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
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
"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
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.