Patricia Nell Warren

"Faggots" and "Queers"

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | September 08, 2007 2:13 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: LGBTQ, offensive, queer, slurs

Re the Jerry Lewis "faggot" slur:

Lewis should have known better. TV footage shows that he knew he'd offended the moment the word came out of his mouth. But my concern here is for the confusing climate that some in the LGBT community have created around epithet usage. We can't have it both ways. We can't tell heterosexual Americans that it's okay to call us "queers," and then scream in protest when somebody calls us "faggots."

In my opinion, a massively mixed message is being sent about what we consider a slur. For many decades, we viewed "queer" and "faggot" as fighting words when uttered by homophobes. We've also bandied both words among ourselves, "in the family," and find them unoffensive - even amusing -- when used that way.

African Americans have the same challenge with the "n" word and other racist slurs. They bandy those words in the family too. But the black community is smarter than we are - they make it clear to the world that ALL the racist fighting words, including the "n" word, are off limits for non-African-American and "mainstream" usage.

In recent years some of us lengthened the time-honored acronym to LGBTQ. Some translate Q as "questioning," but most see it as "queer." The fact is, a number of influential community people have pushed to mainstream the word "queer." Publishers Weekly and other book-trade pubs now report on "queer literature." Mainstream academia now feels safe with "queer culture," "queer film," "queer music," "queer studies." There are queer youth organizations, queer sports alliances, etc. etc.

So I have an idea. Let's kick the acronym up a notch and make it LGBTQF. How does "faggot film festival" sound? "Faggot studies?" "Faggot football"? It doesn't sound so good, huh? I rest my case. And I suggest that we go back to holding the line on ALL the fighting words. In these incendiary times, where violent actions often follow violent words, it might be a smart strategy.

Copyright © 2007 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

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I've always thought the best way to think of it is the way Leslie Feinberg gave hir take when I saw hir speak. Leslie defined "Queer", with a capital "Q" as referring to the taken identity, while "queer" with a small "q" as referring to the slur.

I believe it's important to be careful when talking about words which can be accepted as descriptors of one's identity not to invalidate anyone's personal choices just because some may find them aesthetically unpleasing. For many in our community, especially youth, identities like "Queer", "genderqueer", and such are chosen and preferred ways of defining themselves publicly.

As a transwoman who completely redefined my own identity to my liking when I came out a decade ago, I'm loathe to deny that freedom to others simply because a given label has different connotations to myself or to others than to the person who takes that word as what they feel to be an accurate identity for themselves.

To be honest, While I really don't have an issue with "Queer", even though I heard it frequently used as a slur growing up, I still bristle today at being called a "faggot", not as much because it's so commonly used as a slur as because it's not a word I choose to describe myself with.

I think there's a lot to be said for freedom of choice in self-labelling. After all, how can we credibly demand that right for ourselves if we're ok with limiting the right of others to do the same?

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | September 8, 2007 4:18 PM

And here I thought I was all by my lonesome in my own previously expressed sQueamishness. Quick: Where do I order her books?

Patricia Nell Warren responds to the comment:

Nobody is more respectful of personal choice than I anyone knows who has read all my commentaries. I've stood for personal choice and informed consent on everything from free speech to medical matters. In the LGBT world, people can and should label themselves any way they choose.

My question is whether it's wise to let outsiders feel free to label us with the loaded old a reactionary time when violent actions so often follow violent words.

I admittedly have a bias here -- I grew up in a mid-century Montana where any man who came to be labelled "queer" was quietly dragged behind the barn and horsewhipped, or worse...where any woman about whom there was a gossipy breath of "queer" was ostracized from society. These words have a long toxic history, and I question whether any amount of courageous individual public identifying by us will ever detoxify these words for general positive usage, or make society safer for us. Violent crimes against us are still often committed by people who hurl the "q" word, with the only exception that today these crimes SOMETIMES (not always, unfortunately) make major headlines and are adequately addressed by the justice system.

Violent crimes are also still committed against black people by those who hurl the "n" word...which is precisely why the black community has drawn a line in the sand on general usage for that word.

Not to disrespect anyone's opinion here, but I'd put "queer" at the same offensiveness level as "gay". So like, if we're going to tell straight people to stop calling us "queer", I think it would be a mixed message not to make them stop calling us "gay" as well.

