ABOUT STRAIGHT PEOPLE AND THE LANGUAGE OF THE WORD “FAG”

ABOUT STRAIGHT PEOPLE AND THE LANGUAGE OF THE WORD “FAG”

Reports recently emerged of Kendrick Lamar chastising a white fan – who the rapper invited to the stage to rap to his 2012 hit M.A.A.D city – for mentioning the N-word as she rapped. Following a conversation on this issue in the Facebook gay group I belong to, parallels were drawn between the sensitivity of African Americans to the N-word and that of gay people to the F-word.

Yes, talking about Kendrick Lamar and what white people don’t get about using the N-word opened up a conversation about what right straight people, allies they may be, have to call us “fags”, however much without spite they mean it to sound.

That conversation started when group member, Rapum, made the following post below:

 

RAPUM: My two best friends in university are straight men. We had – still have – each other’s backs, emotionally, financially. Sometimes, as a gay person faced with homophobia, you feel too vulnerable to react; in those moments, I have seen them step in, one of them, Boris, even chastising his girlfriend for saying that a movie we were all watching that centered on two gay men was disgusting. These are my people, with whom there is no inhibition. We josh around all the time, about sex and dating, and so it was not strange that one morning late last year, Boris said, “Faggot”, laughing. It was innocent, friendly, the same way we called one another “whore” and “mumu”. I did not feel bludgeoned by the word because there was no violence in his tone. There could never be. But I did feel a slight discomfort.

So I paused, and said, “You’re not allowed to use that word, Boris.” He looked at me, bemused. He was joking na, he said. The other friend, Ernie, who is a thoroughgoing advocate for gay rights, agreed with him, saying that if a relationship has been established and we all know that there is no malice in the usage, he saw no reason why the word cannot be used, for playing sake.

I insisted. Because their ‘coolness’ with and love for me does not exclude them from the system that has weaponized that word against me and people like me. I live the reality of that word daily, and they do not get to throw it around casually around because they mean no harm. It is an ugly word in their mouths. Simple. And they did not have my permission to use it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

 

And so, the comments and discourse began:

 

CHIEDOZIE: I completely agree with you.

DELLE: Yeah, because no matter how sympathetic and understanding and accepting and knowledgeable you are of the LGBT, if you’re not LGBT, you’re not. On that note, you’re not allowed to use words that naturally are sensitive to us. I agree.

PINK PANTHER: It is funny how people who argue against this minority sensitivity over the use of “faggot” and “nigga” by allies absolutely see no problem with women calling themselves “bitches” but will lecture a man who calls a woman a bitch even in jest. The minority that has been prejudiced with a word have the authority and prerogative over it. The person on the outside doesn’t. You just don’t. In much the same way you can’t fuck an ass or suck a dick no matter how cool you are with me, don’t also call me a fag, even if it comes with a smile. Some things just will never belong to you.

CHIEDOZIE: To put it crudely, you don’t get to use the word “faggot” save you’re a faggot. The word “faggot” has history and baggage, has been used as a tool for shaming and dehumanizing. In the wrong mouth, no matter how well-intentioned, it is a reinforcement of that history. Said by a faggot, it’s a reclamation and redefinition.

RAPUM: Preach it!

ABSALOM: If a straight person addresses a queer person as a fag or dyke, it would depend on who this straight person is to the queer person, what kind of relationship they have. It can’t be any random straight person; that would be highly suspect. This is where context matters. Rapum, I want to believe you know your friends well enough to know they do not mean the word in the wicked sense.

While I think reclamation is good, the rationale behind it isn’t fire-proof. You still leave plenty of room for offence, outrage and discomfort. To what end health-wise? We must be wary that in reclaiming anything – by keeping alive and relevant words which no one would miss should they die off – we’re not setting ourselves up for unnecessary hypertension. South Africa is wise to have banned the racist slur altogether for everyone.

I call myself fag sometimes, but it’s still a word with a terrible history that isn’t really ‘history’ yet; it’s still a present-day slur. Just like “bitch”. I can’t say the same for “nigger” which is only used in a reclamative sense these days. Maybe all oppressed people should interrogate these reclamation projects; we actually do NOT have to do it.

