San Francisco, it turns out, is not all flowers and gentle people. Livable California, the statewide anti-density organization with headquarters in the city, recently used a homophobic slur about my coworker and me. In a July 9 response to someone else’s tweet on the topic of housing, Isaiah Madison, a member of the board of directors of Livable California, wrote:
"I don’t get paid by Livable California Mr. Anonymous. I fucking wish I did though lol. Maybe Abundant Housing can hire me like they did the other brown &black faggots to push for new housing on vacant parcels of land/strip malls once y’all get the fuck off of my community’s homes[.]"
In case you’ve not been tuned in, housing politics in California are tough business, and have only grown more lively over the last few years. In a state with a severe housing shortage, 150,000 human beings without homes on any given day, sky-high rent, some of the dirtiest air in the nation, and persistent segregation, we support building more housing in denser, more connected urban cores. Livable California happens to argue the opposite. Accusations of being gentrifiers (we support strong tenant protections and center equity in our work) and developer shills (we accept zero dollars from developers) are a dime a dozen. We tolerate these accusations, however untrue, as the price we pay for being public advocates for a cause we believe in.
What we cannot tolerate are homophobic slurs.
It has now been nearly two months since that slur was used.
In that time, the rest of the board has been silent. On July 13, we emailed an open letter addressed to Rick Hall, the retired oil industry executive who heads the organization from his office in San Francisco. The response we received from Livable California — whose website lists the same email address for all board members — was a single emoji.
It was a middle finger, and it came from Madison.
What might surprise most is that Madison himself actually identifies as both Black and Latinx, as well as gay. Days after we published our open letter, he did provide a response more substantive than his first, if only in length. He tweeted, “surprised” by our claim that “faggot” amounted to hate speech. He apologized only “for generating the illusion” that he is homophobic. He wrote that “fag” is a term of endearment among him and his friends. He expressed hope that “this short statement would bring some clarity” to his position.
Sadly for Madison, it doesn’t work that way. The fact is that using homophobic language in a public context is not “a position” that needs to be explained. It’s simply wrong.
The fact that Madison is himself a gay person using homophobic language against other queer people who are not in fact his friends strikes at the heart of a complex cultural phenomenon years in the making. But the lines remain clear. While the reclamation of hurtful language is certainly a valid and powerful practice for those of us belonging to historically marginalized communities, wielding it against staff members of an opposing organization on Twitter is an entirely different matter. Being gay does not absolve gay people of homophobia, just as being Latino would not excuse any racist comments from me.
To be clear, this isn’t just about Madison or this single instance of gay-on-gay offense. As a very public and vocal board member of Livable California, he was acting under the color of authority. He has a fiduciary responsibility to the organization, and is a steward of public trust in it. As if that weren’t enough, the rest of the board have chosen to do nothing for months. Any attempt to separate Madison’s statement from them and from the organization itself simply doesn’t stand. It is Livable California that called us “faggots.”
What makes Livable California’s language here particularly cruel is that it is language used against an already vulnerable community. The LGBTQ+ community faces disproportionate challenges in many areas, from discrimination in employment to hate-based violence to unequal health care access to, yes, unaffordable housing. According to a report from the University of Chicago, LGBTQ+ youth aged 13 to 25 are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness in America. The Los Angeles LGBT Center reports that of the 9,000 people under the age of 24 experiencing homelessness here, a staggering 40 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning. Faced with those numbers, a major statewide organization in the field of housing policy advocacy chose to employ the homophobic slur par excellence. It’s almost unbelievable, and absolutely outrageous.
On their website, Livable California claims to work to “foster equitable, livable communities,” and list among their principles a respect for “lifestyle choices“ (their words, not mine). But their ugly, hurtful language says otherwise.
And words do matter. Last month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke poignantly on the floor of the House of Representatives, denouncing a verbal assault in which fellow Representative Ted Yoho called her a “fucking bitch” on the Capitol steps. Their disagreement had been a matter of data and policy, but Yoho made it ugly, personal, and misogynistic. Livable California has made our own disagreement ugly, personal, and homophobic. They have used a word that rattles the very core of the traumas that many of us carry. “Faggot” is what you’re called by your first bullies on the playground. “Faggot” is what your disapproving parent calls you when they tell you that you are no longer welcome in their home. “Faggot” is what other gay men might call you when your mannerisms are too feminine, or the pitch of your voice too high. And yes, you might one day work up the courage, and find the space, to whisper “faggot” among your closest friends, in a strange and exhilarating personal triumph over the word that had caused you so much pain.
“Faggot” might be all of those things. And that’s precisely what Livable California seems not to understand: it can be a manifestation of triumph over adversity, while never losing its power to wound. What it must never be allowed to be is acceptable language in political discourse.
Bread for the World, a Christian nonprofit organization fighting hunger (and my former employer), promptly asked Yoho for his resignation from their board of directors. In their statement announcing his resignation, the organization wrote the following: “Bread for the World upholds the values of respect, dignity, and compassion that Jesus calls us to when engaging decision makers from across the political spectrum.” Abundant Housing LA is a secular organization, but respect, dignity, and compassion sound like pretty good values to us.
Ugly, hate-based language intended to insult should always be unacceptable. Livable California should follow the example of Bread for the World and remove Madison from their own board of directors. And that should be the bare minimum. They’ve chosen to employ blatantly homophobic language in a discourse that should remain within the realm of policy and of facts. A serious, respectable organization would apologize, and take observable action to do better by a community already bruised in the current political climate. Instead, with its silence, Livable California is sending a painfully clear message: we don’t care, faggots.
Esteban Garcia is the communications manager for Abundant Housing LA.