The Subjectivity of 'Faggot'

While its power is unquestionable, the sheer usefulness of the word “faggot” is largely unsung. There are its non-slur meanings—a bundle of sticks, a meatball, cigarettes in the U.K. (generally referred to as fags)—but even as a pejorative, it’s been endowed with an uncommon multivalence. It is foremost known as a crude synonym for a gay man, the kind of thing people hear before they’re beaten to death, the kind of thing bigots say casually to refer to the group. As such, it has been both reiterated and reappropriated by gay men (as well as other queer people like trans women who themselves were inevitably called a faggot prior to transitioning and perhaps still are) as an insult and term of endearment. At times it is an in-group simultaneous expression of endearment and contempt, because emotions are complicated, especially those deriving from how we feel about ourselves and others like us.

But for years, there’s existed a rather mainstream rationale that the word “faggot” doesn’t necessarily refer to gay people, particularly in homosocial settings of self-identified straight men. In these social settings, it’s a generalized insult to note weakness. “You don’t have to be gay to act like a faggot. You don’t even have to be a man to act like a faggot. Anybody can act like a faggot,” said Chris Rock in a stand-up set before going on to describe a scenario that would make him a faggot (getting so wrapped up in singing Gwen Stefani in his car that he misses when the light turns from red to green). In 2013, Eminem claimed that his use of “faggot” in his music was not homophobic, but “more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole.” To explain why he used the word to refer to a paparazzo in 2014 Jonah Hill explained, “I said the most hurtful word I could think of at that moment and, you know, I didn’t mean this in the sense of the word... I didn’t mean it in a homophobic way.” His apology seemed more sincere than most because he acknowledged that effect superseded intent: “How you mean things doesn’t matter. Words have weight and meaning and the word I chose was grotesque and no one deserves to say and hear words like that.”

The Celluloid Closet (1995)

While no one would mistake these ostensibly heterosexual men as queer theorists or sociologists, there is an academic reading that supports their perspective. The word faggot (or fag), Peggy Orenstein writes in her book-long survey of masculinity among young American men Boys & Sex, “has become less a comment on their sexual orientation than a statement about their manhood.” Orenstein cites the work of sociologist C.J. Pascoe, whose 2007 book, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, detailed the potentially non-homophobic usage of “faggot,” arguing that it’s used to maintain social order amongst straight-identified boys, and as such, referring to it as an anti-gay term is reductive. Wrote Pascoe:

Homophobia is too facile a term with which to describe the deployment of fag as an epithet. By calling the use of the word fag homophobia—and letting the argument stop there—previous research has obscured the gendered nature of sexualized insults (Plummer 2001). Invoking homophobia to describe the ways boys aggressively tease each other overlooks the powerful relationship between masculinity and this sort of insult... Fag is not necessarily a static identity attached to a particular (homosexual) boy. Fag talk and fag imitations serve as a discourse with which boys discipline themselves and each other through joking relationships. Any boy can temporarily become a fag in a given social space or interaction... [B]ecoming a fag has as much to do with failing at the masculine tasks of competence, heterosexual prowess, and strength or in any way revealing weakness or femininity as it does with a sexual identity.

The linguist Arnold Zwicky, who is not only gay but identifies as a fag, affirmed this stance on Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast in 2012: “Starting from a slur on homosexuals or presumed homosexuals, the word has moved to a generalized insult with actually no imputation of sexuality at all. That’s paralleled roughly by one of the extensions of gay itself, in the stupid, lame sense that’s often associated with teenagers: That’s so gay.”

Reading Pascoe’s book shook my world. For years I assumed that those who made the fag-not-gay argument were trying to pull one over on us. Having an outsider, who had studied the boys in an American high school, support this line of thinking upended my own philosophy. I believed that in order to have a claim to an epithet in order to ethically reappropriate it, one had to have been called it with some regularity. What Pascoe argues is that straight men who employ the word fag have their own relationship with the word that theoretically has nothing to do with actual gay people. Having been called a fag about as much as my actual name by other boys while growing up, I assumed this word was the property of me and my kind. (And surely, “fag” hits differently depending on whether you are actually are one or not.) Because so many straight men seem to have a relationship with the word, and its power to organize social order, there’s an argument to be made for their own discrete claim to it. So many of us have felt the sting of “faggot,” but for only some of us, it continues to radiate.

Even if they’re trying to fool us with this argument, though, it doesn’t mean straight guys who say “fag” aren’t trying to fool themselves. In a well-known stand-up routine, disgraced comic Louis C.K. rhapsodized “faggot,” saying: “I miss that word, you know. I grew up saying that word. It never meant gay. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what gay was. I hadn’t been told that people do that. I had no idea.” In his conception, a faggot was a sniveling, scolding killjoy. “I would never call a gay guy a faggot unless he’s being a faggot, but not because he’s gay, you understand?” said the comedian. Orenstein and Pascoe similarly documented boys claiming that they’d never use the term on someone who was actually gay.

