Eric Marcus

Re-Branding “Faggot”

Filed By Eric Marcus | January 16, 2008 12:01 AM | comments

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The early 1990’s effort to re-brand “queer” always struck me as well-meaning, but misguided. (Okay, in the interest of straight talk, I thought it was stupid.)

In an era when newscasters were just beginning to get comfortable using “gay,” rather than “homosexual,” young activists (whom I admired for their audacity and energy) decided it was time for a change. Let’s embrace a word that’s been used against us, they said, thereby removing its sting and transform it into a powerful, positive all-purpose term that includes gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, “queer straights,” etc.

Nearly twenty years later no major gay rights organization uses the word “queer” as part of its name. And even when LGBT is extended to include the letter “Q,” it most often stands for “questioning youth.” These days you’re most likely to see the word used at institutions of higher learning, as in “Queer Studies.” And it’s still used playfully on the margins (see www.queerballroom.com).

It turns out that taking a word whose definition is negative and turning it into a positive is a very steep, if not impossible, climb. That’s especially true when a majority of the people who are supposed to embrace the word don’t.

But how about taking a negative word that’s been hurled at us for decades—and still is—and modifying its definition to take the focus off us and place it on those who deserve public scorn?

A little background: When I was fourteen I went to a summer camp where baseball was a critical part of the daily activities. I was bad at baseball. I loved arts and crafts. That meant I was a faggot, at least by the standards of my fellow campers and that’s what they called me. They made me cry. I wished them dead. I hated the word. Still do.

My experience is hardly isolated. Few gay men have escaped the word’s sting and these days “faggot” is often used, especially by high-school students (and a certain conservative commentator), as an all-purpose put-down meant to suggest that the target of the epithet is weak, pathetic, and/or less than a man.

A few weeks back when I was reading about the unfolding baseball steroid scandal it occurred to me that the real faggots were the professional baseball players who injected steroids and so were the team owners who looked the other way. And by “faggot” I mean that they’re greedy, weak-willed liars and cheaters.

But if we’re going to shift the meaning of “faggot,” why stop at greedy, weak-willed liars and cheaters? Let’s also include bullies, torturers, and those who set government policy that allows torture. By my definition that means the President and Vice President are also faggots. And so is Ann Coulter (why limit “faggot” just to men?).

Can homosexuals still be faggots? Of course, but not by definition. They have to earn it just like everyone else. For example, an elected politician who is gay and closeted and votes for anti-gay legislation is a faggot. (I’m tempted to say that Larry Craig is a faggot, but he’s so pathetic that I feel sorry for him and for that reason see no reason to call him names.)

So at the start of this New Year, I’m taking nominations for potential inductees to my newly inaugurated Faggot Hall of Fame. It’s an annual award that will go to the one person who best embodies all of the lovely qualities I’ve ascribed to the word faggot. I nominate George W. Bush. I’ll post all the nominations (public figures only, please, and one nomination per person) in my next column. In addition to submitting your nomination, please explain the reasons for your choice (in no more than three lines).


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I'm sorry, but I disagree with this. Words and epithets hurt, and "faggot," "bitch," "dyke," and some ugly racial ones only serve to alienate one person from another. Names like this depersonalize, and make it easier to hate. I think there is already way too much hatred in the world. There are better and smarter ways to show disapproval than this.

"A few weeks back when I was reading about the unfolding baseball steroid scandal it occurred to me that the real faggots were the professional baseball players who injected steroids and so were the team owners who looked the other way. And by “faggot” I mean that they’re greedy, weak-willed liars and cheaters.

But if we’re going to shift the meaning of “faggot,” why stop at greedy, weak-willed liars and cheaters? Let’s also include bullies, torturers, and those who set government policy that allows torture. By my definition that means the President and Vice President are also faggots. And so is Ann Coulter (why limit “faggot” just to men?).

OMG

You're a writer and you don't understand this concept? You can't just take a word and apply it randomly. Language is communal. It's an agreed understanding of the meaning of words. Language is both vertical and horizointal. It's a chain and it has to connect to make sense. It's not random or arbitrary. Consult the critic and theorist Ferdinand de Saussure. Here's a place to start.

As I mentioned in another post, language does change over time. Consult the OED.

Good luck.

"I'm sorry, but I disagree with this. Words and epithets hurt, and "faggot," "bitch," "dyke," and some ugly racial ones only serve to alienate one person from another. Names like this depersonalize, and make it easier to hate. I think there is already way too much hatred in the world. There are better and smarter ways to show disapproval than this."

