By the time I was 18 I had invested a lot of thought into my sexuality, not so much because my closest friend at the time was gay, but because this friend of mine had spent the previous year—since coming out to me, and to me alone—trying to convince me I was gay too. Because he wanted to get it on? Because he wanted company? Probably a bit of both, and either way I understand these impulses. I can relate. Alas, in truth, my sexuality was never really a question. Understanding that my masculine self is a construction of sorts, that gender is a learned performance, and that sexuality can be a fluid, evolving thing, my own hetero-ness has always seemed inherent to me: I am of slightly below-average height. I have flat feet and a weird space between my big toe and my second toe. I inherited—from my mom—a genetic blood-clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, for which I take an aspirin a day. My eyes are hazel. And at 18, the image of Brad Pitt in his Fight Club prime opening a door wearing nothing but rubber gloves only ever inspired in me a competing mix of admiration and envy, while a mere glimpse of the thigh of the girl who sat next to me in Economics roused erections like flagpoles.
So my sexuality was never really a question, not for me, but when we were teenagers—sixteen, seventeen—this friend of mine did what he could to convince me otherwise, mostly by telling me I was gay, over and over, all the time, mistaking my denials for Denial. Eventually the rest of our friends picked this up too and started telling me I was gay, groping my chest and asking if I was turned on and responding to my firm Nos with, Hey man, it’s OK if you like dick—the predictable and condescending high school taunts I never knew how to answer. Really it was only a couple of our friends that did this. Knowing them now I wonder if they would have been so callous if they’d actually thought I was gay. Or if they’d known he was?
Anyway, it was different with my friend. He had an agenda. He was actually trying to foist an identity on me, prod me in a direction I didn’t want to go, and I responded to his teasing differently—maybe because it wasn’t teasing exactly. When he called me gay I lashed out, not by spilling his as-yet unspilled beans, but by pushing and punching, and maybe this response—this physicality—only egged him on? Of course I was never really out to hurt him, never punched him in the face, or the balls. I was just frustrated and striking back—asserting myself—the only way I felt I could. Then one day, as I socked him in the shoulder, he grabbed my arm and with some aikido geometry twisted me to the floor, where he pinned me beneath his 6-foot burly boy-man frame. I was royally pissed, as frustrated at having been pinned as I was at hearing some jerkface bystander half-heartedly shout the usual “Craig’s so gay!” And pinned I was, stuck, physically powerless, my friend’s high school scruff closer to my own than it had ever been. So I struck back, again, the only way I could. I shouted, “Get off me you faggot!”
I recently read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Keeping in mind that I rarely cite anything myself, when she tells us the N-word can be heard 110 times in Tarantino’s Django Unchained (“110 instances of the N-word in nearly three hours”), I’m like, 110, where did that come from? Not that I doubt the number, I just want to know. She cites so many other statistics, why not this one?—and in this age of reflexive-citation no less, when, if you’re big-name enough, and she certainly is, there will always be someone with too much time and access to the internet who will want to dispute your numbers, facts, stats, as a means of disputing your ideas. I would have thought she’d be more careful—or is it just not important here?
In “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories” Gay talks about Frank Ocean’s 2012 release of Channel Orange, and with it his announcement that he had “once loved a man”. She writes, “as a black man coming out as gay or bisexual, particularly as part of the notoriously homophobic R&B and hip-hop community, Ocean was taking a bold step, a risk”. She goes on to say this risk appears to be paying off. “Many celebrities vocalized their support of Ocean, including Russell Simmons, Beyonce, 50 Cent, and others…Channel Orange was a critical and commercial success.”
Oh, if only that were the last word, but: “Of course, Ocean is also part of the Odd Future collective,” and she points out that “his friend and collaborator Tyler, the Creator’s debut album, Goblin, contains 213 gay slurs.”
There’s that big-number-w/o-citation thing again—though wherever it came from, this number makes her point:
“Tyler, the Creator continues to assert he’s not homophobic with that old canard of having gay friends. He stepped up his defense by also claiming his gay friends were totally fine with his use of the term ‘faggot’ over and over and over… I do not know the man. Maybe he is homophobic, maybe he isn’t. I do know he doesn’t think about language very carefully. He believes that just because you can say something, you should. He is not shamed by using 213 slurs on one album…”
Okay, sure, but where did this number come from(!)? She cites other big stats. Why not these?
