What’s In A Name?

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com April 13 2010 2:10 PM ET

“Stick and stones may break my bones ... ”

The first time my neighborhood bully called me a sissy, my mother taught me this tune. The next time, I sang it to the boy. He laughed at me even harder. I was probably 5 or 6. And it hurt my feelings to have someone call me this ... because I was a sissy. And I knew it. I liked to play with girls, jumping rope, roller-skating, and playing hopscotch. Apparently, boys weren’t supposed to do these things. And I didn’t understand why.

The first time someone called me a fag, I didn’t tell my mother. Nor did I sing her happy tune in my defense. I was 12. The bully in question would have probably kicked my ass. Again, it hurt my feelings ... because I was a fag. And I knew it. I liked to hang out with girls, eating lunch, listening to records, and talking about which jeans we liked best: Calvins or Jordache? Apparently, boys didn’t do these things. This time I understood why.

The word “fag” followed me around all through junior high and into high school. There I learned another expression: “band fag.” The difference with this term was that everyone who played in the school band was labeled one — including the heterosexual (and totally hot!) senior sax player who was also captain of varsity wrestling and whom the entire school had elected homecoming king. But as one of the gay kids in band, I heard only the word “fag” every time someone said “band fag.”

This is what I think a lot of people are doing when it comes to my book, Band Fags!

For those who aren’t up to speed: Shortly before I released my debut novel in June 2008, I set up a fan page on Facebook. Almost two years later I had amassed a 200 fans. Last week I received a message from Facebook saying my page had been removed, as it violated policy by being “obscene” and “hateful,” etc. etc. The Advocate got word of what happened (thanks to my good friend Kenneth “in the 212” Walsh) and posted an article online, which got me and my book some attention — and afforded me the opportunity to be writing this now.

Most of the comments that followed were in my support ... but a lot were not.

It seems that the word “fag” still hits a sore spot with many of my gay brethren. Since news got out about the Band Fags! fan page being removed from Facebook, I’ve been accused of being a “self-hating” homosexual who uses “evil” words to poke fun at my own people. The title of my book has been described as “offensive,” and several folks have vowed not to read it because of what it’s called. Which is unfortunate, because I believe anyone who’s ever been called a “band fag” (and especially a “fag”) will totally relate to the tale.As you’re right to assume, the story is based on my own life. In the book, Jack Paterno (the Frank Anthony Polito character) is a gay teenager growing up in the mid to late 1980s. He lives in a small town dubbed “Hazeltucky” and goes to school at “Hillbilly High.” Clearly, this is not a tolerant place to be living during this time period, as we learn when the other boys label him a “fag”... because he is one. And he knows it.

Jack also plays trumpet in the school band, comprised of a lot of other kids who are all called “band fags.” But (like Frank Anthony Polito) Jack hears only the word “fag” when someone says “band fag.” And because of this (again, like Frank Anthony Polito), Jack tries to hide from his true sexual identity, even at the expense of his relationship with his best friend since seventh grade, who is also gay (as was/is my best friend).

Thankfully, Jack is not beaten up, nor does he contemplate suicide as so many young gays who fall victim to such hate-speak unfortunately have. He holds his head up high, and after a series of missteps that involves dating girls, crushing on boys, and meeting the “Giver Goddess,” Judy Tenuta, Jack Paterno begins to accept who he is — a young gay man.

Like GLAAD, which demanded an apology from John Mayer after he used “fag” in an interview, I still cringe whenever I hear the word. (For those who missed it: In a drunken stupor at a club on New Year’s Eve, Mayer rammed his tongue down Perez Hilton’s throat. He described the moment as being “the dirtiest, tongue-iest kiss I have ever put on anybody — almost as if I hated fags.”)

But for me, it’s all about context.

If my partner, Craig, and I are walking down the street and a group of most likely heterosexual guys screams out “Faggots!” then it upsets me. If my 10-year-old nephew turns to his 7-year-old brother and says “You’re such a fag!” it bothers me too. But if my gay best friend says, “What’s up, fag?” I’m not offended. He’s a fag, I’m a fag. This is our word. We have the right to use it if we want — so long as it isn’t meant to harm someone else.

But again, this has nothing to do with the title of my book. Calling someone a “band fag” is not the same as calling someone a “fag.” “Band fag” is a compound phrase. Broken down, “fag” is a derogatory name for a homosexual. But a “band fag” is someone who plays in the school band. (It’s like “fruitcake.” “Fruit” is a derogatory term for a homosexual. But “fruitcake” is something you eat at Christmas.)

Sure, “band fag” might have a negative connotation. But only because some kids think that being in the school band isn’t cool. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It’s a name, pure and simple.

“Stick and stones may break my bones ... ” (Thanks, Mom!)