RAPUM: I agree that in reclaiming, we ought to interrogate ourselves. Like, why not abolish these traumatic words entirely? Fair point. But that conversation should be had by the people whom the words affect, not by some entitled jackass. If said people decide to keep it, to make a mockery of it and to exclude those in whose lips those words are weapons in its usage, that is entirely their decision and cannot be questioned by those who have used the word horribly.

Also, I do not agree that any straight person can call me a fag. I don’t care the relationship we have. Maybe it is okay for you but that word will always remind me of something unpalatable from my teenage years. The fact that I have this memory is enough to justify my refusal to consent. They are my friends, yeah, but they are not the ones who are wreaked by fear and anxiety whenever they want to meet a partner.

ABSALOM: You’re right. I’d be uncomfortable too if a straight person called me fag. The business of trying to figure out how he means it – or if he’s trivializing the darkness of the slur would wear me out. However, I’m not sure I want own the exclusionary right to use insulting words previously directed at me. That’s like giving the weaponized word a chieftaincy title.

And now that I think of it, I hereby reject the word “fag”.

RAPUM: I don’t use it often myself, I rarely do. I use “bitch” for my gurls instead (lol) but just to make a point.

IBK: I just thought a thought. Will a white person call his other white friends nigga? Will a straight man call his other straight friends a fag? Will a man call another man a bitch?

RAPUM: When they do, even as a joke, they do it to say that said person exhibits traits, negative traits, that are synonymous with the “original owners” of those slurs. It is never good.

IBK: Exactly. Ask your friends this. If they can allow or use those slurs fondly – that is, enter their friends’ room and say, “Sup bitches!” – then they should feel free to use the word faggot.

HENRIE: I struggle to judge people’s utterances based on their identities alone and nothing more. I struggle to create the dichotomy between a gay person calling me a faggot (irrespective of context and use, I’d be uncomfortable) and a straight person doing same precisely, based on their sexualities.

Quick questions: Do you suppose a gay person cannot use the word faggot in a derogatory manner ever? Would you feel the same if your friend had called you a homosexual (which I believe isn’t completely free of “baggage” yet)?

My position is, the first thing I’d look out for in the use of a slur is not a singular strict identity of the user, like their sex, race, religion, whatever. History might be collective and set in stone, but humans, acting individually, are more complex than that.

And yes, IBK, people call each other those words based on their relationship and the context. I’m surprised you’d even ask that. You don’t have a male friend who calls you bitch occasionally? I guess this might ultimately boil down to the individual(s) in question.

RAPUM: This is how people get poisoned, Henrie, by not judging utterances based on identities. Let’s get that one out of the way first.

PINK PANTHER: I’m confused. How does the word fag coming out of a gay person’s mouth, derogatory as it may be, compare with a straight person saying the same word in the same context? You do realize the impact is not the same, right?

IBK: Henrie, yes they do, but not in a “fond” manner. I believe it is after exhibiting the negative traits expressed by that minority that the slur is thrown at them. For example, a cis het male walks into a roomful of friends and says, “Sup bitches.” Chances are that he means the word as someone lesser, people he owns the way guys own bitches albeit in a friendly manner. Or after a straight guy hugs his male friend and someone says, “Guy, you dey do like fag…” You get?

I agree that intention matters, but right now I don’t think the words coming out of the privileged mouth should be encouraged. Those words are still used in a derogatory manner and it’s still rampant.

And if a gay man calls me a faggot to insult me, we are still gay together. He cannot oppress me, because, well, he is gay too.

RAPUM: I have seen gay men, closeted, self-hating gay men, use that word as weapons. I’ve seen gay men who were hurt by rejection use it as an insult. So, definitely, gay men can use that word in a derogatory manner. And it’s never okay when we do. It’s like a bad shade. It doesn’t make shade bad; it only shows that the person throwing the shade has to learn how to do it better.

But when a homophobic straight person uses it for instance, what I feel is different. What he is telling me is that I am less. It takes me back. The angry gay man saying it to me, I shrug and tell him to do better, because he, too, is a fag, and no matter how much we try to reduce this to the bareness of logic, I do not FEEL threatened in any way.

