Dude, You're a Fag: An Exemplary Ethnography and The Perspective

The awesome book: Dude, You’re a Fag, by C.J. Pascoe. I’d heard of this book for a while (it was published in 2007) but didn’t know anything about it until recently. What in the world did the title mean, I wondered? Turns out that Pascoe spent a year and a half doing ethnography at a high school in California in order to “write a book about guys” (That’s how she described it to the students). Pascoe gained access to the high school by writing the school district office about her research topics and requesting access to the students. She was granted permission to come to the school and conduct interviews with students. So, Pascoe made her intentions and motives clear before she began her ethnographic research. (Some ethnographers conceal their purposes as researchers and deceive the people they’re studying--generally because they don’t want people in a setting to alter their usual behavior by virtue of being watched).

Pascoe recognized that high school is the perfect setting to study gender and sexuality. Specifically, she wanted to study the role of masculinity in the lives of both male and female students. She formally interviewed fifty students and informally interviewed “countless” students, faculty, and administrators.

A major component of her study consisted of observations. She spent time observing students in classrooms that included “gender neutral” sites like Senior Government class and traditionally masculine sites such as auto shop class. She also made observations at drama classes and at Gay/Straight Alliance meetings. She took field notes (in order words, she filled notebooks) of her observations about how students, faculty, and administrators constructed meanings of gender and sexuality. She also spent time with students at lunch and popular school events like the Winter Ball, rallies, plays, and dances.

Both the boys and girls she interviewed told her that “fag” was the worst slur guys could direct at each other. She observed that girls rarely used the word “fag” and were never called fags. When Pascoe asked one student “What kind of things do guys get called ‘fag’ for?” he answered: “Anything…literally, anything. Like you were trying to turn a wrench the wrong way: ‘Dude, you’re a fag.’” Being labeled “fag,” she discovered, had less to do with sexuality and much more to do with masculinity.

As Pascoe explains in an interview with sociologist Dalton Conley, the word “fag” was once used mainly as an insult to police the boundaries of masculinity. So, one guy calling another guy “fag” is not necessarily to say that he is literally gay; it’s a charge that he’s not being “a real man.” In other words, “fag” is not only a homophobic slur, it’s a homophobic slur that also attacks behavior as not being masculine. That’s why she uses the phrase gendered homophobia throughout her book to describe the masculinity that was practiced by the young men she studied.

In the book she points out that drama class was a setting where male students could behave in “unmasculine” ways without fear of being teased. In that way, drama class offered a break from the pressure that boys exerted on each other to enact a specific form of masculinity. She also mentions that boys spoke with her one-on-one about their feelings about girls in mature ways. This was in contrast to the posturing, bragging, and one-upmanship that she witnessed when boys were in the presence of their peers (for example, boys would exaggerate their sexual prowess in masculine spaces like the weight room).

One of the interesting dynamics she discusses in her book is how adults contributed to constructions of gender and sexuality at the high school. For example, when a boy and girl left Winter Ball early, two vice principals joked “You two going to a hotel or what?” I can’t imagine administrators would react the same way if a couple consisting of two boys walked off together.

Pascoe observed that teachers routinely ignored homophobic and sexist comments made by students. In fact, with one exception, she never saw anyone punished for using words like “fag,” “gay,” or “dyke.” The one incident that did result in punishment involved an African American student who yelled out to the all-white, all-male wrestling team, “Why are you wearing those faggot outfits?” This is interesting considering her observation that African American boys in her study did not use the word “fag” as much as white boys.

Pascoe asserts that school authorities did a poor job of protecting the most vulnerable students at the school, such as “Ricky,” a gay student who was regularly teased and taunted by his peers and who eventually left the school. She writes that homophobia was so strong at the school that she took a gay pride sticker off her car while she conducted her research. She makes a great point when she says that faculty and administrators should take as strong a stance against sexist and homophobic slurs as they do against racist slurs.

Based on her research, she recommends more education about sexual harassment and making resources available to parents and educators aimed at facilitating gender and sexual equality in schools. Also, she points out how it’s not enough to discipline students for harassing other students. They also need to be educated about issues of power and inequality.

In the course of her research, students were very curious about her personal life. They inquired about her private life, asked her advice about sexual matters, and even expressed interested in dating her, despite the fact they knew she was “almost thirty” (that’s how she described her age to students). By all accounts in her book, she didn’t indulge the students’ curiosity about her, nor did she discuss her sexual identity with students or administrators.

