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The new F word

The new F word

Scream

On the politics of "faggot" and whether the word can ever be used again. Or, what Isaiah Washington taught us about the power of language.

"Oh, it's such an awesome word," the TV actor T.R. Knight said to Ellen DeGeneres on her show January 17, his voice quavering a bit. He didn't want to be there. He seemed to want to grab hold of Ellen, to shift attention to her very public and, at the time, difficult coming-out a decade ago. Because Knight never wanted to be the poster boy for the word "faggot."

Who would? The word is tinged with the inchoate stupidity of adolescence. Most of us have probably not heard it since then, except maybe from the mouth of a passing heckler. It's certainly not for polite conversation. And, in fact, "I had never been called that to my face," Knight told DeGeneres. It was the only interview his publicist said he would do--he and Ellen share a publicity firm--on the subject of his Grey's Anatomy costar Isaiah Washington referring to him as "a faggot" on the set back in October. (Knight declined to speak for this piece.) The event hit the gossip press; soon enough it compelled T.R.--cute, lovable T.R., as he's regarded by many of the ABC medical drama's millions of fans--to come out.

By the time of the Golden Globes on January 15, things had settled down a bit. And then Washington, essentially without provocation, leaned into the microphone during a cast interview backstage and said, "No, I did not call T.R. a faggot. Never happened. Never happened." And what had been a dying controversy until then suddenly blew up into a major Hollywood scandal, with Washington sent to "counseling" by angry network suits, his job reportedly on the line, and cast members like Katherine Heigl incensed, worried that T.R. might leave the show over the unrelenting drama (as some media outlets speculated).

"I'm going to be really honest right now--he needs to just not speak in public. Period," the actress told Access Hollywood about Washington's impromptu utterance. "T.R. is my best friend," she added. "I will use every ounce of energy I have to take you down if you hurt his feelings." And thus crumbled, once and for all, the utopian vision of harmonious diversity that Grey's Anatomy broadcasts each week, betrayed by off-camera antics of a very real sort.

"I knew the moment that I saw the tape that it was going to be a big deal," Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, tells me. "And it was totally unacceptable." It was also an opportunity. "This happened to be a story out of Hollywood that was on the front page," he says. It was a new front in the war against the word "faggot," and Giuliano seized the opportunity. The Golden Globes were on a Monday night; GLAAD sent out a statement two days later. "We reached out to ABC to make sure that he received it."

And suddenly, "he"--Washington--a 43-year-old journeyman actor who'd played a gay guy in Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, and Knight, a mild-mannered 33-year-old demi-celebrity--he wasn't exactly a household name before this brouhaha erupted--became the focal point of a national media teach-in over the word "faggot" and what it means to use it. By the time Washington returned to the Grey's Anatomy set February 1, the epithet had basically been reduced to the f word--the new f word--and the merely inappropriate had become indefensible. "Faggot" was now as unspeakable as the n word--which, of course, has also been in the news of late, thanks to another television actor, Michael Richards of Seinfeld.

Nobody seems to agree on how the word faggot became the "bad" epithet for gay. Its deepest etymology goes back to meaning a "bundle of sticks." This is where the English slang for cigarette, fag, comes from. It later came to mean burning a heretic at the stake and also to describe a silly or foolish person. Meanwhile, fagging was also the term for a junior boy acting as a servant for a senior boy at U.K. public schools, and while there's some debate over whether this has anything to do with its passage into its current use, it was not, of course, a term of respect. In any case, faggot also probably merged meanings with the similar-sounding Yiddish word for gay person, faygeleh.

Whatever its derivation, the word has long been used among gay people as well: Larry Kramer's 1978 novel Faggots satirized the arid emotional lives and desperate sexual excesses of pre-AIDS New York City. The book could be seen today as a period piece of self-hatred, but in broader terms it shows how the word continues to be used among gay men now: as casual slang for one another, although not in the same way as "queer."

"Other words and symbols of the gay rights movement have changed in their significance," notes Kenji Yoshino, a Yale law professor and author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (and an occasional Advocate contributing columnist). "If you think of the gay appropriation of 'queer,' which used to be solely pejorative, it's flipped"--to the point that it's been appropriated as an intellectual commodity, with college departments that have the word in their names. "Fag" also has become, at least within some gay social circles, a term of affection, even solidarity. Still, both can sound rough coming from someone who's not gay themselves. "But the word 'faggot,' except in very limited circumstances of gays joshing each other, has not changed in meaning," he says. "Even internally to the community it's used as a really pejorative word."

And in that sense, Yoshino says that " 'faggot' is more like the n word."

