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Dan Savage and the Other, Uglier F-Word

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"Faggot."

If you're reading this, you've probably got some history with this word, or another word like it. If you're like me, hearing this word, seeing it written down, causes a fully removed yet strangely deep sort of pain; it reminds you of a time when that word was hurled at you like a grenade, like a guided missile. It feels like someone has reached into your stomach and begun twisting your intestines around in their hand.

A few days ago, Dan Savage, the increasingly ubiquitous gay-rights ambassador, used this word, like a grenade, against his enemies. GOProud, a coalition of LGBT Republicans and their straight allies, had made the thoroughly shocking move to endorse Mitt Romney for president. But less shockingly, Savage went right to Twitter to vent his frustrations with the following tweet:

Right on cue, Savage's decision to use that particular word prompted a stream of angry responses. Some went so far as to label Savage a "bully" for using a term he has acknowledged in the past as hurtful to the LGBT community; others pointed to the irony of his rhetoric in the context of his role as founder of the anti-bullying "It Gets Better" project:

Of course, like any ideologue worth his salt, Savage had his chorus of defenders, mostly witty gay bloggers eager to differentiate themselves from the whining masses. One tweet in particular, from TV executive Nicholas Oakley, got me thinking:

We've heard this argument before, of course; it's all rainbows and unicorns as long as you don't say "faggot" with the same disdain or disgust or destructive sentiment as the homophobes in high school. After all, African Americans have been "reappropriating" the n-word for decades, if admittedly to the great frustration, offense, and distress of a large segment of the black community.

But I would invite Oakley to read Savage's tweet again. What exactly is it about Savage's usage of the word "faggot" that indicates he has "reappropriated" that word? The awkward implications of his choice of syntax notwithstanding, the context in which he uses the word -- right next to "grab their ankles" and "pathetic" -- suggests not only that Savage meant to demean and degrade, just the same as all the bigots he claims to stand against, but that he meant to demean and degrade by comparing GOProud to a particular set of gay men (bottoms) and all those who enjoy receiving penetrative sex. So much for sex positivity.

Is he allowed to say it because he's an out gay man with a long-time partner? Is it because he has become renowned as a gay-rights advocate (transphobia allegations be damned)? Is it OK to say something that is clearly going to be hurtful to a large number of people if we follow it with quick assurances that, no, stupid, I didn't mean that -- we've reappropriated that term long ago?

In his well-written piece in the Village Voice, Steven Thrasher reminds us that the word "faggot" has become more and more taboo over the last few years; those (straight) individuals who have been caught using it have paid a steep price. Why? Because they used a word that degraded and hurt a group of people who are tired of ducking the grenade.

Let's say for the moment that Savage is a model gay person and has never made any statements to suggest any sort of homophobia or privilege that would load malicious meaning into his use of the term "faggot." Let's say that we have indeed "reappropriated" this word. What, then, should it mean? How should it be used? The n-word is often used by those in the African-American community as a "term of endearment" of sorts; perhaps a similarly lighthearted and positive usage would be more appropriate than insulting our enemies by calling them submissive gay men. There is certainly power to be gained in reclaiming who we are; we've come a long way with the word "queer," after all. But this whole reclaiming thing doesn't work when it's only taken halfway. How can we expect to erase the pain that we associate with the word "faggot" when we perpetuate its hateful message?