I know how triggering this word can be. I know about the hatred that often comes with this word. I hear it on campus, and its sound projected down 24th Street makes my ears harden, my brain feel numb, my feet move faster. I can feel the blood pulsing in and out of the valves of my heart. When a guy yells to his bud across the street, “Daniel’s a faggot!!” somehow I am simultaneously frozen and fleeing the scene as fast as possible.
Something inside of me is urging me to write about this complex word. It keeps coming up in my life. The encounter I mentioned between Daniel and his bud happened two weeks ago. Then last week, I heard it on 24th Street, again from a (seemingly straight) guy referring to his friends approaching from the opposite direction. He called out to them, “Hey, you fags!” The same sense of panic filled my body. And two days ago, I was walking to my car on campus, and in front of me there were two young teenage boys walking with an adult man (probably a dad). One of the boys was talking to the other about how their coach always calls them faggots, and I could hear them snicker as I passed by. The adult was silent.
Earlier this week, a UT RTF alumnus and internet acquaintance of mine created and posted a video response to Azealia Banks’ use of the f-word toward Perez Hilton, calling him “a messy faggot”. I know, you’re probably thinking, “wasn’t that like two months ago?” Yes, it was, but both BuzzFeed and the Advocate picked up on the fellow Longhorn’s new video, and therefore it was in my news feeds. His video is by no means perfect. He’s white, and a lot people have pointed out the privilege he has. One commenter wrote, “It’s still just another white guy telling a black woman what she should or shouldn’t say.” Yes, and at least he’s talking about it?
Then, just today, I read an op-ed piece on the Advocate’s website about the importance of context in the use of faggot and the n-word, prompted by Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained. Note: as a white person, I do not believe I have the power to subversively use the n-word and spell it out. Maybe if we were sitting around a table having a group discussion where you could read my body language, look in to my eyes, and know I was coming from a good and safe place, maybe then I could say the word. But I really don’t know. It’s hard to negotiate or know when one should or shouldn’t use certain words. Nevertheless, the author of this op-ed writes about an interview between a white reporter and Samuel L. Jackson to promote Django Unchained. At one point the reporter tries to initiate a conversation about the n-word (which fills the script of this film) with Jackson, but Jackson refuses to answer unless the reporter actually uses the word. The reporter declines, and they move on to another question. But, as the Advocate author points out, what if the reporter used the word and then the two of them had had a great conversation about the complexities and issues around such language?
How can we learn about the word faggot if we remain silent or only talk about how “triggering” it is. We have to talk about why it is upsetting, when it is upsetting. We have to consider context. When we live in a society whose language and meanings around words are changing literally daily, we should also be willing to consider new ways of thinking about such words and their prescribed or potentially new meanings.
This doesn’t mean that what those straight frat guys said on campus a couple of weeks ago wasn’t troubling to me. It was. But why? Why do I even have this idea that faggot is a bad word? Well, society told me that it is, but who decided that and how? And who can decide if I use it or not? Who can decide if Azealia uses it? No one. However, we should be mindful of when we use it and to whom and in what setting. I don’t endorse Azealia uses of faggot thus far. However, I think she may be onto something. There is this unspoken social contract that if someone is going to use the word without ill manner, that the person has to be a gay man. What if a bisexual woman uses it? That could be interesting. Of course, Azealia would have to start by not using it to name-call people other than herself. I think that’s when it becomes problematic in our current culture.
Some people have been tortured with hateful language over many years, while others are hearing it for the first time. How do you draw the line between when you should talk about the word or use it, and when you shouldn’t? Maybe there’s no line to draw. Maybe it’s just a scary, ever-changing gradient. I don’t know.
What I think it really boils down to is leaving room for meaningful and productive conversations around language within the LGBTQ community. I get upset about the word faggot, but I also subvert mainstream culture’s use of it, referring to myself as a fag or using it in my artwork. It can be empowering to take back what is used against you, and it’s also a delicate process to do so.