Sunday, June 24, 2007

Essay 4093

From The Chicago Sun-Times…


Faggot vs. queer
Reflecting the evolving place of gays in American culture, one word has grown more acceptable, the other more vile


I don’t know why I said it. I was 13 — that dangerous age — and on a schoolyard in 1973, having an argument with my former best friend. Jim, as I’ll call him, had recently become distant, even hostile, and I was furious at him for deserting me. Sputtering, almost crying, I called him a name that I must have known would end whatever chance we had to reconcile. “Faggot,” I spat at him. “Dirty faggot.”

Jim’s eyes narrowed to slits. He balled up his fist and drew it back to punch me, then seemed to realize he could do better than that. “Takes one to know one,” he said with grim satisfaction, and left me standing there, stunned and speechless.

And so, years later, I found myself in the unusual position of agreeing, if only partly, with the far-right pundit Ann Coulter, who insisted that the word “faggot” — which she’d lobbed at presidential candidate John Edwards — was “a schoolyard taunt.”

But it isn’t just any taunt. In the schoolyards of my youth, you unleashed “faggot” sparingly, only against your worst enemies and only if you were prepared to back it up with violence. Then as now, you understood it as a nuclear weapon in the American name-calling arsenal, rivaling the N-word in sheer wounding power.

“Queer” was almost as bad. It was slightly quieter and more clinical, but it meant the same thing; “queer” was to “faggot” what “prostitute” was to “whore.” To fling either word at a male was to accuse him of being unmanly, a homosexual (in those days pretty much the worst thing a man or boy could be) or both.

In the past two decades, however, the two slurs have evolved in two distinctly different directions.

The new N-word?
Today, “faggot” seems to have grown even more offensive, and to more people, than ever before. Ask “Grey’s Anatomy” star Isaiah Washington, who may have been fired this month partly for having repeatedly used the term in reference to a gay co-star. In what cynics viewed as an effort to save his job, Washington apologized, filmed public-service announcements and even went to rehab over the incident — a fact that Coulter was hamfistedly trying to lampoon in a way that sparked its own firestorm. She was chastised by Republican presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani and John McCain and dropped by several newspapers that had carried her column.

In fact, “faggot” shows signs of becoming the new N-word, an expression so taboo that in their reporting on the Coulter incident last winter, several big-city newspapers, including the Washington Post, declined to print the term itself; “anti-gay epithet” was a common euphemism. (Other papers, including the New York Times and the Chicago Sun-Times, elected to print the unexpurgated version.) In phone conversations and interviews related to this column, I’ve found myself avoiding using the word whenever possible, and worrying that co-workers sitting near me might be offended.

The F-word’s diminutive version, “fag,” carries slightly less sting. Coulter called Al Gore “a total fag” a year before the Edwards incident, with much less public reaction. And when Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti a “fag” last year, the consequences were relatively muted. “Completely unacceptable,” said commissioner Bud Selig, who nonetheless simply ordered Guillen to attend what seems to have been a perfunctory bit of “sensitivity training.”

In Coulter/Edwards and Guillen/Mariotti, by the way, the attackers later insisted that their words weren’t meant as references to their targets’ sexual orientation; Guillen says he meant to imply that Mariotti was a coward, and Coulter meant — well, who knows what she meant? Both explanations don’t entirely wash, however, because of how sexual identity and gender are so closely bound, and confused with each other, in the public mind.

“Gender is about sex roles, and when you call a heterosexual man a faggot or a sissy, you’re attacking his masculinity — accusing him of doing something that doesn’t conform to traditional masculine sex roles,” explains Gregory Ward, a linguist at Northwestern University. “Gay men have been thought of the same way, and there’s a conflation of the two that people exploit in their choice of words.”

In that way of thinking, then, gay men are abnormal because they don’t act like straight men. And straight men who don’t act like other straight men — by, say, re- fusing to come to the White Sox clubhouse to get yelled at by Guillen after they’ve written something negative about him — are also abnormal, which puts them a tank top away from those mincing sissies down on Halsted Street.

The strapping lads of the International Mr. Leather competition, which took place a few weeks ago in Chicago, might have something to say about that, but that’s another story.

[Click on the essay title above to read the full story.]

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