I couldn't agree more.

If you accept that changing the meaning of queer was a complete failure, why would you attempt to follow that formula to deal with the f word? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – that’s exactly what you are proposing.

If you look at the N word you can see that attempts to change its meaning have just resulting in increasing numbers of people feeling empowered to use the word.

Instead we should be sending the message to the media that printing the word or saying the word in any context even as a joke is unacceptable. It takes time but eventually it trickles down to the point where even among a group of straight people at a bar if one utters the word the others are so uncomfortable they will scold them, ending the cycle.

It turns out that taking a word whose definition is negative and turning it into a positive is a very steep, if not impossible, climb. That’s especially true when a majority of the people who are supposed to embrace the word don’t.

But how about taking a negative word that’s been hurled at us for decades—and still is—and modifying its definition to take the focus off us and place it on those who deserve public scorn?

A generational thing, I suppose. Since the rebranding effort began in the early 90's, I'll admit that I have no recollection of a time when "queer" was mainly used as an insult (every now and then, but I heard "faggot", "gay", and "homo" a lot more on the schoolyard). Now it's just a quart of the title of "Queer Duck: The Movie", half of "queer theory", and all of me! :)

Faggot rebranding? Kinda already started with defenses of the art of faggotry, etc. Definitely not as popular as queer, but there's a little effort. Yours sounds more like the Advocate's "Sissy Awards", which Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore posted about here.

I think that we're better and would do better at taking a negative word and making it positive than we would just hurling it at another group of people. I think we're cool/nice that way.

I know, I know, generational divide and everything. I can respect that other people don't like the word "queer", just as I can respect that some people don't like "gay", "straight", "bisexual", etc. etc. That's the whole point of queer identity, isn't it, choosing to represent yourself as you want?

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | January 16, 2008 7:29 AM

As one who'se lightly bantered with Alex Blace on these web pages concerning the pros and cons of "queer", I nonetheless have to agree with the above two comments. Some words, I'm afraid, get so associated with particlar targets and produce such negative reactions and outright harm that they simply need to be discouraged. Their use, even with good intentions to label folks who deserve some verbal ostracism, would seem to simply reinforce everything they have come to stand for. Somehow I think that nominating George Bush for "N-word of the year" would not set well at all with many people for many reasons.

(Now the word "stupid"....well......maybe there's a possibility.)

I agree with Alex,

It may be a generational thing with the reclaiming of queer. And I disagree slightly with your analysis of the word queer. Queer isn't just an umbrella term for lesbians, gays, bis, and trans peeps (a side note: does anybody else find LGBT absolutely absurd?!)

Queer is an alternative identification used for political and social organizing that is used to compete with our system of identity politics, even those identities within the "LGBT" community. Queers resist the notion of fixity. Fixed sex, fixed gender, fixed sexuality... it's all a grand social misrepresentation created to establish the hierarchal system of identities that we currently live in. But... if identities become unfixed, ill-defined, and indistinct, the system collapses on itself.

When I recently mentioned to a group of straight friends that I had once hooked up with a lesbian, and that it was the hottest experience of my life... they were shocked. But then the first thing they needed to do was to reclassify me as bisexual. To reclassify me is to put me in another box so that the little insurance company in the back of our heads can attempt to predict my actions based on stereotypes promulgated throughout society. To classify is to make one more stable, more predictable, and less dangerous. And hey... I like being dangerous. Fear me heteropatriarchy! Hear my roar!

*meow*

Of course it's generational. And it's understandable why there are still the hurt feelings.

But from a linquistic view it's perfectly logical.

Also: A friend once explained to me that part of the shift in meaning in the "n" word is the change in suffix (from -er to -a) which grammatically changes the meaning as well as the communal/generational understanding of the word.

Eric: I felt my response earlier seemed a little harsh. Quite honestly, I'm really surprised at this piece. I rarely agree with you, but you seem a reasonable enough person. Anyway, I wanted to clarify it a bit.

You start by saying that you think the reclaiming of the word "Queer" as an affirming term is "stupid." As I pointed out in my last comment, linquistically, it makes perfect sense. Language is communal. It's an agreed understanding of the meaning of words. Language is both vertical and horizointal. It's a chain and it has to connect to make sense. Any other words, if we as a community (or even a subset of the community-- i.e, youth) agree that this is the meaning of the word then it is the meaning of the word due to our agreed understanding. Saussure uses law as an example: We agree to abide by them, they are not arbitrary. Certainly, you can (as your example of reclaiming the word as you do suggests) "break the law," but the consequences are, for most, undersirable. There is also the example of foreign languages: As Alex once told me-- in French the term for "hang over" literally translates in English as "morning wood," which, of course, means something else in English. Each community agrees to the meaning of the term and that agreement sustains the meaning.

