A while back, I came across an article online from Vanity Fair regarding a then-recent episode of Glee. Brett Berk, the writer — an openly gay man who uses the term “faggy” to refer to himself — uses the term “fags” in a relatively innocuous way, referring to the Dalton Warblers of Glee, and it created an immediate uproar. Frankly, though, all of the ‘no one should ever use that horrible word, and he should be fired!’ people upset me more than his use of the word did. (Granted, I acknowledge that it is problematic that he refers to all of the a cappella group as fags when not all of the group is gay or queer; it is further problematic that he calls them fags when they may not identify as such themselves.)
I am less concerned with how, specifically, he uses the term and more concerned with the reactions of the readers. People were freaking out over his use of the word “fags.” They accused him of “homosexual-bashing.” They were “disgusted” by his “extremely offensive” word, which people should “never, ever use.” They called him ignorant, wrong, bigoted, hateful; they said he should be ashamed. On, and on, and on, it went.
What really just frustrates me is how many straight people there are calling Brett Berk awful things for using the term “fags.” Especially when they act so holier-than-thou and then use terms like “homosexual”! Personally, I find the term “homosexual” (especially as a noun) far more cringe-inducing, awkward, and offensive than the term “fag” (when used in a reclaimed sense by someone who may identify as a fag). I can’t think of a single queer / gay / lesbian / bisexual-identified person I know who seriously uses the term “homosexual” (in that clinical sort of way), but I know a number of people who embrace the term “fag.”
What gives those readers the right to decide which words are offensive? I recognize that straight people have also been subjected to “fag” as a slur (it’s all about gender policing), and they have no reason to want to reclaim it. Nevertheless, the ‘Using the word fag is SO WRONG! And offensive and bigoted and ignorant! It’s always wrong to use even if you’re a homosexual! It’s horrible and disgusting, and you should be ashamed! You’re sickening’ approach is just . . . sigh. Reading it exhausts me.
I am absolutely not trying to dismiss or diminish the intensely painful experiences of people who have had words such as “fag” hurled at them in a hateful way. I would not tell someone who had experienced that that they have no right to be offended or hurt by seeing the term used in any context. That said, I think there’s a way to recognize that, while using the term “fags” in his article was probably inappropriate (and the word itself is hurtful to many people), the use of the word “fags” in a reclaimed, non-hate speech kind of way does not mean someone is bigoted or homophobic.
Do the experiences of people for whom “fag” is an offensive slur outweigh the experiences of those of us for whom “fag” may be an identity? Even in our own personal circles? There is a big difference between censoring an article from a major magazine like Vanity Fair and making a blanket statement about what words are morally acceptable to ever use. Some people, though, don’t see that distinction.
Who are those commenters to tell me how I can, and cannot, identify? Who are they to judge and condemn me for how I identify? It just makes me so mad! And when I get mad, I get emotional and inarticulate, and I end up saying things that likely offend other people.
Deep down, I identify as a fag. Out loud, not so much — partly because I recognize that it’s been hurtful to many people, partly because I kind of feel that it’s not mine to reclaim (largely because of my insecurities about the fact that few people read me as masculine/man/male). Still, this particular controversy has struck close to home. Every comment about how “the word ‘fag’ is homophobic in every context” feels like an attack.
Maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing — and I know that I should stop reading online comments because they only upset me — or maybe I should be more outraged. But while I admit that using the word “fags” in Brett Berk’s Vanity Fair post was not the best idea, I just can’t believe that identifying as fags makes my friends and me somehow wrong, let alone homophobic (believe me, we are queer pride all the way).