Regarding a friendly straight person, it is up to the gay friend how they feel about it. I found it uncomfortable and so I said and continue to say “No”. For you, it might not be a big deal, which is cool, but when your friends come in public, let them know that not every gay man with whom they are friendly will tolerate it.

SEYI: I have to agree with Henrie on this. It’s all context based. Rapum was called a fag jokingly. That’s the context – a joke. Take this for instance: Your father. When you’re all joking and having banter and “your father” is thrown at you, would you take offense over that?

RAPUM: Seyi, “Your father” is not the same thing as “faggot”.

IBK: Rapum is right, Seyi. It’s not. “Your father” isn’t a slur brought about by periods of oppression.

SEYI: Eventually, they are supposed to be “insults”.

RAPUM: When they say to me “Your father”, I say to them “Your father” in return. When they call me “Ashawo”, I can call them “Ashawo” in return. But when they call me faggot, what do I have to make the playground level, Seyi?

PINK PANTHER: Good question.

HENRIE: So a gay man with demeaning intentions who calls you a faggot is more tolerable than a straight guy with innocent intentions who calls you a faggot? I find this really interesting. That an insult is not judged based on the context, intentions, relationship or circumstances but on the identity of the person involved.

IBK: To put it in perspective… A gay man insults me with the word. I won’t be as livid as if it was a straight man, and I wouldn’t get as livid if it was a friend who is straight saying it endearingly and so on. There are levels to this. At the moment, identity is important as much as intent is. The two interact to produce different results.

RAPUM: That is not what I said. But then we were not even talking about folks with ill intention in the first place. Does it never occur to you, Henrie, that we are still suffering from the trauma of homophobia, collectively and individually, and so can never throw away identity when talking about this?

HENRIE: I think I’d buy into your case better if you said you were distrustful of your friend’s intentions. I am generally skeptical of pro-gay straight people, as I am wary of their patronization. I do not want to be any straight man’s token gay friend and I am aware that unlearning bigotry is a difficult process for people. Even among persons with the most noble of intentions, a subtle level of restraint is likely to exist that I believe can make my beliefs about that person come crashing.

But the argument that a straight person isn’t allowed to use the word only because they’re straight doesn’t hold much water for me. I think it’s a flawed argument.

RAPUM: I am not the “token” gay friend to the best friends I talked about. I am not even their “gay” friend as they are not my “straight” friends. I had to use the adjective because it was relevant to the post. You see, I have never been uncomfortable enjoying the friendship of people, regardless of sexual orientation, because I have always been sort of out and have always demanded respect. And I have seen my friends grow in sense. The day someone tries to tokenize me is the day that friendship ends.

PINK PANTHER: Lol. You mean the day someone tries to use you in the “…but I have gay friends, so I can’t be a homophobe” context?

RAPUM: Pinky, yes! And the day they say, “This is Rapum, my gay friend” or generally try to use me to show how forward-thinking they are. Mogbe! Bottle will break. I would rather be friends with an “un-woke” straight man who cares about me but is still learning stuff, than with one whose relationship with me is meant to be a sort of image builder.

MITCH: I believe that the word ‘faggot’, no matter how well meant or thought or who even uses it, is a foul word. Unlike ‘gay’, ‘queer’ and ‘homosexual’ which were meant to demean us but which we eventually reclaimed as our identity and our own, ‘faggot’ still remains a swear or cuss word. Calling me that will earn you a total reaming out, irrespective of who you are: friend, gay man, ally or homophobe.

HENRIE: So it applies to everyone equally then? Meaning you are more concerned about the word itself than the identity of the user, yes?

ABSALOM: The reclamation of ‘queer’ didn’t happen with ease either. There’s an older generation of gay men – STILL ALIVE – who were bitter about it and still reject it.

RAPUM: Homosexual, gay, queer: These words function differently from fag.

ABSALOM: Fag and queer are equal in vileness actually. Only that the latter got rebranded in scholarly and political circles in the 1980s. Homosexual is more a medicalised/pathologised/often othering descriptor. Gay was – still is – the good word.

HENRIE: Mitch, mind you, Rapum is not arguing that the reclaiming of those words is enough.

MITCH: Henrie, I’m more concerned about the word than I am with who used it. The word, to me, still denotes a contempt and hatred for the LGBT.

