South Park did an episode about the word “faggot” a couple seasons back. The moral (as go these things in South Park world) was that the word was just too much fun to say, and thus the episode ended with the characters reassigning the word a different meaning. Which I’ve forgotten, because it wasn’t funny and the episode wasn’t very good.
They were right in one respect, though, and it came to mind in the wake of Joakim Noah’s catastrophically stupid unfurling of the word on a heckling fan last night as the Bulls lost to the Heat in a vital playoff matchup. Noah played like shit, which doesn’t help at all, and should expect a six-figure fine in the wake of a similar recent incident involving Kobe Bryant. For these very playoffs, too, the NBA has rolled out an impressive series of ads featuring role player Jared Dudley and the undislikable Grant Hill, speaking straight truth in saying that gay-bashing, even if you’re not actually bashing gays, is “unoriginal.”
It is unoriginal, and that tends to be my way of easing in my personal exception to the word when it pops up in a social setting and the speaker is familiar enough that I feel I won’t get steamrolled. (And only then if we’ve had enough to drink.) Strip all social implication out of it, and calling somebody a “faggot” is like calling them a “motherfucker.” What does it even mean, really? Okay, you say you don’t have a problem with the gays, it has nothing to do with that, so you’re labeling the object of your derision as…what? A douchebag? That word’s overused, too, but why not use it?
I pay neurotic attention to words. Especially the naughty ones, because I use those every three seconds or so, and as I’m prone to ball-busting like any other guy, and it’s always nice to have an insult or two in reserve if you’re caught off-guard by a buddy who thinks he’s done real good. When you don’t have those reserves, you gotta think quick. It’s a testament to the neurosis mentioned above that I almost never get cornered and think “you faggot.”
Almost, of course. I never say it. But I’ve heard it used too well too many times for it to never cross my mind. Take, for instance, an exchange a few years back with a gay friend of mine who bartended where I waited tables. I was struggling with a corner booth of camping partiers, who were throwing me a lot of “oh, Such-‘n-So will be here eventually, but we’re not in a rush.” (I was first-cut that evening.)
The table was stocked with gay men. (The restaurant in question, located near Boystown in Chicago, is not “officially” gay, and makes many bones from families and young professionals charmed by a fireplace and belabored thematics in the background while they inhale what passes for mac ‘n cheese these days. One of the owners is gay, though, and a proud “sorta-gay” atmosphere is very much part of the plan and the appeal.) My bartender friend, mixing up complicated drinks at the staggered rate that comes from inconsiderate-ass camped drinkers and drives servers and barkeeps mad in equal measure, got in on the complaining. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but Ryan’s response is written in brain stone.
Tyler: Something something about these guys keeping me here, ruining everything, etc.
Ryan (glancing to table, slumping shoulders, sighing, martini shaker in hand): …fucking faggots. This isn’t Minibar.
Minibar is a Boystown spot about which all the regulars like to bitch (it’s snooty or something), but you really don’t need to know that if, like me, you find something about that one-liner hysterical.
And it’s not just because the speaker was gay. I’ve a friend or two who’ll go unnamed that use the word on rare occasions because they know it will get people pissed; they’re straight, but they’re also hilarious, and when they drop the bomb, more often than not they get a laugh. Only later, after the laughter dies down and the banter moves on, do you think to yourself “Ah…God damn it.”
But what do you do? Laughter is instinctual. Getting back to South Park, and that theory that the word is too “fun” to give up: well, it is fun. It is phonetically favorable to humor. All the consonants are hard; you can really lean into them. The vowels are different but they sound they same, so there’s a nice ringing consonance there. Double this kind of word and slam it together, you get “motherfucker.” Irresistible!
But no. Take it back to single and there’s another word that fits. Nobody complains about not being able to use it. It’s around, and has a playful permutation (“nigga”) that even white people get away with from time to time because it’s so often used in hip-hop. Chris Rock may owe his megastardom to a sublime rant about its use amongst African-Americans. But it is verbal persona non grata amongst almost everybody, or at least anybody who might be reading this article. You don’t need any PSAs asking people not to say “nigger.”
Did your breath catch a bit right there? Mine did, typing it. This is a good thing.
All those same phonetic rules apply to this word, but it doesn’t matter. There’re no exclusive rights, no “easy” out like “but I don’t mean, like, ‘gay!'” You can’t say that word. It’s fucking horrific and it’s fucking offensive. And yeah, it’s unoriginal.
So come on, Kobe, and come on, Jo. I’d lay money that neither of these men possess a homophobic molecule anywhere in their enormous bodies. They play in cosmopolitan American megacities, cities by which they’ve both been embraced. They’re not white, so part of it may well be an understandable attitude of “we’ve got our own words to worry about.”
But you gotta do better than that. Whether its the playoffs on TNT or a preseason highlight reel, you can not kill yourself and shame the league over a word. Why? Why would you? It’d lose you friends if you said it in the wrong company. So why bother keeping it for when the company is “right?”
Then, I’m a word nerd. I wanted to write “a sublime rant about its use amongst blacks” because it just sounds better and reads better.
But you can’t. You just can’t. And y’know what? It’s not hard.