The Politics of the “F” Word

Is it ever okay to use it - even if you're gay?

Someone posed a question on Facebook today about whether it’s ever okay to use the word “faggot.”

Before you can even answer the question, you have to wonder what the reaction to a post like this would be like if the person was A.) straight B.) a Rick Santorum supporter or C.) a gay man.

Does the fact that he’s C., a gay man, change the way you’d respond?

“I call myself a faggot and other people are offended by me calling myself that word,” he writes. “Personally, I love it. I revel in it. Anyone who knows me knows this is [because] my gay mentors cleared the word for us decades ago.”

He’s referencing, of course, a few pinnacle moments in post-Stonewall gay history, including the publication of Larry Kramer’s novel Faggots and other more flagrant, self-referential moments during the height of Act UP’s in-your-face protests. Kramer, a longtime gay rights and AIDS activist, was part of a vigilant movement that sought to shed light on crimes against LGBT people and to take back the word in the same way many African-Americans have done when it comes to the “N” word. This was around the same time those awful T-shirts began popping up to spoof the roach repellent Raid – “AIDS: Kills Fags Dead.”

But like many black people and the “N” word, not all gay people may be quite so quick to drop an “F” bomb either. This is especially true as LGBT rights are advancing, and more couples may opt to walk down the aisle rather than toward the picket line. Is there a danger of softening the word by using it? Have we grown up? Or is that the point?

In mainstream media, for example, it’s not uncommon for people to use the word “faggot” or “fag” when referencing a hate crime, while the mention of the “N” word is still taboo even by those standards. It’s also common to hear the “F” word referenced among people who are using it solely to mock someone’s weakness or even along the lines of “that’s so gay,” which is to mean “stupid” or “dorky.” One might even argue that the “F” word is somehow more acceptable to use in polite company than many other slurs – though the hateful semantics are surely still attached.

Interestingly, the term “faggot” was originally used to describe the bundle of sticks used to burn heretics during the Inquisition. Brits still use the term for cigarettes, though it later evolved to suggest “a heavy burden,” and not exactly an affirmation for most gay people to whom it’s directed.

For as common as it is, the “F” word is also quite controversial.

Remember when Isaiah Washington was fired from Grey’s Anatomy for using the word “faggot” to describe a gay actor on the show? Or when Hollywood director Brett Ratner said that rehearsal is for “fags,” and was ousted as the producer of the Academy Awards? He later worked with GLAAD to create gay-friendly PSAs.

Ann Coulter, too, has criticized the inability to use the word, while still managing to throw it around to describe liberals she detests  – this, even as she’s a member of Go Proud’s board. Athletes have also come under fire for using the word in fits of anger on the field, court, rink or diamond.

So if gay people – and gay men specifically – use the word, does that somehow give permission for others to use it? Can anyone use it? What if a lesbian uses the word? Is it merely reserved for gay men?

There’s a lot of power in language – whether it’s directed at oneself or others.

But for the “F” word, the controversy looms while lesbians seem to have successfully commandeered the word “dyke” to their advantage – hence the famous Dykes on Bikes that regularly lead gay pride parades every June.

There’s even been push back in recent years over the term “fag hag,” not so much because of its derogatory message about women who may enjoy the company of gay men, but because of the dreaded “F” word association. That might explain why we hear more references to “fruit flies” and “queen bees” than we do the hags of yore.

And while select gay male users of the “F” word may blame the LGBT community’s “sanitization” or political correctness for wanting to outlaw the word, there’s something to be said for showcasing its rotten, filthy origin in slang without giving it the power it once had. Even if using it softens it, here’s to hoping no one forgets it. Because in the same way that it would be dangerous to strip the “N” word of its sordid past (we learn from it – and hopefully learn not to repeat the past) the same can be said for the “F” word – especially at a time when it’s yet to become quite as taboo as one might hope – at least among the folks who are using it to do bad.

Is this really another case of linguistic privilege – or when a term that is racist, sexist or homophobic is used within a community it was meant to affront? And this begs the question, are you offended if someone calls you by the “F” word? And does it matter who says it?