Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

To Bear, to Carry: Notes on “Faggot”

BY RYAN VAN METER

This essay originally appeared in If You Knew Then What I Know Now, available from Sarabrande Books.

My dear friend Tom wears eye shadow. He also often pins brooches to his shirts, just a few inches to the left of his skinny antique neckties. Both of us are instructors at the same university. On the evening after our first day of classes this semester, we drank some wine and he told me about his morning.

“When I walked into the classroom,” he started, “And before I announced I was the teacher, one of my students called me a faggot.”

This has always been a fear of mine, a scenario I could imagine, and one I actually was surprised hadn’t already happened. I’ve dealt with faggot for more than twenty years; I vividly remember about ten different instances of the word being used on me—and know there are more I can’t as easily recall—and I doubt a similar count for any other word possible. I’ve imagined Tom’s classroom scenario, that is, only up to the moment when I would have to react. Tom didn’t know what to do either, so he just stared at the kid—the burly, cocky guy you’d imagine, sitting in the back corner of the room of course, tilted in his chair, his arms across his chest. Tom stared and then just introduced himself to the class, wrote his name on the blackboard, and handed out copies of his syllabus.

“I can’t believe that’s something we really have to deal with,” I said, shaking my head, and my dear friend agreed.

Then I asked him, “What were you wearing?”

“This,” he said, tugging the shoulder of his cardigan, wiggling his butterfly brooch.

“I mean, not that it matters.”

“Right,” he said.

Later, I was bothered by my question. What were you wearing? Because it implied that the student might have a good reason for saying “faggot.” If Tom was dressed like one, then he was asking for it—or, if not asking, then at least his brooches and his cosmetics made the student’s word understandable, explained why. And certainly it bothered me that I was trying to justify the kid’s behavior. But what I most hated was this: even though I had asked the question in the unguarded comfort of close friends, the word still tricked me. If only for a second, I was guilty of looking at my friend the way I hated being looked at.

My earliest memory of the word comes from fourth grade, when a book titled A Bundle of Sticks circulated among a group of snickering classmates. Drawn in colored pencil on the cover was a sheepish boy wearing a karate uniform, his hands clasped tightly together. I didn’t read the book back then, but I knew, because it was often talked about on the playground when no teachers were around that, somewhere in its pages, the boy in the uniform was called “faggot.”

And actually, he was called “faggot” a couple of times; I’ve since tracked down the novel by Pat Mauser McCord, originally published in 1982. Ben Tyler, the main character, had a reputation as the boy who hated fighting—a fact that made him a good target for Boyd, the school bully. After the bully taunts him, forces him to eat mud at the bus stop and kicks the Tyler family dog, Ben uses his karate self-defense classes to stand up to Boyd. But all that comes after this early scene:

The class rocked with laughter. Dennis Mathews leaned back too far and tipped his chair over. Everyone went wild, and Miss Fletcher stood up, banging on her desk with a ruler.

Boyd pointed at Ben. “Benjamin’s a faggot. That’s why he won’t fight.”

Ben felt heat rise into his face. He wanted to cover his ears and scream.

Everyone in the class pointed at him and laughed, even John who had spent a weekend with the Tylers last summer and Cindy who had his name on her love list.

Miss Fletcher then comes to Ben’s rescue by demanding that Boyd tell the room the meaning of “faggot.” When his definition (“It’s a guy who … you know … kisses other guys and stuff”) doesn’t satisfy her, the teacher sends Boyd to the class dictionary. And “faggot” it turns out, surprising Boyd, Ben, and the rest of the class, means “a bundle of sticks.” The author doesn’t describe Miss Fletcher’s face in this pivotal moment, but I’ve imagined her smug smile, and her high-heeled shoe tapping triumphantly. As she orders Boyd back to his chair, she tells the class that any definition besides the one printed in the dictionary is slang, and therefore not appropriate.