Honestly, I find the word "homosexual" offensive, but "queer" has always been such an expansive and academic and affirming word for me. The words "homo" and "gay" (as in "that's so gay") are words that I'm more likely to see as offensive.

I don't think it's too hard for straight people to figure out that "faggot" is off limits. And I don't even know if Jesse, the young boy Lewis referred to as "fag-", is gay or queer or bi or anything besides straight, he probably wasn't. He was just using it as an insult, and, to me, whether it's "gay" or "homo" or "queer" or "fag" or whatever, if it's used as an insult, it becomes a slur.

Is there an answer? Is there a solution that'll work for everyone? Probably not, which is why I'll always save the terms "confirmed bachelor" and "Sapphist" for those specific occasions where nothing else works.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | September 8, 2007 6:18 PM

I suspect that the sensitivity to the "Q-word" (or the "q-word", following Rebecca's comment above) breaks mostly along generational lines. A quick check on the Wikopedia article on Patricia Nell Warren indicates she's a couple of years older than me in my late 60's (No Wikopedia entries under my belt, though, guess I need to write that book.....on the use of the term, maybe?). It would be interesting to see if there is a particular "transition year" on attidudes.

I suspect a lot of the perceieved meanings of these words, both within and without our own community, are regionally based. For example, I've heard "That's so gay!" more times than I count, and have had "faggot" directed toward me as a slur as recently as just a few weeks ago, but I can't remember the last time I've heard "queer" used in the same way.

I live in suburban Central New Jersey, and I'm quite sure it's different in less progressive areas of the country, or even just in areas where the local parlance has simply evolved differently. At the same time, however, I also believe that context is key here and can often make all the difference when assessing motive behind the use of these words.

When I participated in a group discussion for transgender-identified people in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, I was a bit taken aback at how aggressively defended the use or even non-use of some words were by those who choose to identify themselves with them. When I referred to a young masculine-appearing transperson, who appeared to me to be a transsexual person transitioning from female to male, and referred to them as an "FTM", I was roundly chastised by many in the group for doing so because this person had chosen to exclusively define hirself as "genderqueer" and completely rejected the use of "male" or "female" and, therefore, the "FTM" label as well, as valid descriptors of hir gender, as did many of the other participants.

It was explained to me in no uncertain terms that these young people considered themselves to be outside of these traditional gender definitions, and they refused to be defined as either or even both by anyone. I responded that while I certainly respected their right to self-define in any way they chose, I was also confused as to how to refer to them in the course of our conversation using gendered pronouns, would they prefer to be referred to as "he", "she", or what.

Some of them asked me to use genderless pronouns such as "hir" and "ze". I did give it my best effort, but as it was my first time using these pronouns I made frequent mistakes. At one point, I asked those in the group who identified in this way how they believed they could realistically expect these terms to be used by others, particularly by those outside of the trans community, when even many within our own community still had trouble with them. All I got in response to that question were a flurry of angry declarations that they had the right to define themselves however chose and if I or anyone else didn't refer to them in accordance with their wishes that it would be considered offensive.

For all my own lack of understanding of these genderless identities, one point stood out for me which I couldn't help but acknowledge as valid:

They had the right to define themselves as they chose to, and they expected those identities to be respected.

What I think perhaps some of those young transpeople learned that day was that even in as supporting and affirming an environment as a community discussion group, as people who chose to define themselves in ways not commonly understood or utilized by most it was incumbent upon them to educate others in what these definitions mean and how they are used before they could reasonably expect them to be respected and utilized outside of their own circles.

I believe there's a fair amount of corrolary here. Education has been done and had a significant impact on many parts of the greater American society in the non-offensive use of the words "Queer" and "dyke", similar to the redefinition of the N-word within African-American culture, hence their increasingly common usage at colleges and universities, as well as in community-relevant media. On the other hand, the word "faggot" is still very much in its infancy in this process and is still perceived by most people outside of our own community and by many within it as derogatory and offensive.

Personally, I doubt we'll see the same kind of social and cultural understanding and usage of "faggot" that we're now seeing with "Queer" and "dyke" anytime soon. It just doesn't seem to have the same kind of cultural "legs" in this regard nor easily lend itself to the kind of dual definitions "Queer", "dyke", and the N-word now enjoy in popular culture. I really don't know why that is, but I do think it probably has a lot to do with the way these words are commonly used and understood in our larger urban centers and in our own community culture and media.

