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Paynesville Press - April 20, 2005

Eighth graders win essay contest

By Michael Jacobson

Human Rights Commission essay winners The Paynesville Human rights Commission recently held it annual essay contest for eighth graders at Paynesville Area Middle School. Winning the contest was Karla Leitzman (front left), taking second was Brianna Fischbach (front right), taking third was Laura Binsfeld (back right), and taking fourth was Heather Rondeau (back left).

This year's essay topic was about discrimination.

Paynesville Area Middle School also awarded a special merit award to autistic student Melissa Everson. Everson's essay.

Leitzman's essay - reprinted below -- will be submitted to the statewide competition.

Three Little Words That Hurt
By Karla Leitzman
I go to middle school in Paynesville, Minnesota. I don't live there, but since I go to school there, most of my life takes place in Paynesville. It's a small, rural town in central Minnesota without very much cultural or racial diversity. My teachers have said, "In Paynesville, we're pretty vanilla." It's easy to think that since "we're pretty vanilla" there is no discrimination. However, that is not true; there is some discrimination everywhere. It may not be as significant or as obvious here as in a big city with many people from different cultures living together, but there is still discrimination.

One example of discrimination I have noticed in my school is the words we use to express ourselves. Every time we say the phrase "That's so gay" to describe something we don't like, we are using a word identifying homosexual people with something we find unattractive. I hear this use of "gay" countless times in the hallways of our school. I wish I had a quarter for every time I have heard it. I would be very, very rich.

Isn't it just as easy to say "That's so dumb" or "That's so stupid" because that is, after all, what we mean when we say something is "gay?" Regardless of your moral position about gays (if you can call it a moral issue), no one can disagree that it is very important to respect all people. Yet when I ask people about why they use the phrase, a common response is "Well, no gay people are around to hear me so I'm not insulting anyone."

I know it seems like a small thing; no big deal! Just a three-word phase that is heard countless times every day at my school. More and more people use it without thinking. Over time we associate a neutral word like "gay," a word often used by people to describe themselves, with things we don't like. Over time we begin to think about that group of people in the same way.

Even though it is a relatively small thing, when we say something is gay, we are calling homosexuals "stupid." We add to what our society already does to discriminate against homosexuals. For example, in 36 states it is legal to fire someone from their job for no other reason than the fact that he or she is gay. We often read in newspapers of hate crimes against gays or lesbians. Our society does enough to discriminate against gays without us adding to it.

In Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it states that all human beings should have freedom from torture and degrading treatment. Calling someone gay is not torture, but it is a form of degrading treatment. We're not physically doing anything that could harm someone, but our harmful words could lead to actions that physically harm someone.

There are many different forms of discrimination, and since I'm an eighth grader, I see some of them every day. Discrimination could be behind the bad name you call a friend when you see him in the hallway. Sure , you can just mean it as a joke; all in fun. However, you never know when someone is going to take what you say as more than a joke.

When you throw a small rock into a very still lake, the ripples grow and grow. In a sense, that applies also to discrimination. It only takes one person to make a difference. It only takes one person to take a stand and speak up for what is right. It might not be much, but I will try to not use "gay" in a negative way and to discourage my friends from using it. If words have power, we should use them for good and not to cause harm.

Words have so much power to hurt. Knowing the pain that a word has caused to so many, would you ever call someone a "nigger?" Even if there were no African-Americans to hear you use it, you would be using a word that offends African-Americans and was used by many whites to describe them as less than human. Is using the name "gay" for an unattractive event or unpopular idea really that much different from using the name in a cruel way to say that homosexuals are bad people? Even if you're certain that no gay people are around, if you get into the habit of using that name it is likely that you could call something, or even someone, "gay" and another person you didn't even know might hear you and make a comment about it. I think that would be very embarrassing.

The United States Bill of Rights does give us the freedom of speech. We can say what we want, but when what we say hurts others, we need to be careful about what and how we speak. It's wrong to use our freedom of speech to harm others and take away their freedom to live as they wish without being insulted.

I suppose that you could say that using these words isn't a form of discrimination, but it's really about how we think of people. How we think about people can be one of the roots of discrimination. As you look through our national history, there are many examples of disrespectful names used by Americans to describe people who came from other countries. It was one way to dehumanize them, to make them seem less than equal to earlier immigrants or their first-born children who fought for jobs and homes and feared giving up what they won for themselves. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 2, states that all humans should have freedom from discrimination. People born in the United States have often tried to deny that freedom to many different groups through our history. We are still doing it today.

(Editor's Note: Leitzman is an eighth grader at Paynesville Area Middle School. This essay won first place in a recent competition sponsored by the Paynesville Human Rights Commission)

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