I suppose you could as an individual assign your own meaning to a word but it wouldn't hold up. If you tell me you have a cat but it's really your dog you just choose arbitrarily to call it your cat, you could do that but what good would it achieve?

Similarly, it really bothered me that you seem to feel it would be all right to, of your own volition, take a term you, based on your own painful experience of it, view as pejorative and use it in a pejorative manner toward others that you don't care for. Two wrongs, as they say, don't make a right (but two rights do make a left). The fact that you would imply that this would even hypothetically be right surprises me because I know so many in our community hold you in such high regard as a writer and community representative.

Best.

R~ Not morning wood, but "wood mouth". It was just a funny French kid trying to speak English who said "morning wood".

At everyone~ I think that the faggot reclamation was trying to point to an absurd parallel situation to bring light to how he feels about the reclamation of queer, just as Patricia Nell Warren posted back in September using the same hypothetical situation.

I said then what I still think now, this whole thing starts and ends with respect for other people's reactions and uses of language.

This reminds me of a Mattilda post from a while ago:

No need to track whether I was a feminist before a freak, a freak before queer, queer before faggot. I know this all took a while, that each layer makes the other, that none of this prepared me for the relentless dehumanization in gay male sexual spaces. Gay was never an identity I embraced, someone on the street would say are you gay? No, darling, I would say -- I'm a faggot.

I think that if we are going to have a communal change in language, though, it's probably going to have to start with something like a blog post (this is 2008, Maries).

That's probably why the faggot reclaiming (still not sure if it was a serious proposition, I know that when Patricia suggested it it was just there for comparison value) doesn't work for me - it doesn't start from a place of respect, like "queer" did.

Fannie~ You raise a good point. What happens if there's no more queer to the people in our activist, etc., community who aren't gay? What happens to the lesbians, the bisexuals, the trans-folk, etc, etc, if we can't use the alphabet soup or queer?

Will we have to get creative?

"I said then what I still think now, this whole thing starts and ends with respect for other people's reactions and uses of language.

My point exactly. To take a term used as a pejorative against you and use it as a pejorative against others is equally diosrepectful and achieves nothing except more discord.

And it is not the same as a community taking a term that is used as a pejorative against them and redefining it within their community as an affirmation. That is an act of defiance, reclamation and empowerment.

This post really pisses me off. And not just because it’s queerphobic and totally dismissive of people who are, you know, actual faggots. Because in case you didn’t realize there are both contributors and commenters on Bilicero who specifically identify as faggots.

No, it really pisses me off because it’s so fucking disengaged from the conversation. Mattilda already posted a piece about a similar idea used by the Advocate called the Sissy Awards, and it’s pretty clear to me that you didn’t read that. You also seem to have absolutely no basic understanding of what the word queer means (other than its use as an umbrella term), despite the fact that Jessica Hoffman’s excellent post on why she identifies as queer has been a Project Highlight for months.

You are not engaging in dialogue. You are not furthering the conversation. You are ignorant of what has been written and discussed about this subject here on Bilerico and elsewhere.

I considered the possibility that this post is a satirical attempt to show us the absurdity of using the word queer. If so, it is a failed attempt – especially considering that this idea is already being used (ie: the Sissy Awards). That'd be like writing a Modest Proposal when children are already being used as food.

I would have to agree with Nick before me, although I will not emanate the same anger. I am a young queer female--and yes, I am a young queer woman. Operative term: queer . All of my friends that are gay or trans identify as queer as well. To our peers, the word queer has been reclaimed and branded (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, QueerCents, etc.), thus, it no longer suggests the negative stigma that you are suggesting.

For my generation, queer is a substitute for LGBT because we feel that being queer doesn't carry the same luggage that gay and lesbian and other similar terms carry. My friends and I personally hate gay pride and lesbian pride and we feel that by identifying as queer we are almost pulling ourselves away from the rainbows. Queer is how we get around that sea of color and how we blend into society--but still loudly fighting for our rights (i.e. marriage equality, ending don't ask, don't tell, etc.) .