As a writer who has used "Queer" myself quite often as an alternative to the LGBT and GLBT acronyms, I'd like nothing better than to see "Queer" and "dyke" completely evolve past their negative connotations. I believe that as our language, culture, and the media reflecting them evolve past the usages of these words which are seen as disparaging and hateful, so too will the greater American culture move away from those perceptions of us and our identities as well.

At least, we can hope so, anyway.

Being called queer as a label of who we are is one thing like being called gay. Calling someone faggot, or queer for that matter, is different and is more calling them WHAT they are rather than who. Calling someone a name, that describes what rather than who, of any variety, has its origin in being hurtful. Lewis, calling him a faggot was not a lable for who he was talking about but rather a derogatory term that is meant to be hurtful. I think more than his intent to be hurtful, Lewis was just thoughtless. I always think it seems like hes drunk off his ass anyway..

So I have an idea. Let's kick the acronym up a notch and make it LGBTQF. How does "faggot film festival" sound? "Faggot studies?" "Faggot football"? It doesn't sound so good, huh? I rest my case.

There are people who either do or have identified as faggots. Possibly some contributors to this blog and certainly elsewhere in the world. Although I doubt any of them would find power in "pushing to mainstream the word".

I have posted before that "context is everything."

Even the "line in the sand" that Patricia points out for African-Americans has its modern exceptions. Remember the lyrics to the chorus of Randy Newman's song "Rednecks"?:

We're rednecks! We're rednecks!
Don't know our ass from a hole in the ground
We're rednecks! We're rednecks!
And we're keepin' the niggers down!

Now, last time I looked, Randy Newman was Caucasian --- yet the lyrics above did not cause black people to riot or demand that the record be pulled from the music store shelves, the pro-civil rights meaning behind the lyrics is so unmistakeably obvious.

The same principles of context apply to the "queer/faggot" controversy --- is it really that difficult to tell who are our friends and who are our enemies?

It is simpleminded to hold that everyone who uses the word "faggot" must be our enemy and everyone who avoids it must be our friend. I don't think Jerry Lewis, octagenarian that he may be, is out to be our enemy, or to offend us ... I think he made a momentary slip of the tongue in an effort at humor that he immediately realized belonged to an era long past.

Unfortunately, I have "bad audio tapes" floating around in my own psyche as well. When I was growing up in a racist, all-white rural area of southern Indiana, the white adult male farmworkers would call large field rocks "niggerheads". Of course, this term is and always was racist, and I would never use it in today's world ... but unfortunately, sometimes if I'm walking through a freshly plowed field and I see a six-inch rock, a little voice inside my head says, "That's the type of rock my dad used to call a n----rhead." It's a form of psychic pollution. I also have "bad audio tapes" floating in my head regarding "queer" and "faggot" ... and I bet many other readers of this blog do, too. (Sounds like maybe Don Sherfick might have a few. Don?)

Of course, such speech should not be accepted or tolerated in deliberate usage, but we should not call for the guillotine if it surfaces accidentally and very occasionally. Setting ourselves up as the "PC police", incapable of the slightlest forgiveness, is just as extremist and dogmatic as many of the "intolerables" that come out of fundamentalist religions. The fundamentalist Muslims might riot when a Danish newspaper publishes a cartoon about the Prophet Muhammad, but such a social response is a form of idiocy. I am not going to riot just because an elderly comedian slipped and rather innocently used the word "faggot".

Now ... if Tony Dungy uses the word "faggot" I might not only be joining the protest, but leading it.

P.S. While we are looking at historical examples, we might also recall that Larry Kramer wrote a novel titled, "Faggots" --- exactly the type of "mixed message" that Patricia speaks of. Were the GLBTQ-XYZ PC police asleep at the switch that year?

I think you're on to something, Allen. My parents were both small-town racist - not the whole "Burn a cross" racist, but more of the "I've never lived around anyone non-white so I have no idea what 'those people' are really like" racist. That psychic pollution you speak of is potent and always present for me too.

I catch myself with it at really odd moments. The racist thought pops in my head before I know it and I can immediately realize that it's coming from childhood. I've given myself some really strong talking-to's to try and help drum out the old stereotypes and racism. So if it happens to me occasionally - as vigilant as I am - I'm willing to cut Jerry Lewis (who may even be older than Dick Clark! *gasp*) a break.

I love to be called a faggot and a queer.I never would give in to my wants until i was 58 now you can call me anything as long as it is gay

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