At the conclusion of her research, she did let members of the Gay/Straight Alliance know that she is gay. She reflects that she wanted to be “out” to the girls in the Alliance as an ally because there were no other known gay adults at the high school. But during her research she explained to students there were parts of her personal life that she couldn’t talk about until the research was over. I gather from the book that Pascoe put a lot of effort into maintaining boundaries between herself as a researcher and the students as participants in her research. (Some ethnographers feel obligated to share a lot of personal information about themselves, considering how much information they gain from their subjects. Also, a researcher might find that revealing information about oneself can result in obtaining more information from subjects. There is no single rule on this matter; it depends on the research being conducted as well as the researcher’s discretion).

I’m really impressed that Pascoe devoted a year and half to studying the daily activities of high school students. I think she did a superb job of getting close to the action and using interviews and observations to gather data. I also get the strong sense from reading her book that she treated her subjects with respect and that she acted ethically throughout her research. That’s why I call Dude, You’re a Fag an exemplary ethnography. Some might dismiss what she studied as “boys being boys.” I couldn’t disagree more with such a sentiment. I think Pascoe did a phenomenal job of taking behaving that some people might view as obvious and ordinary (namely, the practice of boys calling each other “fags”) and showing how it’s part of a sexist and homophobic process that’s denigrating to both boys and girls. Analyzing everyday behavior in ways that illustrate power relations and inequality is sociology at its finest.

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The perspective.

But for years, there’s existed a rather mainstream rationale that the word “faggot” doesn’t necessarily refer to gay people, particularly in homosocial settings of self-identified straight men. In these social settings, it’s a generalized insult to note weakness. “You don’t have to be gay to act like a faggot. You don’t even have to be a man to act like a faggot. Anybody can act like a faggot,” said Chris Rock in a stand-up set before going on to describe a scenario that would make him a faggot (getting so wrapped up in singing Gwen Stefani in his car that he misses when the light turns from red to green).

In 2013, Eminem 
claimed that his use of “faggot” in his music was not homophobic, but “more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole.” To explain why he used the word to refer to a paparazzo in 2014 Jonah Hill explained, “I said the most hurtful word I could think of at that moment and, you know, I didn’t mean this in the sense of the word... I didn’t mean it in a homophobic way.” His apology seemed more sincere than most because he acknowledged that effect superseded intent: “How you mean things doesn’t matter. Words have weight and meaning and the word I chose was grotesque and no one deserves to say and hear words like that.”

While no one would mistake these ostensibly heterosexual men as queer theorists or sociologists, there is an academic reading that supports their perspective. The word faggot (or fag), Peggy Orenstein writes in her book-long survey of masculinity among young American men Boys & Sex, “has become less a comment on their sexual orientation than a statement about their manhood.” Orenstein cites the work of sociologist C.J. Pascoe, whose 2007 book, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, detailed the potentially non-homophobic usage of “faggot,” arguing that it’s used to maintain social order amongst straight-identified boys, and as such, referring to it as an anti-gay term is reductive. Wrote Pascoe:

Homophobia is too facile a term with which to describe the deployment of fag as an epithet. By calling the use of the word fag homophobia—and letting the argument stop there—previous research has obscured the gendered nature of sexualized insults (Plummer 2001). Invoking homophobia to describe the ways boys aggressively tease each other overlooks the powerful relationship between masculinity and this sort of insult... Fag is not necessarily a static identity attached to a particular (homosexual) boy. Fag talk and fag imitations serve as a discourse with which boys discipline themselves and each other through joking relationships. Any boy can temporarily become a fag in a given social space or interaction... [B]ecoming a fag has as much to do with failing at the masculine tasks of competence, heterosexual prowess, and strength or in any way revealing weakness or femininity as it does with a sexual identity.

The linguist Arnold Zwicky, who is not only gay but identifies as a fag, affirmed this stance on Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast in 2012: “Starting from a slur on homosexuals or presumed homosexuals, the word has moved to a generalized insult with actually no imputation of sexuality at all. That’s paralleled roughly by one of the extensions of gay itself, in the stupid, lame sense that’s often associated with teenagers: That’s so gay.”

Reading Pascoe’s book shook my world. For years I assumed that those who made the fag-not-gay argument were trying to pull one over on us. Having an outsider, who had studied the boys in an American high school, support this line of thinking upended my own philosophy. I believed that in order to have a claim to an epithet in order to ethically reappropriate it, one had to have been called it with some regularity. What Pascoe argues is that straight men who employ the word fag have their own relationship with the word that theoretically has nothing to do with actual gay people. Having been called a fag about as much as my actual name by other boys while growing up, I assumed this word was the property of me and my kind. (And surely, “fag” hits differently depending on whether you are actually one or not.) Because so many straight men seem to have a relationship with the word, and its power to organize social order, there’s an argument to be made for their own discrete claim to it. So many of us have felt the sting of “faggot,” but for only some of us, it continues to radiate.