As for faggot, I don't think that we should ever attempt to reclaim that word. I personally have a huge problem with it and I don't think that I could ever become truly comfortable with it. I actually find your post a little offensive in regards of the liberality with which you use the word. I am okay with reclaiming "dyke" and "queer," however, "faggot" is where I have to draw the line.

Reclaiming can work, and queer is a great example of it. Perhaps your generation isn't using queer to the proficiency you feel is adequate, but look younger. LGBT groups around the country have started to add two Qs--LGBTQQ--compensating for both queer and questioning.

I don't want to say do your research next time you make these claims, but, actually that's exactly what I want to say. I don't particularly like the word lesbian and what it has stood for, so yes I identify as queer because that is how I see myself in terms of my gender and sexual orientation--lesbian just doesn't do the trick for me.

Consider it next time.

What I find interesting is that the same folks who are demanding the right to call themselves "queer" proudly - a word that Don, for example, find utterly distasteful while condemning Eric for using the word "faggot" in almost the same manner.

While I can understand the "reclaim the word" mentality behind Eric's piece, I think that there is one critical difference: Queer activists seek to use "queer" as a positive term meaning that they are stepping outside of conventional boundaries while Eric's suggested use of "faggot" is meant in a derogatory manner.

I think that we're better and would do better at taking a negative word and making it positive than we would just hurling it at another group of people. I think we're cool/nice that way.

Ah, but that's much harder to do. Check out Jerame's "That's So Gay" open thread for more about using language to take a word and give it extra bad meanings through association.

What I find interesting is that the same folks who are demanding the right to call themselves "queer" proudly - a word that Don, for example, find utterly distasteful while condemning Eric for using the word "faggot" in almost the same manner.

How can you say that Eric is using faggot in "almost the same manner" as others use queer and then go on to say that there is a "critical difference" between the two. In my opinion, that critical difference means that the words are not being used in the same manner. Not even close actually.

And for the record I have no prolem with faggots labeling themselves faggots. I do have a problem with people like Eric using the fear of faggots to demonize people.

What I find interesting is that the same folks who are demanding the right to call themselves "queer" proudly - a word that Don, for example, find utterly distasteful while condemning Eric for using the word "faggot" in almost the same manner.

How can you say that Eric is using faggot in "almost the same manner" as others use queer and then go on to say that there is a "critical difference" between the two. In my opinion, that critical difference means that the words are not being used in the same manner. Not even close actually.

Exactly. Eric is not using the word in the same manner as the way folks now use Queer. He's using it negatively, just as str8 people do, which doesn't change anything and in fact makes it worse.

No, I understand that Ray and Nick. Perhaps I wasn't clear when I wrote the comment so early this morning! :)

My point was just that activists took queer and rebranded it to mean something else (positive in this situation). Folks like Don still aren't comfortable with that and despise the word for the negative connotations that it came with originally.

No with "faggot," I think the problem isn't so much how we change the word - positive or negative. I think most people are going to have problems with using the word for the negative connotation it comes with automatically.

That's why I threw in the "Eric's usage is different" part at the end. I apologize for any confusion.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | January 19, 2008 1:24 AM

Nearly twenty years later no major gay rights organization uses the word “queer” as part of its name.

Which is a big part of the reason why people like me, Fannie, Waverly and others identify as queer.

And I agree strongly with what Nick said. This piece is so off base it comes across as failed satire.

I too dislike the "new" meaning that Eric proposes we connect to "faggot" --- there are already other words that apply there, beginning with "hypocrite, cheater, liar" and getting worse from there.

However, I don't think that "faggot" should be relegated to total dis-use the same way that "respectable" non-racists have banished the N-word. I want the f-word available --- only to be used by "us" as queer/LGBT people, the way that only black rappers and comedians can get away with using the N-word --- in those rare instances where we wish to highlight the power, threat, and potential anger of the LGBT community --- Faggots may be human trash, but faggots (especially in large numbers) are threatening. We rarely are threatening in the sense that we will start a riot, but that has happened. More properly, there are times when we can accumulate to become a political threat --- one million angry faggots and dykes marching onto the Washington Mall is a threatening sight to Pat Robertson and James Dobson --- and, glory be to the Goddess, it should be!

Now that Eric has run this idea up the flagpole and no one saluted, let's move on without beating up on him any further. But I doubt the discussion about the use of the word "faggot" is over, because clearly even we in the queer/SGL/LGBT populace disagree on its proper-or-never-proper usage.