Opinion | The Faggot Manifesto: Slurs and the Power of Naming

 Photo: Alex Franco

Photo: Alex Franco

As is the misfortune of any American living abroad, I am the frequent recipient of questions about American politics. Despite teaching English, my students seem convinced of my political acumen, but as long as the conversation happens in the target language, I don’t mind too much.

The day after Trump proposed moving the US embassy to Jerusalem (a woefully shortsighted political play, which merits an article in and of itself) the euphoria in my small, southern Israeli town was palpable. The residents of Mitzpe praised the move as everything from “long overdue” to “biblically prophesized”, and generally saw it as nothing but positive. Trump, already beloved for his seemingly bullish stance on Israel, was heralded as a hero. With great enthusiasm my students asked me, “Alex, you love Trump?” It was with more than a little surprise that they received my emphatic NO. “But why,” they lamented, “he is so good!” As best I could with language they could understand, I explained how Trump’s policies hurt many people I loved, myself included, and why I disagreed with him. “So you love Obama?” they countered, believing one to naturally follow the other. I told them that, yes, I did, but before I could expand upon why, the student in question huffed out an exasperated breath, waved me off, and said, “Obama is just a n****r”.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard an Israeli—student or otherwise—use the n-word. Though rarely employed as a pejorative (I heard it most often employed as a term of endearment between friends) any use of the term by a  non-POC, I would argue, is reprehensible. Struggling to contain my frustration, I endeavored to explain to my student why what he’d said was not only unacceptable, but highly offensive. He listened with the same, glass-eyed stare most commonly seen when going over the finer points of present perfect progressive. Try as I might, I simply could not convey to him the magnitude of African Americans’ suffering and why there was no acceptable use of that word by someone who isn’t black. The cultural gap appeared too large to bridge.

The issue is not contained simply to racial slurs either. While grading papers, a coworker remarked that one of his students, while describing an imagined trip to Thailand, had used an insulting epithet for trans women. Laughing, he shook his head, saying, “well someone needs to have a talk with the principal.” I agreed, but for completely different reasons. My coworker believed that sex was a topic ill-suited to school, while I found the flagrant use of transphobic language repulsive. Once again, I stressed the issue to my coworker, and while he seemed to understand in the abstract, the linguistic divide offered a sort of absolution. Yes, what the student had said was wrong, but he’d said it in English, which made it, if not okay, than at least less bad. I could not help but wonder about his reaction if the situation were reversed, and I were to say something offensive in Hebrew—I imagined he would be far less accepting.

Unfortunately, foreigners are not the sole perpetuators of offensive language. Back at the end of November, Dominic Sherwood, of Shadowhunters fame, was caught on Facebook Live calling his coworker Matthew Daddario (who plays canonically gay Alex Lightwood) “fag.” From the short clip, Sherwood’s intention doesn’t appear malicious, but more in line with the sort of bro-ish comradery that enjoys flinging inflammatory slurs. In response, Daddario warns him that they’re live, and the video cuts out shortly thereafter. That same day, Sherwood uploaded a tone-deaf apology to Instagram, lamenting his use of language that “perpetuates negativity and hate and intolerance.” While claiming the incident as a one-off, such behavior is learned and practice. One can only be led to wonder how much we don’t hear when the cameras aren’t rolling.

 Photo: Alex Franco

Photo: Alex Franco

It comes with no surprise and little fanfare that I abhor the use of any derogatory term when it’s wielded against the community it seeks to name. But what about us faggots? Can we say it, and if so, when? Should we only refer to ourselves as faggots—allowing our fellow queers to decide for themselves—or do we have carte blanche to apply it liberally to our brothers? And what of our beloved divas? Are they exempt? One need only look at the bevy of mixed reactions following Ariana Grande’s “faggots make some noise” to see that the issue divides us.

I am neither the first, nor, I imagine, the last to wrestle with this question. Youtuber Michael Henry posted a video this summer asking the very same thing, and any number of queer thinkers have pondered the relative merits of reclaiming faggot. As with any issue, both sides posit valid arguments: on the one hand, the word has been used pejoratively for centuries, and reopening those wounds could stunt many queers’ much needed healing, while on the other hand, by claiming faggot as our own, we can defang it and celebrate, not what the word meant, but what it has come to mean for us.

To understand what we are undertaking, we must travel back to the word’s origin. Louis CK, when not forcibly masturbating in front of unsuspecting women, included a poignant scene in the first season of his television show Louie where his friend explains the (false) history of the word, attributing it to the faggots, or bundle of woods, used to light bonfires, onto which queers were thrown. The truth is that women, tasked with gathering the sticks for the bundles, were called “faggot gatherers”, and the term shifted to describe effeminate men as well. “Gatherers” was eventually dropped to give us faggot, which has of course become a term used solely towards queer men. The misogynistic origin holds with most gay slurs—nancy, sissy, queen—all having originated with women, their purported rancor deriving from the (imagined) horror of being likened to women. Thus by reclaiming faggot, not only do we combat queerphobia, we also tackle misogyny. Gay is okay indeed, but so is womanhood.

Throughout history, faggot has been used to call queer men weak, womanly, to ascribe to us the flouncy, fabulous qualities so often derided by heterosexual men, who must, I think, be saddled with crippling jealousy. To them, no worse insult exists than to be called a woman, and thus we, by eschewing toxic ideals of masculinity, have become faggots. And so what? I, for one, am a big ol’ faggot. I paint my nails, wear furs, and strut in heels. With a snap of my fingers I’ll cut you off at the knees. That’s because, for me, faggotry embodies strength, fierceness, an unshakable sense of self, and the wardrobe to match. To be a faggot is to know exactly who and what you are without living in the shadow of shame. To be a faggot is to look hate in the eye and spit.

In 2018, I challenge my fellow queers to confront homophobia and misogyny, not only in our wider community, but within ourselves. Too often do we encounter “masc4masc” parading as preference, when all it is is woman-hating gussied up to appear otherwise. Let this be the year we abandon our groveling desire to emulate bros, and instead let us claim our power and proclaim ourselves as the faggots we know ourselves to be. Let us embody and embrace femininity, radical self-love, and unapologetic queerness. We have nothing to lose but our chains.