I don’t doubt that the author intended for that scene to educate her readers and disarm “faggot.” Probably the bigger lesson was Ben could and should karate chop straight through his metaphorical bundle and splinter the sting of name-calling into pieces. But in my fourth-grade classroom, instead of becoming a word without power, “faggot” became a word anybody could say any time without fear of retribution. Girls were called “faggot,” boys were called “faggot.” If a classmate cut in the lunch line, if one boy splashed another with water from the bathroom sink, if one kid threw out another in the daily kickball game at recess, all of them were faggots. And if our teacher or some other school adult overheard, the defense always pulled from back pockets was something like, “What’s the big deal? All I called him was a bundle of sticks?” Instead of making the word obsolete, the definition gave it cover. Objections became groundless. Because it’s so simple that even a room full of nine-year-olds could figure it out: there’s a difference between how a word is defined and what it really means.

No coincidence then that fourth grade was also the year when I was first called “gay.” One evening after school, a classmate who lived on the next street over called me into the dark tent of trees behind our houses. Out of his slick jacket, he pulled a copy of a pornographic magazine he’d swiped from his dad’s bedroom. We crouched together in the shadows, huddling close to the edge of the creek bank, as crickets vibrated invisibly around us. On the pages he turned for both of us, the women were naked and between their legs, quite unexpectedly, was hair. And I was so surprised by that strange secret of the female body that all I could say to my proud classmate’s grin was, “Gross.” But in my one word, more meaning than I had intended was revealed. The next day at school, during a group photograph of the class, I sat in the front row with the other extremely short fourth-grade boy. As the teacher and the photographer directed us, telling us to sit or stand up straight, to scoot in closer, fix collars and remove hands from pockets, this boy turned to me. “You’re gay, you know,” he said. “You’re gay because you think Playboy is gross.”

I decide to go looking for “faggot” myself, to know what those voices are really saying when they snarl it, to uncover its violence inside. In the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published by Clarendon Press in 1989, nearly three pages are devoted to the word and its many derivatives. The word isn’t as simply described as it was in Miss Fletcher’s fictional classroom. I scribble down some of the definitions of the noun and verb forms—surprised there’s a verb form at all.

noun:

1. A bundle of sticks, twigs, or small branches of trees bound together: a. for use as fuel.

2. a. With special reference to the practice of burning heretics alive, esp. in phrase fire and faggot; to fry a faggot, to be burned alive; also to bear, carry a faggot, as those did who renounced heresy. Hence fig. the punishment itself.
b. The embroidered figure of a faggot, which heretics who had recanted were obliged to wear on their sleeve, as an emblem of what they had merited.

6. a. A term of abuse or contempt applied to a woman.
b. A (male) homosexual. slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.)

verb:

1. a. To make into a faggot or faggots; to bind up in or as in a faggot.
c. To bind (persons) in couples; also, to bind hand and foot.
2. To fasten together bars or rods of iron preparatory to reheating or welding.
3. To set (a person) on the faggots preparatory to burning.
4. b. To carry or wear a faggot in token of recantation; to recant.

The tightly-packed black columns are almost dizzying. As I stand over the book, thick and worn and split-open under my eyes, just one of several volumes of OED, I think that more than any other, this word has probably been the biggest of my life. I’ve feared it; when I’ve heard it, it’s caused the most instantaneous effect on my body, and still does—the same heat rising to my face like the character in that fourth-grade book. And it can still trick me, as it did in that conversation with my friend.

So given my history with the word, I can’t help but read phrases like “fry a faggot” or “to set (a person) on the faggots preparatory to burning” literally. This is what I want—the threat, for the word to be dangerous and not just feel that way. And certainly it’s melodramatic, but I suddenly can’t help but consider every time I’ve been called “faggot,” and think that person wanted me burned because of who I am. But at least in this dictionary, in these uses, burning a “faggot” doesn’t mean a gay man.

Do I reach too far into the idea of burning when I wonder about the joking expression, familiar among gay people, “a flaming queen?”