Even if they’re trying to fool us with this argument, though, it doesn’t mean straight guys who say “fag” aren’t trying to fool themselves. In a well-known stand-up routine, disgraced comic Louis C.K. rhapsodized “faggot,” saying: “I miss that word, you know. I grew up saying that word. It never meant gay. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what gay was. I hadn’t been told that people do that. I had no idea.” In his conception, a faggot was a sniveling, scolding killjoy. “I would never call a gay guy a faggot unless he’s being a faggot, but not because he’s gay, you understand?” said the comedian. Orenstein and Pascoe similarly documented boys claiming that they’d never use the term on someone who was actually gay.

But ignorance is not absolution. The failure to realize the origins of a word does not erase them. “It’s not the word, it’s the context in which the word is being said,” says Rock regarding pejoratives. But there is subjective context (what one means) and objective context (what something means given its usage and history) - Rock’s conception ignores the latter for the sake of the former.

In a sense, language is defined by its evolution. This is why slang and internet-speak are routinely added to standard-setting dictionaries. The issue here is that, unlike an ableist term like “lame,” whose earlier popular usage to refer to disability has practically evaporated and whose status as a generalized expression of contempt has clearly prevailed, “faggot” has never ceased meaning a gay man. It’s only expanded to be able to apply to men who aren’t gay but nonetheless exhibit some sort of behavior that, just like homosexual behavior, could be considered to fall short of the standard of masculinity. But the notion that it is a generalized insult divorced from its homophobic context seems a relatively new convention, at least in mainstream media.

I’d theorize that even the dilution of “faggot” itself owes to homophobia. Before the red scare and McCarthyism, homosexuality was not a major feature of the mainstream American discourse. As queer people were targeted through arrest and the denial of employment, they organized and fought back, gaining greater cultural visibility and thus an even stronger backlash from the moral majority. In 1990, psychologist Dr. Gregory Herek told the New York Times that homophobia was primarily motivated by the reaffirmation of one’s own values, and psychologist Bob Altemeyer said of those most strongly opposed to gays: “Their self-righteousness makes them feel they are acting morally when they attack homosexuals. It overcomes the normal inhibitions against aggression.’’

(I want to posit that it was in this sort of environment that sought to protect society by both naming the villain and muting the love that dare not speak its name. By hating the sinner, one didn’t even have to contend with—or expose his children to—the sin, thus detaching “faggot” from the nuts and bolts of what defined it, thereby fostering a more generalized epithet.)

That people like Rock, Louis CK, and Orenstein’s and Pascoe’s subjects acknowledge that “faggot” could refer to a gay man but swear that it doesn’t in their usage just goes to show how intertwined the meanings are. Further research might actually test whether people are increasingly unaware of the status of “faggot” as a slur to refer to gay men, but it seems pretty obvious when you read about a high school kid coming out only to be abused and called a faggot, or a guy ranting about a “fucking faggot homo,” that it still means what it’s meant since at least 1914, loud and clear. Did the guy who drove his truck with “OPEN OUR GYMS FAGGOT” on its back windows to a protest of openly gay Colorado Governor Jared Polis in May just use that word coincidentally? When Fox Sports broadcaster Thom Brennaman referred to “one of the fag capitals of the world” on a hot mic in August, did he merely mean a place where nonnormative-presenting men convene? I doubt it.

That “faggot” was once used to refer to women, particularly those deemed old or unseemly, and continues to hold space as a derisive evaluation of a man’s masculinity shows that no matter how far it’s come, it’s barely strayed from its belittling intentions. Because it remains a word that is used to denigrate gay men, and presumably most people who use it are aware of this, even in its supposed non-homophobic context, it is at the very least an affront to those most vulnerable to the word. For if the person using it had gay friends he cared about, or was interested in fostering a prosocial environment, he wouldn’t be furthering the use of a word that still exists to subjugate. In that sense, there’s at least a bigoted negligence that arises in even the most (supposedly) benign uses of the word. That adds yet another use to an impressive put-down: it’s a litmus.