And everybody knows what happened to Richards--a.k.a. Kramer--when he let loose with the n word during a gig at a comedy club in Los Angeles last fall. His excuse was rather like Washington's: He just blurted it out in anger or frustration. Awful words, like murder fantasies, tend to lurk in dark regions of our subconsciousness.

Heigl described herself soon after the Golden Globes incident as "flummoxed," adding, in tepid defense of Washington, as if he were some sort of semideranged relative of hers, "I don't think he means it the way he comes off."

As for ABC, something had to be done (fortunately for NBC, Seinfeld was long off the air). Exactly one week after the Golden Globes, the network had GLAAD's Giuliano and Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, in to meet with Washington in a lunchroom at the studio where Grey's Anatomy is filmed. Washington "took a break from shooting to spend an hour and a half with Kevin and me," says Giuliano. Over wraps, which nobody ate, and bottles of water, they discussed the situation.

Coincidentally, the day of the meeting was also the first day of No Name-Calling Week, a program of GLSEN. "I saw an opportunity to leverage a bad event into what I call a teachable moment," says Jennings, a former teacher who emphasizes that he'd be more likely to talk to a 15-year-old than a celebrity. "That's why I accepted the invitation."

In short, they were making an example out of him. "I'm not a priest," Jennings says. "I'm not capable of granting Mr. Washington absolution for his sins."

And while Washington "was very sorrowful," Giuliano says, the point of the meeting was "focused on what this guy can do," says Jennings, not why he did what he did. Things like a public-service announcement were mentioned, or maybe having him participate in next year's No Name-Calling Week.

Jennings used to be a teacher; GLSEN is basically an education organization. It's allied with the larger antibullying movement in the schools right now. Its studies have shown that the top three reasons that kids are bullied are physical appearance, sexual orientation, and gender expression. No Name-Calling Week targets grades 5 through 8--apparently the dawning of the name-calling developmental stage, although that's obvious to anyone who suffered through middle school--and it's not limited to anti-LGBT names, of course.

Jennings looks at the Washington fracas as an opportunity to make it easier on kids. "I think a lot of the LGBT adult community think that in some ways things are so much better today, that this isn't an issue anymore," he says. "But harassment is the rule, not the exception." And, he adds, "our job is to change that, in particular around the word Mr. Washington used." A 2004 study conducted for GLSEN by Widmeyer Research and Polling and Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates found that over 60% of high school students think it's OK to casually say "fag" or "that's so gay" when joking around; 34% of the boys and 20% of the girls in the survey admitted to saying "faggot."

The last time GLSEN became involved with a celebrity was when Eminem was using "faggot" in just that way (according to the rapper, at least): not to denigrate gay people per se but to signal a disapproval of certain people. Of course, it's next to impossible to separate those two impetuses from each other. And while Eminem was fairly unrepentant, the situation formed the basis for a lesson plan that GLSEN developed. Teachers used the controversy to raise the issue with their students. "I didn't get to meet with Eminem," Jennings says, though he worked with MTV on a PSA that ran during the 2001 Grammys.

"The difference between Eminem and Mr. Washington is that Eminem defended his right to use this language," he adds. "For all practical purposes, Eminem got away with it. Washington is being held to a higher standard--which is a sign of progress." And that higher standard now seems to be ensnaring others who might have gotten away with homophobia pre-Isaiah. Witness how quickly Masterfoods USA, a division of Mars Inc., pulled its controversial commercial for its Snickers candy bar from the air after its debut during the Super Bowl. Two men ripping each other's chest hair out after accidentally kissing? Professional football players jeering at the sight of a same-sex kiss (as the spots online depicted)? The company couldn't get away with it.

Washington's new publicist, Kelly Mullens, who specializes in crisis control, declined to let him speak for this piece. She and his other people are trying to keep him under wraps, hoping that this whole f word controversy becomes about issues greater than the actor himself, that somehow his actions will disappear into the larger discussion of its meaning and power. Which probably isn't a bad thing.

Despite the way it was sometimes portrayed in the press, Washington "didn't go to homophobia rehab," says Giuliano. There was no intervention. (That, after all, would be a bit ridiculous.) He did spend six days in a sort of holistic program of his choosing, doing yoga and eating right. There was a lot of counseling, which is expected to be ongoing. The goal ultimately is for him to gain some self-control. After all, he has a career to think about.

But in the end, inadvertently, Washington caused an important conversation to happen, and perversely or not, we should almost thank him for that. "What gives us hope is that sexual harassment was completely pervasive 50 years ago--now that's changed," says Jennings. And whether or not "faggot"--that is, the f word--shifts its meaning or is reclaimed, the cultural force behind it needs to go away first.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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