On the shelf beside the OED is a lineup of etymological dictionaries. In one, Cassell Dictionary of Word Histories, published by Wellington House, in 1999, I find this entry for  “faggot”:

Middle English—Faggot was first recorded in the sense “bundle of sticks for fuel.” It comes from French fagot, from Italian fagotto, based on Greek phakelos, “bundle.” Toward the end of the 16th century, the word came to be used from dialect as an abusive term for a woman; later in the 20th century, it was applied as offensive slang in US English to a male homosexual.

Especially the French and Italian threads of origin (the Italian actually means bassoon) disappoint me. I wanted to see in print the connection between burning sticks and burning gay men. I pulled down book after book, hunting through pages for proof. There’s no denying that violence is carried inside it—centuries of burning heretics alive and “abuse” toward women—but I hoped to find actual documentation, validation of my feeling. Something like the smoking gun, instead of just smoldering handful of sticks.

And I’m surprised that the word was first used as an insult to women, four centuries before homosexual men. I’m surprised because I’ve always considered “faggot” as implicitly misogynistic, so finding this proof—however disturbing—is heartening. To call a man a “faggot” is to brand him as too effeminate, too feminine. Which implies there’s something wrong with being feminine, especially for a man. So doesn’t hating a man because he acts like a woman suggest some hatred for women, too? Or, at the very least, doesn’t it demand some neatness to our categories? That goes there and this goes here, let’s please keep everything tidy. But the reason behind such tidiness—why we comply and keep everything and everyone in their separate boxes—and whether that reason is always already ingrained in us, seems too impossible at the moment to root out.

I have only ever been called “faggot” by men, never by women.

In middle school, I stopped wearing dress shirts with that small sewn-in loop of cloth on the back beneath the yoke and between the shoulder blades. Boys would snag their hooked fingers on this loop, yank it and yell “fag tag!” Some even tried tearing it off, as if saving you from something dangerous, like a wasp you didn’t see clinging to your back. I never told my mother why I suddenly stopped wearing half of my wardrobe; I just said I didn’t like them anymore and hoped she didn’t notice the tiny feature the unwanted shirts had in common.

So with the single syllable fag, I began to fear and hate a small inch-long strip of cloth. But why was that thing called a “fag tag”? Because only fags would want shirts with such unnecessary embellishments? Or because the loop is like the string, ribbon, or cord bundling all those bundles of sticks? I look for the actual name of the cloth loop, but find nothing on my own. I ask a reference librarian if there is such a thing as a fashion dictionary, a garment glossary? I tell him I need to know the name of a certain part of a man’s shirt. The librarian says there might be apparel guides for this kind of information—which part am I looking for?

“It’s the loop of cloth on the back of a man’s shirt, sewn under the yoke, in the middle.”

“Well I know the rude slang term we used in school,” he says. “But that probably doesn’t help you.”

And it turns out there isn’t any one agreed-upon term for that loop, even in apparel dictionaries, though in one clothing company’s catalog, my librarian does find “locker loop.” Even so, the most common name for a nameless thing is a hateful one.

I thought of that loop of cloth when I read one of the obscure definitions of faggot, the one about heretics having to wear “the embroidered figure of a faggot…as an emblem of what they had merited.” The small embroidered figure I imagine is cartoonish—half Boy Scout badge, half small-green-alligator sewn on polo shirts. It’s a symbol simultaneously of the crime, the punishment and the confession. We’ll let you go, says the little patchwork bundle, but always remember what could have happened. It’s another enforcement of rules—but whose?

So it feels impossible for me not to pull together the persecution of heretics and the hatred of faggots, that is, homosexuals. Some have suggested, I discover, that because homosexuality was a crime punishable by death, homosexuals became known by the same name as the sticks that fed their fires. Burning at the stake was a common method of execution because it showed criminals the kind of suffering they would soon endure in Hell. And it was surely spectacular, as public executions go. But this theory has been disproved because, at least in England where most of the burning of heretics took place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the period when “faggot” referred to those burning bundles, homosexuals weren’t executed at the stake, they were usually hanged.