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As a kid growing up in the Midlands, my first encounter with the word “faggot” was when it was served at the dinner table with mash and gravy. A “fag” was something the older boys smoked at the bus stop. Then I was called a fag by a classmate. He didn’t even know I was gay at the time; it was just something that cruel boys called each other, but I knew, and it amazed me even then that a word that was so innocuous in its other contexts suddenly felt like a punch to the gut.

Since then, like plenty of other gay men, I’ve encountered the word a fair bit and not just every time “Fairytale Of New York” comes back on. Over the last year or two, I’ve noticed more and more gay men using the word self-referentially online, to the point that there is a running joke about which pop culture icons get to say it. Ariana Grande can, apparently.

For the most part it’s good-humored, even celebratory. The celebration of “faggotry” by members of the community is intended as mischievous and sincere, yet my hackles still rise every time I see the word. Hearing it aloud elicits a fight-or-flight response in my gay primate brain.

I’m not the only one who finds the f-word to be a trigger. “I know it can be tossed around on occasion in a playful way between gay men, but personally, I still cringe when I hear it,” says sex and relationships writer Sean Abrams. “I have vivid memories of being called a faggot when I was younger, so despite having less of a negative connotation when used among members of our own community, that doesn’t take away the associations I’ve always connected it with.”

“I have come to find power in it,” says Ryan Killian Krause, a journalist from New York. “I know re-appropriation of words can be tricky, but I’m at the part of my personal identity journey where I’ve come to revel in the fact, I’m a faggot. I would also be lying if I didn’t say that I enjoy the subversive power I feel using it in hetero-dominated spaces... I’ve had straight women tell me I can’t use the word and to them I’ve essentially said, ‘That’s not your call to make.'

The possible reclamation.

There’s precedent in reclamation of language, of course. “Queer” was once a term used as a means of othering sexual minorities, to categorise us as social aberrations. It has since been reclaimed by the community as a celebration of our differences, carving out a whole area of academic study and providing a handy, single-syllable catch-all descriptor for anyone who lands somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ continuum. Elsewhere, in Latin American lesbian culture, masculine-of-center women are retaking ownership of “camiona”, a derogatory term once used against them, derived from the Spanish for a female lorry driver. Can the same be done with “faggot”

For some, “faggot” is a badge of honor. Gay author, playwright and activist Larry Kramer certainly owned it in his 1978 novel Faggots, which chronicled gay life in pre-Aids New York. More recently, in 2014, queer writer Casey Legler outlined her own definition of the word in the Guardian: “Faggots are beautiful, magical, brave humans who have overcome the loss of an entire generation of their elders to HIV and Aids and who have, despite this, approached life with resilience, grace and class,” she wrote. “Being called a faggot is, in fact, a compliment of the highest order. Those of you who use it as anything less than a term of celebration are incorrect.

This line of thinking, that words only have power if we give it to them and that we get to choose what a word means to us, is admirable but arguably inaccurate. Language is forged through history, and it feels naïve to think that negative connotations that have been ingrained generationally can be simply willed away. “I come down hard on anyone who tries to argue that it’s ‘just a word,’” says Tom Blunt, who identifies as nonbinary but has been on the receiving end of “faggot” as a slur. “It’s a magic word, the kind you find in a scary old book and wielding it carelessly can make terrible things happen.”

Perhaps the only comparable example of a community retaking ownership of language used against them is the n-word, used in all manner of contexts within the black community, but also still considered very much a racist slur when uttered by anybody else. “It’s encouraging to see people reclaim the word ‘faggot’ and use it in a power move, in the same way that as a man of color I find it empowering when black celebrities use the n-word,” says David Chipakupaku, who works in TV in London.

“But as with rappers who use the n-word, we need to be aware that those who want to harm us will see our empowerment as an excuse to feel free to use those words willy-nilly and claim that we’re attacking their freedom of speech when we challenge them. I’m happy to be a faggy fag, running around in my faggotry. But I worry about saying it in public, around non-gay people, as they may feel they have a right to use it.” He raises a good point. Earlier this year, a single line of dialogue in sitcom The Other Two (“I am gagging for you, faggot!”) perfectly captured the everyday horror that many gay men feel when a well-meaning, self-identified “ally” uses language that doesn’t belong to them.

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.

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References:
Heterosexuals' Use of “Fag” and “Queer” to Deride One Another: A Contributor to Heterosexism and Stigma: Journal of Homosexuality: Vol 40, No 2 (tandfonline.com)
Who Can Say Faggot? A Two-Part Study on Online Slur Reclamation, by Zach Gordon 
Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High Schoolby C.J. Pascoe

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