Citizen of the Month

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Faggot: A Memory of the Word

A Hollywood celebrity got in hot water this week for calling someone a “faggot,” and my friend Brian started a discussion on the slur in Facebook. Brian said that he never used the word, no matter how heated the argument. Maybe I misread the update, and thought he said that he never used the word at all, ever, which surprised me. Maybe I am a few years older than him, but in my personal experience, boys taunted each other with “faggot” all the time from grade school through high school. I’ve definitely called and been called — a faggot — during my childhood.

Naturally, the next commenter on Brian’s status, a kind-hearted woman, took me to task, saying that what may have been appropriate in the past is now intolerable, almost as if I was condoning the use of the word as an adult rather than bringing up an honest memory of my childhood. She was doing her best, trying to squash the homophobia and hatred that permeates our culture, but for a second it put me in an awkward position. I was suddenly on the defensive, as if my childhood memory was akin to composing a poem in honor of the KKK. Did I have to wave my pro-gay flag, or recite the lyrics to a Cher song in order to protect myself?

I used to believe that monetization of blogging was the biggest threat to my personal writing online, but as blogging matures, I’m beginning to wonder if advocacy hasn’t become the biggest burden to our honest storytelling. Do we have to be role models 24/7? How can we tell any stories about our lives?

I remember calling, and being called, “faggot” a lot, especially in public school. The biggest irony is by the time most of my childhood friends used the word, it was already divorced from the idea of homosexuality. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, gay culture was an institution in New York City. Disco had gone mainstream. It was actually pretty cool. My mother worked in publishing, and at least 75% of the men working there were gay, and I never thought twice about it.  During junior high, I used to work in my mother’s office during holidays, doing filing, and if my mother was busy, I would go to lunch with these two editors, both gay, where they showed me the art of making an egg cream.   They were not faggots.

I certainly didn’t associate being a faggot with being gay. Gay was gay. If you were straight you weren’t gay. If you were gay, you weren’t straight.  Faggot was different. It was about manliness. Being a faggot meant that you weren’t a man. That is how we tormented each other in school and the playground. If you didn’t cut class, you were a faggot. If you got bullied off the basketball court and didn’t fight back, you acted like a faggot. If you didn’t accept the “double dare” — like licking the frozen pole in “A Christmas Story,” you were a faggot. Being a faggot was not about orientation. It was about acting like a girl. Back then, I would have never called a gay person a faggot because it wouldn’t have made any sense, since a gay person acting effeminate was socially acceptable, which was not the case for a straight person.

I know someone is going to be mad that I am “stealing” the word from the context of today, or suggesting that the word was as harmful and controlling to straight boys as to gay ones. But that’s my story. Even today, if you would call me gay, I would probably go “I wish!,” but if you called me a faggot, my blood pressure would rise.

17 Comments

  1. Your experience sounds almost exactly like that of Louis CK’s.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fcja4WFFzDw&feature=kp

  2. Adam, I just heard from someone that George Carlin had a routine like this too. It must be so common with every guy over 40. I already upset someone on Facebook for my insinuation that the word was as harmful to straight boys as it was as a slur against gay men. Maybe it is just a different context. It was harmful to everyone because it created a should and shouldn’t of what a “man” is all about. And not just about his sexual orientation.

  3. straight woman reporting in, but i definitely remember the elementary school use of “faggot” as you describe it – that is, not meaning homosexual, but rather meaning wimpy/unmanly.

    i wonder, do gay men call one another “faggot” the way black people use the “n” word? that is, with a certain in-group affection?

  4. As someone in the under-40 crowd, I have never heard that word in any other context than as a gay slur. I’m sure it wasn’t your intention, but anecdotally I have heard people in the over-40 crowd use ‘we used to say it as a kid’ as an excuse to use it now. It kind of falls into the ‘good old days’ category, along with “kids were more respectful” and “technology makes us antisocial.” I don’t think its a bad thing to reminisce about how things used to be, but I think its an important distinction not to use it as an excuse to use it now.

