I remember the first time I ever heard the word "fag." Second grade, and I was living in Colorado. We were playing a game called Russian Bulldog on the baseball fields. One person stands in the middle, everyone else to one side. When the man in the middle says "Russian" the 30 or so kids leaning against the backstop yell back "Bulldog" and run towards him, racing for the backstop on the other side. The object is to not get tackled. If you do, you join the man in the middle, one are now two, and the game begins again until everyone is tackled. It was a great fucking game, and probably isn't played much anymore. You know, someone might sue or get their feelings hurt.
Anyway, we were on the field, playing as we normally did during recess, and the kid in the middle was a bit unpopular. Always picked on, a magnet for the bullies. We ran towards him and he dove, latching onto the leg of one of the kids skirting by, who hopped and jumped, trying to do anything to not get tackled by the class nerd. But give the kid credit. He held on to his leg, like a dog in heat. "Look at that," a kid we all called JR yelled out in his parachute pants, "he must be a fag or something." Everyone joined in. "Fag, yeah, fag." I'd never heard the word before that, I didn't even know what it meant, and I doubt on this day that JR did either. Still, he used it.
I saw this because recently one of the Maisy columnists, the ineffable Emma Appleby, wrote a column about social mores. I'll link to it here. (Although, Ms. Appleby, at this point, has something like 3 stories in the Top 10 list. Last week I had 2 and she had 1, so she has lapped me. Apparently, the Revolution has a flat tire, we aren't doing our job. We must not lose faith! Forward me to everyone you know under the heading "Genius Blogger." Viva la Revolution!) Her point was more that we've digressed into a society of shock, allowing ourselves free reign with our tongues. We'll impinge on someone's race, call out whatever word or term we think might catch attention, perhaps even get a laugh. We were all thinking the same thing, right, so why not throw it out there? Giggle, giggle, chuckle, chuckle. When I first read her column, I mistook her point. I thought she was talking about a degree of politeness that should return. I thought she was advocating for some form of social decorum, which, of course, had I actually taken the time, I would have seen that she wasn't. I agree with her overall point, to a, um, point.
I am one of those people who upsets the social dynamic in groups, though not anywhere near the way that she was indicating. I don't say things just to shock, what the hell is the point of that? People who take that track are wasting their time, and ours. But I do ask what I ask. If I'm curious about something, I will tend to blurt it out. As the Magnificent Geebs will frequently say after I've asked someone what sexual position they prefer (ten minutes after meeting them), or why they support Bush, or take on something that they have just said, "You will have to excuse our friend. He's misplaced his filter." I don't put much stock in a proper way to act, though I do believe that there should be an element of respect in most of my interactions. Still, if I ask you a question, you have every right to pass, to say, "I'm not answering that"and I will let it pass. But I'm going to ask.
I am a card carrying member of the hip-hop generation. We grew up on Easy E, KRS One, N.W.A, Ice Cube, 2 Pac, Chuck D, and many, many others. It was in your face music, and I think some of that attitude rubbed of on us, even the white suburban kids. I knew the N word before I knew what the N word stood for. I threw the term "fag" around all through high school, without every knowing what the hell I was really talking about. You'll notice that I used "N word"and spelled out the word "fag." I don't really have a reason for that, other than the fact that I have been completely desensitized to one, and the other still scares the crap out of me. To me, growing up, a "fag" was just someone lame, someone off, someone I didn't much care for. I differentiate between the words. It's why, a few years ago, when Eminem was being protested for throwing the word around some 452 times on The Marshall Mathers LP I thought, "That's not what he means." Even when he spelled it out, used the term within context, I thought, he's using the term as a put down, something every kid that I grew up with did. There was nothing homophobic about it, it was just kids being kids.
The first gay kid I had any personal contact with came in high school. Of course, being from San Francisco, it was not a lifestyle I was wholly unaccustomed to, but I hadn't yet known anyone who actually came out. He was 16-years-old, ostracized on campus. He wore a rainbow flag pin on his backpack, he was delicate. One day he bumped someone in the quad who spun around. "Get off me, fag," and people laughed. I think before then the term had never been put into context for me, I had never heard "fag" and seen "fag" in the same place. I thought, "You've got to be fucking kidding me. You throw that word at that kid, so casually, without caring." It must have crushed the kid at time, though I'm sure it wasn't the first time it had been put into context for him. I looked at him differently after that. He wasn't the anomaly of Menlo School, he became one of the braver people I'd ever seen. I think I spoke with him 3 times in 2 years, but I was forever aware of his presence.
The hetero lifemate's brother, John, is one of the most fantastically flamboyant gay men I have ever met. He looms large, throwing this brilliant foofy aura around him like a beer gut. When we joke, I'll call him "Nancy," and he'll laugh and, yes, squeal. John is not someone to be trifled with, not someone you would ever not take seriously. He is a deep thinking, deep feeling, wonderful young man. He speaks eloquently about his experiences, feels passionately about, not just his sexuality, but everything. I've heard him argue about the word before, many times. It's his, not mine, though when there is no one around, I can use it around him, or call him gay, or call him Nancy, and these things become terms of affection.
I work around gay men. I have in every magazine I've ever been at, and that word is there, hovering somewhere in the background. For me, it's not a derogatory term, though I understand that I am wrong. But it's hard to balance, my upbringing and the things I was exposed to at an early age with the cultural sensitivity that has developed within me. I put no coin in with people who use these terms to shock or surprise, I find nothing shocking or surprising about them, and when used as an insult I find it just about the least original thing that could be come up with. Still, it's there, and I don't really know what to do with it.
In part, and this is where I had thought Ms. Appleby's column comes in (although I ended up amplifying her point, hopefully well, instead), I put part of the blame for this on a society that puts stock in a certain form out outward behavior, but does nothing about the way we think about things, to ourselves, our most inner thoughts. I don't question whether I am a racist or a homophobe of anti-Semitic. I know that I am not. Hell, I fell in love with a lesbian, which is proof of exactly nothing. But I wonder what we are doing? So within polite society I act in a specific manner, supposedly treat the people around me with what accounts for respect, and I can think anything I want? I'd rather ask the questions. I'd rather admit my lack of knowledge. What do I know about your experiences unless I take if from your mouth, unless you tell me? I know this can be off-putting. I know that sometimes I just feel like catching someone off guard, unbalancing them, taking them out of their comfort zone. As a rule, I don't do this by casting about epithets. Those words are there. All of them. I know them. I'm aware of what they mean to me, and I'm aware that sometimes my connotations are far different from the negative ones these terms embody.
But what the fuck do we do about that? Not talking about it doesn't really seem like an option anymore. Especially for me, as an American, in a country where my President speaks of equality from one side of his mouth and turns about to exclude those "fags"with the other.