But ignorance is not absolution. The failure to realize the origins of a word does not erase them. “It’s not the word, it’s the context in which the word is being said,” says Rock regarding pejoratives. But there is subjective context (what one means) and objective context (what something means given its usage and history)—Rock’s conception ignores the latter for the sake of the former.

In a sense, language is defined by its evolution. This is why slang and internet-speak are routinely added to standard-setting dictionaries. The issue here is that, unlike an ableist term like “lame,” whose earlier popular usage to refer to disability has practically evaporated and whose status as a generalized expression of contempt has clearly prevailed, “faggot” has never ceased meaning a gay man. It’s only expanded to be able to apply to men who aren’t gay but nonetheless exhibit some sort of behavior that, just like homosexual behavior, could be considered to fall short of the standard of masculinity. But the notion that it is a generalized insult divorced from its homophobic context seems a relatively new convention, at least in mainstream media.

I’d theorize that even the dilution of “faggot” itself owes to homophobia. Before the red scare and McCarthyism, homosexuality was not a major feature of the mainstream American discourse. As queer people were targeted through arrest and the denial of employment, they organized and fought back, gaining greater cultural visibility and thus an even stronger backlash from the moral majority. In 1990, psychologist Dr. Gregory Herek told the New York Times that homophobia was primarily motivated by the reaffirmation of one’s own values, and psychologist Bob Altemeyer said of those most strongly opposed to gays: “Their self-righteousness makes them feel they are acting morally when they attack homosexuals. It overcomes the normal inhibitions against aggression.’’

(I want to posit that it was in this sort of environment that sought to protect society by both naming the villain and muting the love that dare not speak its name. By hating the sinner, one didn’t even have to contend with—or expose his children to—the sin, thus detaching “faggot” from the nuts and bolts of what defined it, thereby fostering a more generalized epithet.)

That people like Rock, Louis CK, and Orenstein’s and Pascoe’s subjects acknowledge that “faggot” could refer to a gay man but swear that it doesn’t in their usage just goes to show how intertwined the meanings are. Further research might actually test whether people are increasingly unaware of the status of “faggot” as a slur to refer to gay men, but it seems pretty obvious when you read about a high school kid coming out only to be abused and called a faggot, or a guy ranting about a “fucking faggot homo,” that it still means what it’s meant since at least 1914, loud and clear. Did the guy who drove his truck with “OPEN OUR GYMS FAGGOT” on its back windows to a protest of openly gay Colorado Governor Jared Polis in May just use that word coincidentally? When Fox Sports broadcaster Thom Brennaman referred to “one of the fag capitals of the world” on a hot mic in August, did he merely mean a place where nonnormative-presenting men convene? I doubt it.

That “faggot” was once used to refer to women, particularly those deemed old or unseemly, and continues to hold space as a derisive evaluation of a man’s masculinity shows that no matter how far it’s come, it’s barely strayed from its belittling intentions. Because it remains a word that is used to denigrate gay men, and presumably most people who use it are aware of this, even in its supposed non-homophobic context, it is at the very least an affront to those most vulnerable to the word. For if the person using it had gay friends he cared about, or was interested in fostering a prosocial environment, he wouldn’t be furthering the use of a word that still exists to subjugate. In that sense, there’s at least a bigoted negligence that arises in even the most (supposedly) benign uses of the word. That adds yet another use to an impressive put-down: it’s a litmus.

Correction: A previous version of this post described the podcast Lexicon Valley as defunct; it is not. However, the hosts of the podcast during the time the referenced episode aired, Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield, both left it in 2016.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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DISCUSSION

kca915
Moses Hightower

I’m a bit of a word nerd, and I’ve always been fascinated by “dirty words”.

Like “motherfucker”. Why is it bad to have sex with women who have children? Or is anyone who would have sex with your mother (fathers excluded, I suppose) automatically disrespectful on some level? I suppose it may have started out with a literal meaning, but I think it’s mostly just a guttural-sounding word with low vowels and quick, staccato consonants.

“Faggot” has a meaning that started to wander because, aside from its meaning as a slur, it’s also a great curse word. Like similar phonetic words “maggot” and “bigot”, it has a crisp rhythm and punch.

If someone says “dick sucker”, they are calling a guy gay. But anything can be a “cocksucker” - a car that won’t start, a coffee table you stub your toe on, the person (of any gender) who gives you a parking ticket. But nobody would bother with “penis sucker”, and “fellatiator” sounds positively delightful.

I’d get business cards that said “Fellatiator” and I’m not even gay.