But I’m just not satisfied with the coincidence that one word has so many violent connotations over several centuries without any connections. Especially when I can string them together, however naively. “Faggot” is the bundle (noun), the burning of the bundle (verb), setting a heretic upon the bundle and the burning of the heretic (verbs); it’s the small cloth picture of the bundle as a sign of recantation and the recantation itself; it’s the action of bundling together sticks, or iron bars, or hands and feet, or people—all being tied down and into place, which makes me think again of those tidy categories, and of power, specifically the misuse of it. And the little patch of the faggot worn on the sleeve makes me think of the pink triangle patches worn on the shoulders of homosexuals when the Nazis shipped them off to camps. Which makes me think again of persecution, heretics, and witches; of witches, mostly women, burned at the stake, and of faggot as a term of abuse for women. Persecutions of homosexuals, of being hanged. Is it gratuitous, then, to see the noose wrapping around the neck as a kind of bundling? Because later in the dictionary, under “fag,” I find from the fifteenth century, this definition: “a ‘knot’ in cloth.”

More words to consider: As I write, I begin to question how I place “faggot” into my own sentences. Should it be “to call a man a faggot” or “to name a man a faggot”? The root for name comes from Latin nomen, which literally means “name.” Not much help. “Call” comes from late Old English ceallian, which comes from Old Norse kall?n, and means “summon loudly.” There’s a difference, even if it’s slight—naming a man a faggot means to identify him as a homosexual man, albeit by using a hostile “name”; calling a man a faggot, remembering the root, means the caller (loudly!) wants the attention of the man, even wants him closer, as in come here, you faggot.

When faggot meant “to recant,” it wasn’t a name, it was a command. And by recanting to stay alive, the heretic complied, guilty or not.

Maybe because I am a gay man, or maybe because I’ve never actually used the word against one, I realize I’m not even sure why we are called “faggot.” When I try joking about the word, I always say, “Don’t they think we know?” As if the reason to shout out “faggot” is because gay men need reminding—reminding that they’re gay, or maybe that they’re hated for it. And there’s something there too about the need to categorize, to put everybody back in the places where they supposedly belong. But. There are “gay” and “homosexual,” and other words to distinguish us, after all. These are the “real” names, but ones rarely shouted out, or used as taunts like “faggot.”

I understand the reason why a straight man would call another one “faggot”—which isn’t to say that it’s any less offensive. But the suggestion is that the man in question isn’t really a man—he’s soft or weak or effeminate, etc. It’s a jab at his manhood, at his gender but also his masculinity—that mysterious concoction of biology and swagger and toughness and ease that is nearly impossible to fake. I’ve tried. But—and I’m assuming this, that’s all I can do—because the man is straight and because he know’s he’s not gay, he feels the word differently than I do. It’s certainly insulting, and possibly threatening, but there’s some essential difference in the intention that carries something more demeaning for gay men.

But isn’t calling a straight man “faggot” always still an insult to gay men? Conservative writer Ann Coulter tried denying this fact in March 2007, after she implied during a speech in Washington that senator and Democratic presidential nominee John Edwards was a faggot. A few days after her remarks, on Fox News’ program Hannity and Colmes, she offered this defense: “The word I used has nothing to do with sexual preferences. It isn’t offensive to gays. It has nothing to do with gays. It’s a schoolyard taunt meaning ‘wuss.’ And unless you’re telling me that John Edwards is gay, it is not applied to a gay person.” She’s right on only one point—she didn’t call John Edwards “gay.” Calling him “a homosexual” would have been toothless. But with his $400 haircuts, bright smile, and lovely moisturized skin, calling Edwards “faggot” actually bites—which is why the story had so much traction in the media in the days following the slur. Because she’s not saying that John Edwards is sexually attracted to men; she’s saying he passes for a man sexually attracted to men—also implying such slippage disqualifies him from politics. We all know of his marriage and mistress but that doesn’t make him a man, and only a man can be president. And yes, it is a schoolyard taunt, but not one that simply means “wuss,” and that was clear in fourth grade. What’s also clear is calling John Edwards “faggot” is perceived as an insult to him because it’s an insult to gay men—straight men don’t just laugh it off; they fight back because a faggot is someone already pushed aside and trivialized. Even in A Bundle of Sticks when our hero Ben finally stands up to the bully, he defends himself by asking, “How can I have a girlfriend … if I’m supposed to be a faggot?” But defending yourself against the taunt when you’re actually gay doesn’t come with any such reliable escape hatch.

