word choice before they knew it went out over the air? Is he truly sorry he said it or just sorry it went public?
And does Thom understand what the word means and why it’s so hurtful? I’m willing to bet -- and frankly hope -- he doesn’t.
I need to point out the position of privilege I stand in. I came out surrounded by supportive friends -- almost champions, really. My parents never kicked me out, cut me off or told me anything other than that they loved me.
I’ve had it pretty damn good, but I can’t say the same for some of my friends. Or certainly some of the LGBTQ+ people I’ve met since.
There’s a saying in our community: We have families we choose. For some, that’s because the alternative is homelessness or helplessness.
According to research done by the Family Acceptance Project and cited by the Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth who are rejected by their families are “8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse, compared to peers from families that reported no levels of family rejection.”
Think about those statistics for a minute. A negative reaction to a young person accepting themselves sets them up for failure across the board. Drug use, depression, suicide.
I heard from more than one person Wednesday night about this struggle. I cried. In rejection, we more often than not hear the word that brought us here.
Yep. It felt gross to type it. As gross as it does to read it. Yet, there it was for the country to hear. Out of nowhere. In the middle of America's pastime.
To understand why it’s such an ugly slur, you need to understand its violent origin. A search turns up plenty of information and pictures of piles of twigs. A bundle of sticks. By the mid-16th century, those bundles of sticks were used to burn heretics. Or, as NPR found, to "fry a faggot."
Later, it would be used to degrade women. And that’s how it morphs, in the 1800s and 1900s, into a way to emasculate a non-heteronormative man. Meant to put a guy down for being weak.
Except it doesn’t stay in a locker room. It’s not as innocent as that phrase sounds. The brutality hasn’t gone anywhere, centuries later.
The word has been used in hate crimes against gay -- or seemingly gay -- men and our trans brothers and sisters for years. It’s plastered on placards -- “God Hates Fags” -- to intimidate outside funerals and Pride events. Weaponized by pseudo-religious zealots.
Plenty of people try to reclaim the word. It’s natural. I have gay male friends who say it to try to take the sting out of it, normalize it. Columnist Dan Savage used to ask that every letter to him start with “Hey, Faggot.” Then he retired it.
We use humor to fortify against it. We joke about it. It feels easier that way.
Rapper Tyler the Creator used it liberally in 2011, reportedly more than 200 times on an album. He told Arsenio Hall, “You can take the power out of that word.”
But if you ask almost any gay man, they can tell you at least one time someone said it or yelled it at them aggressively. We all have at least one -- usually many -- instances burned into our memory.
In the interest of transparency, here’s one of mine.
It happened a few years ago on 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine. I was walking with friends. It was late. We were slow getting through a crosswalk as the light changed. The woman in the car at the light opened her window, leaned out and yelled something about how we needed to “get moving, faggots.”
I remember this moment less for the slur hurled in our direction and more for my reaction to it. The woman started to drive off and I whipped around and kicked the back of her car.
It was a blind rage. It had been so long since someone had said that, and my response was something that could have gotten me hurt -- or worse.
Not my finest moment. I’m not proud of it. A friend told me to let it go. It happens. We later laughed it off.
But being quiet can’t be the answer. Not anymore. We’re way past that.
In fact, Wednesday night after I tweeted “WTF, Thom…” as this all unfolded, I got a text from a friend whom I truly love and respect.
— Evan Millward (@EvanMillward) August 20, 2020
This person benevolently told me, “Sometimes quiet is good.” This person didn’t want me to get in trouble on the off chance I had jumped to conclusions. It's a very valid concern.
It took longer for that to set in than it should have. I heard the word on a TV broadcast. The context matters little … it was said out loud.
Quiet is acceptance. Quiet is exactly why we’re still talking about this. Quiet -- if we’ve learned anything in 2020 -- doesn’t solve anything. In fact, it allows problems to grow unchecked until they boil over.
Stop being quiet.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t said things you regret.”
I’ve worked in TV for nearly a decade; you bet I’ve been caught on a hot mic a time or 16. We learn early that any mic can be a hot mic. Speak accordingly.
Some more transparency for you:
I once got suspended one day from Channel 9 for an unknown (to me) hot mic situation. It caught a joke with a new producer about a very dramatic promo we had run ahead of my 11 p.m. live report. It was nothing profane, certainly not patently disgusting, unless you count me saying the word “sex” a handful of times.
I learned a lesson I already knew, but that word doesn’t even compare to what was said Wednesday night in front of a national audience.
And now I hope you know why.
From one broadcaster -- and one Ohio Bobcat -- to another, I’m disappointed. I feel a little betrayed. I’m sad. Again. And I just want to understand why.
We can't start changing hearts until we understand how they beat. Cincinnati has come so far when it comes to equity and inclusivity. There’s clearly a lot of learning still to do.
I’m serious, Thom. If you are, let’s talk.
Evan Millward is an anchor and reporter for WCPO 9 News.