I distinctly remember the last time I ever used the word “faggot.”
I was sitting in my friend’s car outside my mother’s house. As he pulled up into the driveway to drop me off he saw out his window, on the ledge beside my mother’s driveway, the big globs of wax that lay baking in the sun. He asked me who had put all that wax there, and I told him that it had been someone I knew in grade school, and he had done it many years ago but the wax had baked and frozen and baked and frozen and never gone away. Matter-of-factly, I called that boy a faggot.
My friend turned to me with one eyebrow raised in a gesture of disbelief.
“Um, hello?” he said. He didn’t have to say anything more. A few months previously, I had found out that my friend was gay.
I hadn’t intended to use the word as a slur. I didn’t mean to say that the boy who’d waxed the ledge outside my mother’s house was gay or that gay people were bad. In the school where I grew up, the word “faggot” was tossed around as a gratuitous insult. I liked it for the guttural sound of it, like “maggot.” There was a strength in the way it rolled off my tongue.
But the hurt on my friend’s face, the way he looked at me like he couldn’t believe what I had just said, changed everything about my perception of that word. I explained to him what I had meant, and he told online pharmacy viagra me it didn’t matter. The intentions behind our words rarely matter more than their consequences.
I was in grade nine. I have never used the word since.
In subsequent years, there are a number of words that I have chosen to remove from my vocabulary, and while I wouldn’t impose my rules for my language on other people, I have yet to hear an argument convincing enough to bring such words back into my life.
For many years, my mother used the word “retard,” no matter how I insisted that it was hurtful. She told me that it was a word from her childhood, and that she didn’t mean it the way people heard it.
It wasn’t until her friend’s disabled son started being called by that name in school, until her own son was identified with a learning disability, that the word started to trickle out of her mouth less and less.
Many times I have heard the argument that culture has taken words like “faggot” and “retard” and changed them to mean something different, much in the way that “literally” no longer means literally. This is an interesting argument, but the intuition that rises in response is that the change in the meaning of the word “literally” is not used to hurt people.
Today, a friend of mine stated that while he still throws the word “faggot” around occasionally, he only does it with people he knows, and who he knows won’t be offended. He censors himself much in the same way that I censor myself when I’m around his mother. I don’t say “fuck” around my friends’ parents, though you can bet I’ll sprinkle it liberally throughout my sentences when in more relaxed company.
Another interesting argument.
My counter-argument is this: People who are offended by the word “fuck” are not a minority that has been systematically oppressed. These people have not had their rights taken away and they are not at a higher risk of violence than other people.
The word “fuck” offends them because it is crude, not because it is being used to marginalize and belittle them.
The word “faggot,” on the other hand, comes from a place that has made it so that there are still parts of the world in which two people who love each other aren’t allowed to get married, among the least harmful results.
It comes from a system that has designated a certain minority as lesser than. It was created by that system to keep those people in their place. One cannot be certain that no one in present company will be offended by that word.
You don’t know which of your friends are closeted or have friends who are. You don’t know which of your friends has a learning disability or knows someone who does. Which is more important – to be hip to the lingo or to do no harm? If anyone has an argument adequately formed to convince me that one can use such words without supporting the systems of oppression from which they are born, please, let me know.
It took a lot of training for me to remove certain words from my vocabulary (I still find myself having the urge to call someone a “pussy” when they can’t kick a soccer ball), and it would be a lot less work to be able to throw words around without really needing to mean them. Until then, I continue pruning my language, difficult though it is, because there are a fuck-ton of people out there who have to deal with way worse shit than I do, and the least I can do as their ally is the work it takes not to use the same language as the people who treat them like dirt.
Making the conscious effort to improve your language in order to reflect how you actually feel about the world isn’t something that’s actually very difficult. In fact, if it’s something you see as hard, you should probably consider yourself lucky that you haven’t had harder things to deal with.