I was at a party where my partner and I were destroying the other team during a game of beer pong. We were already ahead by a couple of cups, when I made my third cup in a row and earned the ball back for my “on fire” shot. Just as the other team rolled the ball towards our end of the table so that I could take my shot, that’s when I heard it.
“Faggot,” he said under his breath. I wasn’t sure if he knew that I could hear him from across the table. But something about the word is just so startling that almost anyone’s ears would perk up at the sound of it. A scowl formed on my face. I shot him daggers with my eyes.
“What did you just say?”
It’s when third-grade boys want to make fun of each other on the elementary playground. “Stop being such a fag.”
A fratstar chokes up while shotgunning a beer so his friend makes a jab. “You’re such a little fag.”
When a guy gets too in touch with his emotions and says something too personal, he gets called out. “Don’t be a fag now.”
The word faggot has definitely been around for a while, starting off as meaning a bundle of twigs. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first citation of the word being used as slang and in reference to a male homosexual was in 1914. Today, faggot (often shortened to just fag) is understood to be a derogative term usually meaning an effeminate gay man.
But looking at when the word faggot is tossed around, it’s not always used against a guy who likes other guys. Men who want to make fun of other guys commonly use it to put each other down; it’s used to call each other a name for the sake of name-calling or to call one another out for showing some sort of feminine or weak qualities. This isn’t the first way homosexuality has been used as a way to negatively connote something. Remember the also ever-so popular phrase in middle school of “that’s gay” when people really meant stupid or lame? Although these types of insults have mostly been stripped of their connections to sexuality and have become words simply used as slurs, there still needs to be a discussion about them.
Some LGBT organizations, such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, have taken strong opposition to the use of the word fag. In the South Park episode “The F-Word,” the children of South Park decide they want to change the meaning of the word fag from gay people to inconsiderate bikers who drive around city, an attempt by the episode's writers to critique its fleeting meaning. GLAAD released a statement shortly after the episode aired acknowledging the attempt to comment on LGBT issues, but reinforced their stance that the slur’s meaning “remains rooted in homophobia.” The organization has also been quick to call out athletes who have used the word publicly. While the athletes were reifying the problematic use of the word, I didn’t quite see anything wrong with South Park’s episode. And not too long ago one of my gay friends told me I was being really “faggy” when I was freaking out over how good I thought Ke$ha’s new album was. I didn’t take any offense to that. So it was OK in those two moments, but not when the guy was pissed I was kicking his ass at beer pong. Then what’s different if all these situations are using the taboo of fag?
According to Gregory Ward, a professor of linguistics in Weinberg who teaches the class Language & Sexuality, it’s all about the context. “Everything linguistic depends on the situation, especially when there are social consequences. I don’t have a categorical bad or good for every word,” Ward said. So, can using the word fag be acceptable? Yes, most definitely. But like many other epithets that have been reclaimed by the groups that were once subjugated by the word, a large part of using them is whether or not you have license.
Take words like bitch or the n-word, which were terms rooted deep in the historical discrimination against women and blacks respectively. Both have been reappropriated from their original use. Bitch is a word that's used fairly often nowadays, used as a term of empowerment by women or jest. Take a look at Bitch magazine, a publication dedicated to feminist ideas. Or the idea of a Head Bitch In Charge. With the n-word, its variation "nigga" has become a lexicon commonly found in rap and hip-hop music. In this sphere, it is not necessarily deregatory and can even be understood as affectionate while being used within an in-group setting. Once words that were to never be spoken because of the history of discrimination against women and blacks, fag is in a similar situation.
“The idea is ‘we’re going to use it ourselves.’ It removes some of its power. Instead of it being a secret word, it’s defrayed by using it with frequency and using it with pride. Pride in taking a word that’s been a put-down. Taking some pride in our differences. Sure we’re queer, but there’s nothing wrong with it," Ward said.
Honestly, there is a culture that bonds gay men together. Our love for dancefloor music is only backed by the fact that many divas of pop have long been supporters of gay rights. We can be head over heels for a boy, just as any person can be over someone they're attracted to. There's even gayslang propagated by this culture. These attributes aren't universal for every single member of the community, but there is truth behind these generalizations. This is when we can be fags. When we're dancing to a Kylie Minogue remix. When the boy you've been pining over finally texts you back and your heart's thumping. When we can call each other fags or faggy because we're comfortable with who we are and because we're over the epithet being used by those that aren't using it right.
At the end of the day, the word fag isn’t going to disappear, and making a blanket statement that it’s always wrong to say the word isn’t the approach we need to take. As a gay community, we need to take the word back. To make it our own and use it as a reminder of our past struggles as a community. To commit to the work that still needs to be done and to just use it freely with a light heart. And for those outside of the gay community, they need to be educated on the context of the word. Instead of it being an empty insult, they need to understand who is permitted to use it and what the purpose is in doing so.
Coming back to that game of beer pong. The guy was obviously using it as a put-down, to discourage me. As a straight male, he had no license to use faggot. His purpose was to create disturbance. And with me fagging out to Ke$ha’s album? Yeah, maybe I was being pretty gay and my friend was letting me know that. But you know what, it’s okay to be absurdly gay. You be as gay as you want. Take pride in that.
Be the biggest fag you want to be.