Politics Trivia! - A Reflection on Faggots and Queers
I'm looking for an article on "cunt", too.
[QUOTE][B]Faggot Vs. Queer; Reflecting the evolving place of gays in American culture, one word has grown more acceptable, the other more vile [/B]
[I]From[/I]: Chicago Sun-Times
[I]Date[/I]: June 24, 2007
[I]Author[/I]: Kevin Nance
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, refusing 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.
Get used to it!
While "faggot" has plummeted in the American lexicon in recent years, "queer" is a rising star. Still a sore spot for some -- especially gay men and lesbians in their 40s and older, people who remember the Q-word being hurled at them like verbal Molotov cocktails -- "queer," like Isaiah Washington, has gone to rehab.
It started in the mid- to late 1980s, when "queer" became a buzzword of gay and lesbian self-empowerment and pride. It was "reclaimed," quite deliberately, by Queer Nation and other activist groups; well into the '90s, it was the defiant mantra of Gay Pride parades across the country: We're here, we're queer, get used to it!
"It was a very conscious decision by groups who said, 'We're going to take back that word, which was once used to bash us, and make it our own,' " recalls Richard Pfeiffer, coordinator of Chicago's annual Pride parade, set for this weekend. "The idea was that we weren't going to let our opponents define us."
Embracing "queer" was gay America's punk moment. Suddenly, queer was a good and brave thing to be: no more cowering, no more settling for second-class status, no more victimhood. It meant not to beg for respect but to demand it -- or, even better, to thumb your nose at the very idea of depending on the respect of the straight world.
Around the same time, academia picked up on the term and invested it with considerable cachet. "Queer studies" caught on at Yale, Duke, UCLA, U.C.-Berkeley and even Chicago's DePaul University, a Catholic institution that made national news last year by offering a minor in the discipline. "Queer theory," focusing on that double- helix relationship of gender and sexuality, became one of the hottest topics in the ivory tower.
"There was a lot of reaction and resistance to the term," recalls Stuart Michaels, assistant director of the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago. When he would use the phrase "queer studies" -- referring to research into the intertwined ways society views traditional gender roles and sexual identity -- "even some of my students would look a little bit surprised," Michaels recalls. "Queer was taking a term of denigration against people who were not considered 'normal,' then recuperating and transforming it into a term of something between neutral and pride."
Today, he says, the word isn't used just in academic or politically radical contexts. "It's more generic now, especially among young people."
THE QUEER BANDWAGON
That might never have happened, however, if pop culture hadn't jumped on the queer bandwagon.
Showtime's "Queer as Folk" -- with its core audience of, surprisingly, heterosexual women -- and especially "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," in its basic cable and major network versions, brought the Q-word out of the gay and academic ghettos and into the heartland. The soccer mom who would never dream of using the word in polite society before suddenly found herself wondering out loud whether, if she could get her husband onto "Queer Eye," Carson Kressley could make him wear something decent for a change. And wasn't that Jai Rodriguez just adorable?
In the American living room, queer was suddenly here, and with remarkable speed the public got used to it. "Queer Eye" has already passed into mainstream television history, but it did more than anything to make "queer" a word that many gays and lesbians could hear without instinctively ducking for cover, and that heterosexuals could use -- at least sometimes -- without fear of causing offense.
Context is crucial, of course. " 'Queer' still carries a lot of social power, a lot of charge," Ward says. "It retains some of its old transgressive quality, and it can still be a derogatory epithet. Kids yelling 'queer!' out of a car when you're walking down Halsted Street -- them's fightin' words. In that context, the distance between 'faggot' and 'queer' is quite small."
But if "queer" retains its power to hurt in certain settings, that capacity now co-exists with a range of desirable meanings. As public attitudes toward homosexuality have liberalized and gays and lesbians have become more assimilated into mainstream culture in recent years, gay activism -- once so loud and angry -- has toned itself down considerably, so much so that many young gays are hardly aware it exists. But "queer" still carries a whiff of those heady, clenched-fist days, and it confers on those who use it an edgy, urban quality that goes nicely with snug jeans and a strategically placed facial piercing or two.
The word has proved handy, too, as an umbrella term for the various groups existing outside the heterosexual norm: gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, of course, but also "questioning" folk and those of ambiguous sexuality and/or gender. Instead of using the cumbersome alphabet soup of "LGBT," you can just say "queer" and have everybody covered.
None of which applies to "faggot." You will never, as Michaels points out, find a "faggot studies" department at any university. Nor would "Faggot Eye for the Straight Guy" ever have made it to public access, much less a major network. "We're here, we're faggots, get used it"? Certainly not, and anyway, it doesn't rhyme.
THAT DAY IN THE SCHOOLYARD
Which brings me back to my friend Jim and me. I truly don't know why I said what I said. It was so long ago, and for years I was so mortified by the incident that I blocked it out of my mind so as not to examine it too closely.
More recently, I've developed some theories about why I lashed out. Since fourth grade, Jim and I had been pals, and our friendship had been based on our mutual love of books. We both read voraciously and precociously -- we were fans of Greek and Norse mythology, for example, and were getting into science fiction -- and I considered myself lucky to have found someone I could talk to about things that all my other acquaintances, and even my own parents, considered plain weird. Jim and I were, in the pre-gay sense of the word, queer.
As we passed into puberty, everything changed. Jim became interested in sports and girls; I did not. Maybe we grew apart, simply and naturally, as our interests evolved. Or maybe, as it seemed to me then, our friendship had become a burden to him. As he began, subtly at first, to distance himself, a suspicion may have formed: He doesn't want to be seen with me! Guilt by association!
Then he started snapping at me, even in front of classmates, and I panicked. Remember how important friendship was in that time of your life? It was crucial to me, be-all-and-end-all, and now I was being abandoned. Who was I going to talk about books with? Who would care whether Odin could beat Zeus in a fistfight, or whether Frank Herbert could kick Isaac Asimov's ass with one hand tied behind his back? Who would know me, and like me, for who I really was?
And I said it. Maybe it was a case of the best defense seeming like a good offense. Maybe in some locked-away room in my brain, I knew what Jim thought I really was, or would be, and that he wanted nothing to do with it. At the time, that made two of us, and so I beat him to the punch.
I'll never know for sure what Jim actually thought. We never did reconcile, never did talk about what happened that day in the schoolyard, or about what it meant.
Lately I've forgiven us both. We were just scared 13-year-old boys, and I suppose we did the best we could. If it had happened yesterday instead of 34 years ago, I like to think we'd have handled things better. Maybe the situation never would have arisen. At the very least, we might have found the right words to say what we felt, whatever it was, for better or worse. [/QUOTE]
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"I could have done worse!" exultantly cried the murderer Lebret, sentenced at Rouen to hard labor for life. — Félix Fénéon