The 'F' Word

"You should quit being a Chode and take such offense to something like that. The word is all over the world. And even referred to in the Bible. Have a nice Day."

The word that the author of this message is referring to is "faggot."

I've never been OK with the word "faggot" or its shortened form, "fag." Even before I came to terms with my sexuality, I found it to be quite repulsive. In my younger years I never heard it used in anything other than a derogatory fashion. After coming to terms with my sexuality, I heard people in the LGBT community using it in a joking way. Regardless of the intent behind its use, I've never been able to fully swallow that word and refrain from tensing up when it's used around me. I've always spoken out against its usage, even to those on the Web whom I have no personal connection with, in a loving and respectful manner. And although the words quoted above, written in response to my attempt to express my feelings on what I deem to be a hateful word, isn't well-intentioned, the author is correct in one thing: The word "faggot" is all over the world.

Let's take it back. The word "faggot" definitively means "a bundle of twigs bound together," and in England "fag" can also mean "cigarette." I get the "don't be offended; 'faggot' just means 'a bundle of twigs'" argument from many straight people, and even from some gay people. Yet digging a bit deeper and looking at the etymology of the word "faggot," we find that faggots were especially used for burning heretics. Now, the assertion that male homosexuals were referred to as "faggots" because they were burned at the stake is an etymological urban legend. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "Burning was sometimes a punishment meted out to homosexuals in Christian Europe ... but in England, where parliament had made homosexuality a capital offense in 1533, hanging was the method prescribed."

In any case, the word came to be embraced by many who were against sexual liberation in the 20th century. While homosexuality slowly became more public in the 20th century, those against it used the term as hate speech. When gay men were being arrested, imprisoned, committed to mental institutions and, yes, even killed for their sexuality, "faggot" was the word that was spit out of their tormenters' mouths. I've always believed in the power of words, and this particular word has a very negative, dark history. Now, there are many opinions on why the term "faggot" came to mean "homosexual man" in modern English. Regardless of how it came to be, it happened, and the majority of theories derive from negativity.

In recent years I've become friends with people in the LGBT community who use the word in an attempt to be endearing or playful. The word "faggot" gets tossed around so much now in the LGBT community that it has resurfaced as a part of our vocabulary. One reason for that is the LGBT's community attempt to reclaim the word and redefine its meaning, but that sets up a situation in which it is OK for "us" to use the word but not for "them" to do so, which only draws a line deeper in the sand and distances us from unity and equality.

But why must we feel the need to reclaim a word? If you attempt to follow the definitions of words in the LGBT vocabulary, you'll find that terms are constantly changing and being improved. We once got away with referring to transgender people as "trannies," but now that is considered offensive, and many transgender people today, especially younger ones, prefer the term "trans*" (yes, with the asterisk; it's important). I would much rather embrace the word "gay" than "faggot." The word "gay" has a much more positive and encouraging history and definition: "happy." As someone who has had the word "faggot" written on his car and yelled in his ear by middle school bullies, and who has heard it used in hate speech directed at me and my LGBT family, I think that paving a new path is what's important. Redefining the past does nothing for our future. It is our future that, together, we should define with words of love.