Content warning (CW): The text below contains the use of slurs.
The reality is sad but true: "Faggot” is, and has often been, used to describe LGBTQ2S+ people negatively, particularly the feminine ones.
It doesn't matter if you're:
- a 14-year-old boy with an effeminate walk
- a 50-year-old man who likes to paint his nails
- or somebody who just likes dressing however the hell they want
"Faggot” is a cruel catchall used to describe, typically, any male who is gay, soft-spoken, or who doesn't fit the stereotypically (toxic) definition of masculinity.
"Real men" sleep with women, curse, yell, play sports, never cry, are always ready for a fight, and don't wear nail polish, makeup, lots of jewelry, or anything that calls into question their masculinity, right?
Books can, and have, been written about the genesis of this narrow-minded view of manhood. Its use in the American English language can actually be traced back to the early 1900s, but as with so many other words, its true origins are a bit of a mystery.
Thankfully, the resiliency of LGBTQ2S+ people over time has helped take the word, remove a bit of its sting, and reclaim it as a common descriptor for feminine queer men. Much like the word "queer," time and advocacy have allowed some community members to reclaim "faggot” and destigmatize it within LGBTQ2S+ culture.
While the harshness of the word may never truly die, some LGBTQ2S+ people have been able to take the word and whittle away its toxicity by embracing its use as a badge of honour.
Making "faggot” or "fag” commonplace within the colloquialisms used to describe LGBTQ2S+ people has gone a long way in reclaiming the meaning and removing a bit of the venom that has been injected into it for the last century.
But where exactly does the word "faggot” come from, and why has it been weaponized as an assault on LGBTQ2S+ people?
Where does the f-slur come from?
Do you know what the field of etymology is? It's the study of the origins of words and how they've changed over time. And, dear reader, you're about to get an etymology lesson.
In 1914, an author named Louis E. Jackson published a 102-page book called "A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang, With Some Examples of Common Usages." The book's purpose was to serve as a bit of a dictionary for common words used by less than savoury individuals in American culture.
Under the entry for "Drag," this sentence was included: "All the faggots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight."
The word "faggot” itself does not have its own entry, but was used in a sample sentence to demonstrate how "drag" is used in everyday culture. This is one of the earliest instances of the word "faggot” being used in America.
Nine years later, American sociologist Nels Anderson would publish a book, "The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man." The book would be a study of transience and poverty and would also use the word "fag” twice.
"Fairies or Fags are men or boys who exploit sex for profit," was the first entry, while the second said, "Along the gutters, shapeless, fagged/With drooping head and bleeding feet…."
Jackson's use of the word "faggot” is in line with the common understanding we have of the word in 2022. The first use of the word "fag” in Anderson's book also aligns with our common understanding of the word—male sex workers who slept with other men, regardless of their sexual orientation, were understood to be "faggots” or "fags."
The use of "fagged," however, illustrates the diversity and mystery of language: The word is meant to denote exhaustion and has nothing to do with deriding someone for their sexual orientation. As a matter of fact, the term "fagged” is typically associated with British English.
While the terms "faggot” and "fag” were used as a pejorative in American English, British English did not mirror that particular usage. A "faggot” in the United Kingdom often referred to a traditional dish of meatballs made from pig organs or used to describe a bundle of sticks. A "fag” was associated with a loose cigarette.
While "faggot” and "fag” proliferated throughout American English in the early 1900s moving forward, it was widely understood as an Americanism in other parts of the world. Words like "poof" and "queer" were more commonly used in the United Kingdom to describe a homosexual.
Of course, as the 20th century progressed, in the United States, books, magazines, theatre, television, and music incorporated the use of the words "faggot," "fag," and "faggoty." Like so many other words that caused harm, they became a part of the American lexicon.
Is "Faggot” harmful?
In 1978, gay author Larry Kramer published a novel, "Faggots," about the gay lifestyle in New York City in the 1970s. Set prior to the AIDS epidemic, the novel explores the carefree—and sometimes hedonistic—lifestyle of a group of gay men.
The novel would prove controversial within the gay community at the time; some were offended with the use of the word and the portrayal of the gay lifestyle. While the novel was meant to be a satire, it's an early example of a gay man reclaiming a word often used as an insult.
It begs the question: Is the use of the word "faggot” harmful to LGBTQ2S+ people? There's no easy answer. While some may view the term as inoffensive, others may find it hurtful and demoralizing.
Still, others may not have an opinion about the word, while others find it to be deeply harmful—and debilitating—to the LGBTQ2S+ rights movement.
Like any other group of people, LGBTQ2S+ people are not monolithic. The community is filled with an array of lived experiences, backgrounds, identities, views, and varying comfort levels with differences in sexual orientation and gender identity.
The closeted gay man living in Toronto may (in private) find "faggot” a soul-crushing word, while the drag queen in Montreal may find the word hilarious and regularly use it in a standup routine or musical performance.
There's even disagreement as to whether queer women are "allowed" to use the term in the LGBTQ2S+ community.
There's no clear "rule" governing the use of the word and its implications—and that's great. A diversity of experience and opinion regarding "faggot” or "fag” means that, as a community, we can better understand the history of the word and remove its stigma.
Suppose every member of the LGBTQ2S+ community found the word offensive, harmful, and unacceptable. In that case, there may not be an inclination to normalize it and remove its derisiveness. If we all find the word too hurtful and triggering, then we may not be prepared to reclaim it as our own.
So, the simple answer to whether "faggot” is truly a harmful term is quite simple: It's up to you to decide how you'll personally perceive it. Context and how you use it matters.
Reclaiming the f-slur
In 2009, Erin Davies experienced her own form of intolerance. Because she displayed a Pride flag on her car, someone (or someones) decided to spraypaint "fag” and "U R Gay" on her vehicle.
Rather than sit with feelings of dejection, she channelled that energy into a 58-day tour across the United States and Canada. She kept the slurs on her car and used them as an opportunity to meet different members of the LGBTQ2S+ community and discuss their experiences with intolerance.
She filmed the experience, and "Fagbug," a more than 80-minute documentary, was born. Like so many other people who've had to experience the degradation that can come with the word "fag” or "faggot," she chose to use it as a teachable moment and shine a light on the issue of homophobia.
Davies' documentary is representative of what LGBTQ2S+ culture has done for years when it comes to reclaiming a term and exploring its power.
Ever heard the term "fag hag?" It's used to describe a heterosexual woman who is close friends with a gay male. The male equivalent is "fag stag" (interesting note: straight men with close gay friends are also known as "fruit flies").
In the age of the internet and social media, more and more people are reclaiming words that have typically been used as terms of derision. "Faggot," "queer," "dyke," "tranny," and "fairy" are just a few terms that have been reappropriated by their respective members of the LGBTQ2S+ community.
Again, each of us is the judge of how a word lands or how it will be construed. And with that power comes the power to confront and educate others. Will you allow a family member to use the word in your presence during a holiday gathering? Do you give a pass to the annoying colleague who uses the term to describe people he dislikes?
While you are the arbiter of what the term means to you, you are also obligated to respect the feelings of other LGBTQ2S+ people and their experience with the word.
And while you negotiate and come to terms with the words in your own life, organizations like GLAAD, PFLAG Canada, ProudPolitics Canada, and Interligne will continue the vital work of public advocacy to ensure that the stigma attached to LGBTQ2S+ identities is reduced—and eliminated, one day.