People in Buffalo use words considered offensive and derogatory to gays in their tweets more often than people in any other city in the United States, according to a recent study.
Such terms showed up in Buffalonians’ tweets more than among tweets from any other city, the study found. Arlington, Texas, and Riverside, Calif., came in a relatively close second and third.
The study has been stirring conversation locally about the factors that might have pushed Buffalo to the top of the list – and what its dubious distinction as No. 1 on that list actually means, in a city that flies rainbow flags along Elmwood Avenue every June, marking a pride celebration that seems to grow bigger each year.
“What this tells me is there’s a lot of work to be done. This is about a lot more than marriage. We are our words,” said Margaret Smith, 62, who has been active in Buffalo’s LGBTQ community for decades. “Tweeting is a little anonymous, as is online behavior. But right now, there’s lot of people on television giving lots of other people permission to be hateful.”
With the Supreme Court’s ruling last year legalizing same-sex marriage across the country, an uptick in anti-gay language might not be surprising, said Matthew Crehan Higgins, senior director of the Pride Center of Western New York.
“We expect that people in opposition to us are going to react to that in a negative way when we make progress,” he said.
Some straight people who use words online that the study deemed anti-gay say that whether those words are negative or not depends on the context and the intent of the person using them.
Tyler Johnson, a 23-year-old factory supervisor who lives in Niagara Falls, said he and many other people he knows use words like that in ways they don’t mean to be offensive.
“I wouldn’t say the word ‘faggot’ has the same sting it used to. It depends on the context,” said Johnson, who said he has a number of gay family members. “Even if you post on your buddy’s (Facebook) wall, ‘Hey fag, check this out,’ it doesn’t mean they like other men. We use the word a lot looser now.”
Authors of the study noted that it reflects just a count of how many times certain words are used, without knowing how many of those times a word was used by someone in the targeted group, in an effort to reclaim and neutralize a word.
Jimmy Levine, a 19-year-old University at Buffalo student, remembers the trip he took to Universal Studios when he was 7. Levine didn’t want to ride a rollercoaster, and his father started yelling. Levine burst into tears, and his father called him a faggot. That was one of the first of many times over the years that family members have used that word to refer to him. Hearing that used to sting, he said, but he’s learned to live with it.
Now, Levine sometimes uses words like “homo” or “faggot” in his tweets, referring to himself.
“I’m gay. If anything, I get a free pass to use those words any way I want because I’m typically the one targeted by them,” he said. “I do understand the harm these words do, and that not everyone is all right with anyone saying it.”
The local LGBTQ community has for many years held a Dyke March as part of its pride festivities in June – a public effort to reclaim a word that has long been used against members of the community. This year, Smith is one of the organizers of the Dyke March.
“It’s a charged word, strong and political. We’ve taken it back. We also know there are those moments, where when we’re using that word, we’re taking a risk that we’re giving other people permission to use it,” Smith said. “There’s hate behind it when they use it. There’s love behind it when I use it. It’s a double-edged sword.”
The rankings in the study were established through an analysis of 12 million tweets from June 2014 to December 2015 by Abodo, a website that helps tenants find apartments, as part of its Best Places to Live series.
Abodo pulled tweets that used one of 154 words it identified – either as neutral or as derogatory – as being associated with people who are black, Latino, female, gay or lesbian, transgender, intellectually disabled, or overweight. The study measured derogatory language in terms of the number of uses of certain words per 100,000 tweets.
Buffalonians on Twitter used anti-gay terms 169 times per 100,000 tweets.
Twitter users in Buffalo also used anti-black words 52 times per 100,000 tweets. That landed the city No. 8 for the prevalence of anti-black words on Twitter. Baltimore was first, with 82 anti-black words per 100,000 tweets, followed by Atlanta and New Orleans.