And no, I don’t think Arinze is arguing that the reclaiming of the words isn’t enough. I think his problem stems from the fact that the word, when used by a straight person, rankles and hurts more than it does when used by a gay person. Because we feel the pinch of the word in ways they don’t. So, no matter the intention of that gay person when using it, it still won’t hurt as much as a straight person using it, even if their intentions are pure.

RAPUM: Even the way people use ‘queer’ now, especially since our so-called ‘Renaissance’ began, I have been feeling one-kind about it. Who is queer? Me? Absalom, maybe we should banish that word for everyone! Hmmph!

ABSALOM: “Queer” is, as leftists would say, problematic. It is too male and too homosexual. It smothers bisexuals and annihilates lesbians. Me, I hate the word because it is too vague – a synonym for “anything goes”. Tufia please!

MITCH: You see it that way, Absalom, but to some of us, ‘Queer’ denotes our difference from the norm and as such, is an even more embracing term than the multi-lettered acronym that still confuses and further separates us.

DEVIANTUS: I actually feel an uneasiness being called a faggot. I don’t know why, but I just don’t like it. Whether from a gay person, an ally or just a random soul in the galaxy, I find the word absolutely reducing.

RAPUM: Me sha, I will keep telling these straight men what they CANNOT say. They should figure out what they can say themselves.

CHIEDOZIE: The problem isn’t and has never been words. Words are just words but are then given whatever meaning they have from historical usage and, with words like “faggot” and “nigger”, power dynamics. You react violently to “faggot” not because of the word in and of itself, but because of the power dynamics between you and the person who says it. The only reason why your friends can’t say “faggot” is because we aren’t post-homophobia. There’s a pecking order and a straight person using that slur reinforces, whether they mean to or not, just how much higher they rank than you in that order. And that in itself, regardless of intent, checks all three boxes of cultural, structural and direct violence. There’s ample evidence to show shaming has detrimental effect on health. The medical term for it is “weathering”. When you consider the history a straight person reinforces in using the word “faggot”, then this argument becomes really base.

And I always insist that redefining and reclaiming words that were intended to malign is really important. Saying everybody should stop saying faggot does not take into account the power structure and the prevalent culture; it comes from this ridiculous idea that you can ban words without banning attitudes that feed those words. It’s window dressing and it’s utter bullshit.

ABSALOM: Wait, the solution to the incomplete solution that is banning is reclamation?

CHIEDOZIE: Absalom, I don’t understand your comment. But banning isn’t any type of solution. It’s only a natural consequence of shifting tides. White man cannot call black man nigger without consequence. Straight man cannot call gay man faggot because of political shifts and changes occurring (present-continuous) in the balance of power. So the idea of a “solution” is by the way and by the bush.

There’s no quick fix for racism or homophobia, but constant pushback by the oppressed leads to changes in what is deemed as acceptable/normative in the interrelationship between oppressor and oppressed, and this leads to evolution of cultures and norms in ways, usually generational, that reflect these shifts. It’s trite to say you will find more racist and homophobic people in our parents’ generation than you would in ours, for example. The point being that it’s all a process, and that process is necessary. Reclamation of slurs is a part of that process. A straight person being ousted from using the word faggot underscores the history and that there is still a long way to go before oppressed and oppressor are truly equal, in which case the word will no longer constitute a violence.

A faggot calling another faggot “faggot”, on the other hand, is taking the power of definition from the oppressor, and I would argue that this is significant. That faggot or nigger or bitch which is meant to demean can be used endearingly, to my mind, is an exercise in self-determination. Banning the word across the board comes from this Pollyannaish idea that it’s possible to go from A to Z without B and all the rest of the alphabets. It’s all a part of the process. In the 90s, Jada Pinkett called Eazy E out for using “bitch” in his lyrics. In 2015, Beyoncé comes on stage with a playback saying, “I AM NOT A DO-NOTHING BITCH.” You have to give a dog a bad name to kill it. The power to define is a big part of structural and cultural oppression. When you take that power from the oppressor, it’s a step up.

ABSALOM: You said there is an idea (somewhere) that words can be banned but not the attitudes feeding those words; which is not what I said. Excluding white people from saying “nigga” hasn’t ended racism, has it?