We learn our names only by being called them.

I was most recently called “faggot” two months ago. I was riding my bike in my Midwestern college town, late at night as the bars were emptying. While I pedaled through an intersection, a young guy, probably a student like one of my students, called the word out to me. I just kept riding. I’ve never found a good enough comeback. There really isn’t an argument because according to the dictionary, it’s true—I am gay, so yes, I am a faggot.

There’s something else going on underneath that I wish I could ignore. Once, as a very closeted undergraduate, I was at a party with my two closest friends, a straight woman and a gay man. In those years, when I was being honest with myself, I knew I was gay, but I was trying desperately not to be—bargaining with God every night in prayer to help me stop thinking that way about men, and occasionally even dating women. Before the party, we had some drinks and, after arriving, did shots together in the kitchen of the too-hot house. As we wiped our tingling lips and shook off our quick jolts of vodka, I looked across the living room and a single face stood out.

He was the best combination possible of pretty boy and those clichéd chiseled features of tall, dark, and handsome. Except he wasn’t that tall—he was about my height with the veiny, tight skin of a runner shown off by rolled up sleeves. Lovely clean-shaven cheeks, short brown hair, a jawline as sharp and solid as a table’s edge and big, soft eyes. I couldn’t stop staring.

And in my drunkenness, I forgot myself, and kept staring. I forgot I was pretending I wasn’t gay, and forgot too that not all men appreciated adoration from other men, confused, innocent, or otherwise. After a couple more hours of drinking and gazing, on our way out the front door, stumbling behind my two friends, we passed this man, and as I looped my eyes toward him to snag one final glance, he leaned a few inches from my face, and sneered, “Faggot.”

No one heard it but me. My friends and I walked outside and got halfway to the car before I said anything. “Some guy just called me a ‘faggot,’” I said, nearly chuckling. “What?” asked my gay friend. I repeated, and he was incensed, certainly fueled by his own relationship with the word.

“Who?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Some guy by the door.”

He marched back toward the party, leaving me and my other friend standing in the street. “It’s not a big deal!” I called out, but he kept going. Of course I’d left out the most important piece of the truth. And it makes me wonder if there are moments when gay men might actually deserve scorn—at that party, leering at an obviously straight man, was I being a faggot?

If I’ve known since fourth grade that what is intended by the word is not how it’s defined, then why does it still burn? There must be violence and hatred carried in it, even if I can’t locate the satisfying, definitive connection on paper. If it isn’t to voice a desire to destroy us, then why call gay men “faggots”?

But even after what I’ve uncovered, I’m unsettled because words aren’t simply good or evil. Shouldn’t I feel inspired because as a writer I need words to be beautiful and even powerful, as well as ugly and dangerous? Shouldn’t I of all people know that a word’s potential for comfort or harm rests in how it is used? So if the letters themselves are innocent, if the meaning isn’t in the word, or just in the word, then it’s us carrying around those threats and violence. Like a recanting heretic, I am the one complying with the word’s hatred, and allowing it to bear down on me—the way it surely will until I harden myself against hearing it. Such a revelation is both startling and obvious, and I’m stuck here, bound up in that original trick of the word: When I wince at its sting, I share its intention—if only for a second.

Copyright © Ryan Van Meter 2011. Reprinted by permission of Sarabrande Books.

 



Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now is available from Sarabrande Books. His essays have been published in Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, and Fourth Genre, among others, and selected anthologies include Best American Essays 2009 and Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. Visit ryanvanmeter.net for more information.