Why reclaiming ‘fag’ doesn’t work for me

James Patrick Carraghan

James Patrick Carraghan is an award-winning activist, writer, librarian and student at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. He spends his free time gardening, hording books and flirting. You can follow him on tumblr at http://thelibrarynevercloses.tumblr.com/

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It started about a week before the Fagbug came to campus. I’d known that the rainbow VW Bug was coming since the summer before, when it had been announced to the school’s GSA. I had thought that it wasn’t the best of ideas, but since everything was already booked there was little point in fighting it. Or so I thought.

The Fagbug is the name of an LGBT+ event created by Erin Davies. When she discovered that the words ‘fag’ and ‘U R Gay’ had been spray-painted on her car, she decided that rather than washing them off, she would keep the car as it was and drive around the United States in an attempt to raise awareness about homophobia and hate crimes.

After about a year, she repainted the car in a rainbow pattern with the word ‘Fagbug’ written on the side. Her intentions are noble – there is no question about that, and I support her idea. But the way that the word is being thrown around by her supporters leads me to think that they really don’t understand how using words like ‘fag’ and ‘faggot’ are playing with fire.

At first I thought that I was the only one who was uncomfortable with the posters for the Fagbug around campus. I thought that I was being over-sensitive; it was time to move on from being upset by this word. When I talked to other people, however, it became clear that I was not the only student who was uncomfortable with the word ‘fag’ being so casually thrown across campus – or specifically with the word ‘fag’ now being thrown around so casually by students. After I raised my concerns, I began to hear from students who told me that they were also having problems with the way the word was popping up.

There was not a single LGBT+ student I talked with who was okay with either Fagbug coming to campus or the word ‘fag’ being used in such a careless way.

There has been a campaign over the last few years to try to reclaim the words ‘fag’ and ‘faggot’, just as the word ‘queer’ was (mostly) reclaimed from a slur to a catch-all umbrella term for gender/sexual identity. In fact, I’ve even seen some commentators go so far as to suggest that LGBT+ people should reclaim the word ‘faggot’ in the way that black Americans have ‘reclaimed’ the ‘N-word’ – never mind the fact that the use of the N-word is still incredibly divisive among black Americans and has both a meaning and a history so vile that I cannot bring myself to write the word out fully without feeling disgust boiling up the back of my throat.

I understand the way this ‘F-word’ burns – I’ve been called it, my friends have been called it, and my boyfriends over the years have been called it too. I understand the desire to take the sting out of the word. I would give anything to make it go away. But this will never happen.

It’s my feeling that the reason ‘queer’ could be reclaimed (or that the word ‘dyke’ could be reclaimed by sections of the lesbian community) is because the words existed outside of a single meaning. ‘Queer’ has always meant more than one thing outside of the derogatory term – it’s a synonym for ‘odd’ or ‘unusual’. ‘Dyke’ was also not tied down to a single meaning – it was also used as a concept in engineering (meaning a wall to regulate water levels, known to Americans as a levee). Since there was never a single definition or purpose that these words were tied down to, it was easier to make the case for their rehabilitation and repurposing. ‘Fag’ and ‘faggot,’ however, have lost their secondary meanings in the United States. There is no other purpose in these words except to injure the person they are directed at.

When I saw the word littering every event board on campus, I saw students look at the posters and quickly look away, awkwardly fumbling to get away from what they’d just seen. When ‘fag’ and ‘faggot’ are the most popular insults to be thrown at LGBT+ kids in high school (particularly gay boys), I wonder if it is a good idea to have an event at a time where those same kids would be starting their first semester, hoping to have escaped it in the ‘progressive’ world of the university, only to then see and hear the F-word all over again. I can honestly say that if I saw that when I was a freshman, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to come out to anyone for a long while after.

Efforts to reclaim the word began in the 1970s, waned in the 1980s, and have been kicking back up in the past few years. Back in the 1990s, Dan Savage launched a campaign to reclaim the word by addressing every reader of his sex advice column, ‘Savage Love’, with the greeting ‘Hey Faggot!’ He stopped doing this in 1999, claiming that he had successfully rehabilitated the word.

Perhaps, in his own mind, he was successful. It seems as if the rest of the world didn’t get the memo.

There seem to be some shared traits among those who claim they want to rehabilitate the word – they tend to be white, from a middle-class (or at least not poor) background, with the time on their hands to do a lot of theorising and musing about subjects less urgent than car payments, and even when they were younger weren’t really called ‘fag’ much in the first place.

Erin Davies – a white, cisgender woman – admits that she didn’t get called ‘faggot’ by her fellow students, her family or her teachers on a daily basis as she was growing up. She admits that she had never been called a ‘fag’ before her car was vandalized. There’s a sense of people blind to their own privileges in life when they claim that this word can be repurposed. There’s a sense that the blinders are on when it’s casually said that you can reclaim a word that so many children have killed themselves over.

If we are to even think about reclaiming a slur, we should question what factors motivate us to do this. Is it because we’re angry? Is it because we’re tired of it? Is it because we don’t want to let our guard down, we’ll act like it doesn’t matter? Most importantly, we must ask, ‘Is it worth it?’ and ‘Can it actually be done?’

If the return of the radical queer revolution comes – god knows we’ve waited long enough for a second-wave – and somehow manages to reclaim the two words that have decimated generations of LGBT+ people, who’s to say that the news of the change will reach the mainstream, heterosexual world? Without knowledge of our new and improved context for the word, the word can still be used as an insult against all LGBT+ people.

The day of the event, I saw a few queer students sighing with relief that they wouldn’t have to see ‘fag’ every time they walked to class. It was then that the idea stuck me: perhaps the best we can do as a community – both for those who are growing up queer right now and those who have yet to come – is to take ‘fag’ and ‘faggot’ off the table. Rather than trying to rework them, why not try to reject the words, refusing to try to spin them into something that they can never become.

The best, most radical and most healing thing we can do is let these words die.

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