Then, maybe: Maybe I’d missed the point, couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Who gives a shit where the number came from? 213 is a lot, but would I be less riled if it was really, like, 189? Or 25? Maybe the point really being made here is that the actual number doesn’t matter. The slur—faggot—is there. Its presence at all is the issue, not the number of times it’s used. Even just one time, just once, is enough.
My own experience speaks to this.
Recently I’ve been digging into old seasons of Louie. Season 1, Episode 2 (way back there, at the beginning of things) opens with a poker scene. Louie and his assortment of buddies are playing cards and joking around and laughing (as in all idyllic guys’ night-cheap beer-and-salty snacks poker scenes), except that this clique includes an openly gay man and eventually their conversation gets around to the fact that Louie says “faggot” on stage a lot, more than he says Hello in real life, so the gay friend, Rick, suggests. At this, Louie genuinely (I mean he’s acting, but the show is so great because there’s also a sense that this is Louis C.K., and that this sincerity is sincere) asks Rick, “Does it offend you when I say that word? Do you think I shouldn’t be using that word on stage?”
Rick: “I think you should use whatever words you want. When you use it on stage, I can see it’s funny, and I don’t care. But are you interested in what it might mean to gay men?”
Louie: “Yeah, I am interested.”
Rick: “Well, the word ‘faggot’ really means a bundle of sticks used for kindling in a fire. Now, in the middle ages, when they used to burn people they thought were witches, they used to burn homosexuals, too. And, they used to burn the witches at a stake, but they thought the homosexuals were too low and disgusting to be given a stake to be burnt on, so they used to just throw them in with the kindling, with the other faggots. So that’s how you get 'flaming faggot.'"
Louie, smiling: “So what you’re saying is gay people are a good alternative fuel source.” Everybody laughs. “I’m sorry, go ahead.”
Rick: "You might want to know that every gay man in America has probably had that word shouted at them, maybe while they’re being beaten up, sometimes many times, sometimes by a lot of people all at once. So, when you say it, it kind of brings that all back up. But, you know, by all means, use it. Get your laughs. But, you know, now you know what it means.”
And then there’s a pause, a reflective silence as the camera focuses on the solemn, chastened faces of Louie and co. This lasts exactly three seconds. Then Nick, the dick sitting to Rick’s right, and the guy who admits he’s “disgusted” by all things gay, says “Okay, thanks faggot. We’ll keep that in mind.” And at that everybody laughs, ‘cause they’re all friends and there’s only love around this table. The scene ends with Rick kissing Nick the dick on the forehead, forgiving all trespass. Then those kickass Louie credits roll.
But I come back to those three seconds. For three seconds C.K. had his audience squirming. Three seconds. Then he let us off the hook. It’s as if in those early days he was stuck on the idea of Louie as a comedy series. Edgy, provocative comedy, but still tell-a-joke-and-make-us-forget-our-troubles situational comedy. A later Louie might have lingered in that uncomfortable moment, that awkwardness, rather than let us laugh our way out so quickly. Instead, there in episode 2, the tension is broken and it’s camaraderie all around. All is resolved. Except nothing has been resolved.
So I called my friend a faggot, and then he let me go. I jumped to my feet, but there was no righteousness to this escape. He looked, not defeated exactly, but deflated, sad, like a kicked dog, like I had punched him in the balls, as if I had struck below the belt, and then suddenly I saw that’s exactly what I had done. I was the jerk—I saw this. Our friends could mock me, so crassly, and he could prod me however he wanted, but there was a line, apparently, and I had crossed it. By this point no one else in the room was paying us any attention, this moment mattered nothing to them, though here I am fifteen years later still stuck on it.
Have I crossed that line since? I don’t think so, but this memory-puzzle is imperfect. I really don’t think so though. I apologized, and the two of us moved on, but my friend didn’t laugh it off with me. I had hurt him, and he didn’t let me off so easily. I was never given permission to see faggot as funny. If laughter heals wounds, I was denied that catharsis, and I still feel some of the shame of that moment.
I think that’s OK.
Craig Reinbold is one of the curators of Essay Daily.