  5. Valerie – my bringing up the word faggot was not to suggest in any way that the use of it in the past was part of the good ol’ days, or that it should be used today. I was saying that the word was used in a hurtful and controlling way against all boys, and not just as a slur against homosexuals. If anything it is a slur against women because it associates weakness and inferiority to any man who acts like a “girl” — straight or gay.

  6. I’m about 50, and remember that word–in fact, I remember looking it up in the dictionary (to find out what it meant? in a conversation with my parents because I was upset someone called me it? or talking about hearing it? don’t quite remember) and seeing that it meant a bundle of sticks. not helpful. Although of course it was very clear to me in the playground that it meant not cool–I don’t associate it with a wimpiness or lack of (perceived) masculinity but rather just uncoolness. Akin to dorkiness. People also said “faggy” or “fag.” And girls said to other girls (and Mary H, wherever you might be now: I never liked it, and I don’t like remembering it now either).

  7. The Jonah Hill apology video triggered a long conversation with my 14yo son. He’s right in the thick of the age where kids are trying to figure out how to navigate the world of gender expectations and develop their own identities. I should add that it’s particularly prevalent (and entangled with misogyny) in the gaming community.

    I believe that intention isn’t sufficient as an explanation. Take the “Redskins” debate or the use of the word “retarded.” I could say that our generation often used the word “retarded” as a synonym for “lame” or “stupid” in a general way….I didn’t *mean* to devalue and dehumanize people with cognitive challenges. So what? I would *never* use the word now, and if I heard my child use it, we’d be having a “Come to Jesus” talk. That said, people who make mistakes are not necessarily bad people. The fact that Jonah Hill, who has been supportive of LGBTQ issues in the past, used the word as “the most hurtful word I could think of” is more a statement about societal norms than about his personal beliefs about gay people.

    By the way, I get that you aren’t advocating for the word in any way. It’s a reflective piece. But I do think your post raises a lot of interesting issues about gender norms. Why is being called a girl or a homosexual the worst thing a boy/man could be called? Why not pedophile? As C.N. Adichie said in her TED talk, “…by far the worst thing we do to males, by making them feel that they have to be hard, is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The more “hard man” a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is. And then we do a much greater disservice to girls because we raise them to cater to fragile egos of men.” What does that say about what society really thinks about women and LGBTQ people?

    • Interesting, and again, I’m not advocating its use, just bringing up that for a generation of boys it as not only a slur against homosexuals but used against straight boys. To this day, most boys do not want to be seen as girlish. And there are many women now who see the feminine as inferior and weak, and advocate that girls be more strong like boys. We want our girls to be scientists and football players. But we still don’t want our boys to cry or become ballet dancers. I could also ask you the same question about your use of retarded as a teenager. Why did a whole generation grow up thinking of “being retarded” as synonymous with being dumb. When I was a kid we actually did call those with developmental problems as retarded, and I would never call a friend or something retarded because it would be meaningless. I almost wonder if the banning of the word gave it the power to be hurtful. I have never called anyone retarded as an insult in my entire life.

      • I hope you understand that I wasn’t running around flinging the term at people, and maybe “our generation” isn’t quite accurate. But in my community, when I was growing up, it was present as an insult that while most people that said it weren’t drawing a straight line between people with developmental delays and the object of scorn, it was still there…and hurtful. They started the campaign years ago…and the response from many at the time was, “But I didn’t mean anything derogatory…it’s just a saying.”

        It’s clearly still a problem. http://www.r-word.org/r-word-jeers.aspx

      • Ugh. This is a very emotionally-laden issue for me and my words are not doing it justice. Sorry. This is one of those times my writing has let me down 🙁

        • oh, no need to apologize. it is an interesting subject. We are saying the same thing — that these words hurt everyone simply because the words become laden with negative meaning. And by calling someone a faggot in grade school, it was both a slander on homosexuality AND hurtful to the the straight boy. The intentions are still BAD.

