On the Word "Faggot"

(Flickr/Lisa Monster)

Rabble-rouser and sex columnist Dan Savage has a corner of the gay blogosphere clutching its pearls over his use of the word "faggot" to describe members of GOProud, the gay Republican group that endorsed Mitt Romney last week:


GOProud supporters shot back, attacking Savage for being a "bully," and now the gay commentariat is debating the use of the word "faggot."

Let me say first that I'm no huge fan of Dan Savage, whose moral absolutism I find grating. And while I think it's good that there are people on the right fighting for LGBT inclusion, it's baffling that GOProud supports politicians like Mitt Romney who are antagonistic to their interests.

But I think it's a bad idea for gay-rights supporters to go on a crusade against the word "faggot," which in Savage's case seems little more than a mocking barb.

I'm not saying that having it hurled at someone who's gay as a slur is acceptable. I've been called a "faggot" for holding hands with my husband while walking down the street, and it never fails to get my goat. But, paradoxically, locking it up in the taboo box only amplifies its talismanic power.

Like all words, "faggot" has no inherent meaning. Despite the fixed definition grammarians would like to ascribe to it, as long as the word remains in the lexicon, its semantics are under constant negotiation, shaped by the innumerable conversations in which it appears. When gay friends call each other "fag" as a term of affection or call something "fagtastic" (this was at an Adele concert), it stretches the meaning. Enough stretching and the semantics shift decisively, which is what happens with all words in a living language; they are redefined by their use, and speakers are by nature innovative.

This process isn't usually intentional, but sometimes it is. Perhaps the most famous case of conscious "reappropriation"—instead of letting semantics just shift on their own—is the word "queer," which was used as a slur until the early 1990s. Around that time, various members of the gay community started using the word to describe themselves in an attempt to "reclaim" it. Today, universities have "queer studies departments"; we have organizations like "Queer Nation" and "Queers for Economic Justice"; and a popular gay site called "Queerty." It's even become a verb: Recent ads from the Gay and Lesbian Task Force encourage members of the gay community to help "queer the census." Today, even people outside of the gay-rights movement can respectfully refer to "queer politics."

But most of the time, the meaning of a word changes on its own, dragged in different directions by the culture.

There is of course the issue of who gets to use the word "faggot." Is it only gay people? Is it their friends, too? On this point I'd say the identity of the speaker is less important than the context in which it's used—if it's not used to demean, go for it. Having the term in broad use, of course, will lead to it being used, occasionally, as a slur. But I think that's the price we pay for linguistic freedom: Language will be used to express hatred and prejudice that already exists in the culture. I think that's where—in our public discourse, in conversations—we should deal with the homophobia; homophobia exists in society, not in language. Suppressing use of the word "faggot" does not, unfortunately, rid us of the idea behind it. 

Taking a word out of circulation has the effect of stopping its evolution, freezing it in time, and shielding it from the cultural forces that morph its meaning. I'd rather have the term bandied about—used humorously in news headlines, on blogs, in the Twitterverse, and among friends—than to have it be unspeakable until the moment someone, breaking social convention, decides to let it out of the box.


I have long suggested that one possible to heal our language would be to required the use of all the racial, sexual, etc. epithets, causing them to lose their power. Once a word becomes the default, it can no longer be used to insult or demean.

Humanity being what it is, we'd probably just select new terms of opprobrium and condescension.

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