My comment was: 1. Reclamation has its benefits and ALSO its disadvantages. When you say it is important, I agree, but I insist that it isn’t the best weapon in the empowerment arsenal. I can think of better.

2. And, yes, I think doing away with an insulting word altogether will not make any oppressed person lose sleep. On the contrary, it is a (better) solution process: demonize the slur (and why the fuck not?) and let’s move on to address the meat of the injustice. There’s a lot of emotional labour (and we need to ask if it’s always worth it) involved in keeping a slur around. Did we bury our iyi-uwa in the slur?

3. We need to also ask if reclaiming a slur doesn’t give the word more power and “legitimacy” than it should have. I was given a name I don’t want, a name I would never have given myself. I think it’s safe to argue that the insult should be allowed to end there; I wouldn’t want to move things further by “owning” that word. Is “ownership” powerful? Of course. But on a scale of 1 to 10, I’ll place that power at a 5.

As you can see from this thread, not everybody finds reclamation empowering. For many, it just reinforces the trauma.

CHIEDOZIE: OK, now I get your point. And you’re absolutely right. In my comment, I was speaking to the arguments that are usually made in calling for certain slurs to be banned for everyone. I was addressing the rationale in general, not necessarily your comment.

1. Reclamation isn’t the only weapon. I just think it’s important.

2. You’re right, but then nobody has a roundtable conference to say: OK, we are reclaiming this slur. These things happen organically, and I think that impulse says something about human nature and the desire for dignity in self. What will punishing people for using words meant to malign them in a way that is positive and affirming, achieve? The emotional labour and baggage is rooted in the standard oppressive usage of the word. Reclaimed words are redefined words, so intent and, in effect, meaning is obviously different.

3. Reclaiming a word delegitimizes it as a slur and as a violence. So there’s a marked difference depending on who uses it. And there’s no imperative that everyone uses these reclaimed words. If you find it distasteful, it’s perfectly legitimate, but that feeling is not universal and there are people who get a kick from knowing they can use this charged word in a way that’s friendly instead of insulting and that usage has become normative in place of a deleterious heretofore normative usage.

From the thread, what I can see is NOT that not everybody finds reclamation empowering. It’s that for some people, the trauma of the original usage of the word is so great, they do not even begin to know how to reclaim the word. That’s fine. But it will be incredibly disingenuous to suggest a queer person feels threatened when another queer person says faggot, and the potency of that word in its original meaning is in its function as a threat and violence.

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  1. Mandy
    May 26, 07:15 Reply

    ???? Wow. This is such a woke conversation, mehn! Me, I’m positive I don’t like anyone using the word “fag” on me, whether straight or gay, antagonist or ally. There’s something very reductive about that word.

    • Brian Collins
      May 26, 20:19 Reply

      I kinda feel the same way really. There’s a way being called a fag makes me feel and no part of it is good. I don’t care about being called a bitch, with or without malice.
      I just imagine that people who are called fag-hags might feel the same way.

  2. Bee
    May 26, 13:34 Reply

    ‘Fag’ (or even ‘faggot,’ jeez ?) is such a nasty word. It sounds guttural, is very harsh and very demeaning. I do not want to reclaim it, I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I mean, the intent of the word could be worked out but I think it should just be abandoned forever. ‘Homosexual’ can be used professionally. ‘Queer’ (meaning, ‘different’ or better still, ‘special’) can be used semi-formally and gay could be used casually. But ‘faggot’ . . . mehn, just listen to the word. Whoever created it must be very nasty. It sounds as nasty as ‘nasty.’

    If you call me a faggot, I’ll blacken your eye. Simple.

  3. Uziel
    May 26, 16:13 Reply

    I was going to write an epistle but Henrie has said most of what I would have felt the need to write.

    As it is, I can’t come and start preaching that everyone should allow these words or not, my own is that you should stay consistent and fair. If you don’t want a straight person calling you a fag, fine, but try to not become the thing you hate.

    My two kobo.

  4. Malik
    May 26, 19:32 Reply

    The word faggot just brings back so many sad, angry, buried memories for me. I just never want to hear the word. Even if you think you’re a fag (shudders at the use of the word), please don’t call me that.

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