  8. I understand what you mean when you write that using the word “fag” has nothing to do with gay people in your experience. As some others mentioned, the word for me was “retard.” I’ve worked for many years with people who have developmental disabilities and I would never call them retarded because that just wouldn’t make sense to me. For me it has nothing to do with intellectual ability and I never direct it at a person. I have used it to describe a situation (“That is retarded”) but never a person. There’s something satisfying about feeling that word on my tongue and saying it with derision. But, because I’ve worked with DD people, I have trained myself not to use the word in any form for any reason. I also was taught a rhyme when I was young that was “Eenie meenie minie moe, catch a nigger by the toe. If he hollers make him pay $50 every day.” I do not use the word nigger (yes, I write it out in full because I refuse to refer to it as “the n word.” I’m not five. And I refuse to give it that much power.) but I used to recite that rhyme whenever my friends and I had to come to a decision. I didn’t know what it meant, it was just part of a rhyme to me. I outgrew the rhyme long before I learned what an ugly word it is and, of course, it is not part of my lexicon. When we know better, we do better.

    • I agree exactly with Jules – “when we know better, we do better.” One of my favorite quotes (author Ellen Gilchrist, I believe) is “The past is a swamp where we wander at our peril.” – favorite due to having frequently emperiled myself – and yet, whitewashing the past does no good either; what is to be learned from that? I appreciate your remembrances here, *and* your posts on FB, Neil.

  9. unmitigated me

    June 9, 2014 at 8:01 am

    I had a similar issue when I taught 6th graders, who liked to use the word gay to mean stupid or lame. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “That’s so gay!” in my classroom. And I can tell you that young boys who play football sometimes refer to boys who play soccer as “foot fags.”

  10. At one point in my twenties, I enjoyed the company of gay men. I was privileged to be included as one of very females partying in the coolest gay bars in Montreal. It was the mid-eighties and I somehow acquired a pair of black leather chaps, with awesome silver studs. I wore them almost all the time, with jeans or slinky black stuff underneath. It was very cool, because I was a woman, and this was a gay man’s fashion item. My gay friends loved it too.

    One day I went to my Aunt’s for dinner – she asked me what these chaps were about. Without thinking I replied, “they’re chaps. Fags wear them”. My Aunt immediately turned and shouted angrily at me, “fag is a derogatory term!”

    I was so surprised, because all my gay friends referred to themselves as “fags”. Even though I was a straight woman, I considered myself to be one of the gang. I None of us ever considered it an insult. guess my Aunt could see from my face that I never intended as such, and she cooled off.

    That was the first time I noted someone react to the word “fag” in that way, even though I didn’t use it as an insult to either gay men or straight boys.

  11. I think it’s true that some of us grew up using these sorts of insults thoughtlessly and, to some extent, divorced from their origins. However, I think we did that because the people in our communities who came before us used the words with knowledge and intent. They made these routine stereotypes so much a part of our fabric that we didn’t quite realize what garbage our (metaphorical) clothes were made of. As a kid we used racial, homophobic, and developmental slurs with abandon. It wasn’t just faggot it was homo and gayboy and ‘Mo. It wasn’t just retarded it was ‘Tard and Fucktard and every other prefix you can think of. The thing is, we knew not to use those words in front of people to whom they might connect and if we knew that then we weren’t as divorced from the origins as we might like to think.

    For the record I grew up in a pretty affluent small town in New England, not the deep south, and when I go back I still hear those kinds of insults used and laughed at.

  12. Neil, I totally feel you on this post. I understood what you are saying. That was the norm growing up and no way was it associated to being gay. I believe today, people are way too sensitive. Everyone does not have a backbone. If someone says something the other doesn’t like, you are called a bully. You can’t have an opinion or discuss your past without someone trying to shame you about it. It’s a hard world to express your feelings, your past or your present. All you really can do is just be who you are and tough shit to those who don’t understand your opinion.

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