Faggot is the New Nigger
By Christian Desrosiers ’10
Did you see what he was wearing yesterday? That kid’s such a nigger.”

“Ha-ha, yeah! He’s totally a nigger but we love him.”

This exchange is most likely offensive to you or, at least, embarrassing. It’s also likely alien to you. But, in so many words, this is a conversation you have heard on campus. Replace “nigger” with “faggot” or “fag,” and you’ll get my meaning. Also, I should note, I say that the conversation is only “likely” alien to you because I am sure that many of you have in fact heard some version of that conversation as I first presented it. I have; I grew up in a town where the Ku Klux Klan is active and Confederate cultural hold-outs persist.

(I say all this without comparing the disparate narratives of social acceptance of the two demographics referred to, nor do I suggest that racism is dead and that homophobia has taken its place.)

There are in fact significant differences between the uses of the two words as insults. “While both insults are derogatory, there are differences that matter,” Professor [Alexander] Chee recently wrote to me in an email exchange. “When someone starts calling you ‘faggot’ or ‘gay,’ they are saying there is something you haven’t noticed that’s wrong about your masculinity — unmanly, womanish — and are implicitly asking you to self-censor.” This is different from the visual assessment that most often precedes racism. Here an invisible standard is at work, which engenders an atmosphere in which the metric of “gayness” is applied to a wide variety of behaviors.

This breadth of application has an additional result: users of the word, when confronted, plead that the context is key and that it absolves any perceived homophobia (e.g. “I didn’t mean it like that.”). But the primary, homophobic sense of the word “faggot” is still strongly present in our culture; it overshadows any ham-fisted attempt at recontextualization.

And the recontextualization is itself a false out. Calling someone a faggot because they are not acting manly is not using the word in a new way. “Faggot” functions as an insult (as all derogatory slurs) precisely because of its associations with homosexuality.

In our exchange, Professor Chee also stressed that “letting people get away with saying it allows institutionalized homophobia and misogyny — because homophobia has its roots in misogyny (see under ‘womanish’) — to persist unchallenged.”

The vocabulary of homophobic hate-speech has proliferated to the extent that has developed its own linguistic outgrowth: the pre-emptive “no homo.” If a guy expresses earnest affection for another guy, it must be qualified; “I really like you man” is followed by “no homo.” What exactly are we saying about ourselves and our anxieties when we append a statement with a “no homo?” To assert that I am making too much of “no homo” and that it is just a joke is both more problematic — because our jokes should not perpetuate hate speech — and a cop-out.

Often, liberals who make the points I am making are labeled as “progressives.” I think it’s more appropriate to say that people who think it’s okay to use the words “faggot” and “gay” in derogatory contexts are regressive and anachronistic. I think that, subconsciously or not, it seems permissible to say these things in so many settings because gays and lesbians throughout the country are still battling our Byzantine legislative system in order to be granted equal rights under the law. Fifty years ago, this was the situation of blacks, and “nigger” occupied the same space that “faggot” occupies now. And yet, somehow, users of the word don’t realize that they are going to become the worst kind of anachronism — as embarrassing to future generations as users of “nigger” are to most Americans now.

If you’ve ever said the word “faggot” and thought nothing of it try saying the word “nigger” out loud. First try it in your room by yourself. When you’re confident enough, try it out in a group. When someone does something embarrassing, call them a nigger. This advice is, of course, absurd. Most of you will think it inappropriate and, more deeply, wrong.

Issue 24, Submitted 2010-04-28 02:14:06