Last Saturday afternoon, while I was showing some distinguished foreign visitors through the Sterling Memorial Library, a student I do not know addressed me deliberately and unequivocally with the single word “faggot,” then went on his way. Unfortunately, this was the only interaction with a Yale undergraduate my guests experienced, and they now return to Australia having formed an impression that is, well, less than favorable.
When I was growing up 30 years ago the most popular hate words used to describe male homosexuals were “poofter” and “fairy.” Various other weird phrases were also commonplace, but I am not sure how many of these are still current.
As a term of abuse meaning “male homosexual,” the word “faggot” originated in U.S. criminal underworld slang only very recently, approximately 100 years ago. It may have evolved in that direction from the much older, abusive sense of an “ugly or contemptible woman,” or indeed from the earlier special phrases such as “fry and faggot” or “to fry a faggot,” which used to mean to burn a heretic at the stake. That usage in turn derived from the name of the bundle of sticks that was used to build the fire, and in that sense “faggot” made its first appearance in the English language relatively late, in the 13th century, one of the many expressions such as “beef” and “pork” that drifted across the channel from France in the wake of William the Conqueror, as opposed to the far more ancient, truly indigenous English words “stick” and “cow” and “pig.” But that’s another story.
I am told that, before its demise, Queer Nation used to recommend that if someone called you “faggot” you should consider coming straight back as loudly as possible with “I’d rather be a faggot than an asshole, and you know what faggots do to assholes.” The principle here is that your assailant will be embarrassed or publicly shamed into some kind of submission, but it is easier said than done — especially if, as in this instance, I was caught totally by surprise, and somewhat hemmed in by the fact that I was in any case with guests. Good manners sometimes get in the way.
If you work in an art museum, not many people routinely call you “faggot” — none to my knowledge — and you are to some extent spoiled by rubbing shoulders with a very high proportion of colleagues nationwide and all over the world who are contentedly gay, entirely comfortable in their own skin, and indeed more or less harmoniously intertwined with straight people who are equally at ease with their sexuality. It can be very different for homosexual men and women attempting to make their way in the engineering or medical or certain branches of the legal professions, notwithstanding Yale’s long-standing pink credentials. In other words, for me especially, hate speech comes as a rude awakening. The last time I experienced anything like it was a few years ago in an obscure corner of Texas.
The issue is obviously much larger than me. Substitute “cripple” or “gook” or “Jew” or “nappy-headed ho” for “faggot,” and do we not recognize a worrying trend which casts the net of hate rather wider than the individual or indeed any one particular minority group? And aren’t episodes such as this an affront generally to the high ideals that are, or ought to be, summed up in the very word “university”? We are kidding ourselves if we think that the corrosive worm of hate is not burrowing away on this campus, right now, all around us. When did it last bite your ankle? Who in the past week so irritated or even revolted you that in the quiet swamp of your emotions some very unattractive epithet rose like marsh gas and hung there for a while? Have you ever used the word “faggot,” even in jest? Whom, if anybody, do you hate, and why? These are important questions to consider for a moment because to some extent the shared life and noble values of this scholarly community are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain that holds them together. It is terrifyingly fragile.
Meanwhile, to the person I met for the first time so unexpectedly in Sterling last Saturday, I say this: Evidently it is not entirely your fault that you are an angry, stunted, spotty, lard-faced hobbit with dirty hair and appalling manners, and much as it is tempting to place a full-page advertisement in this paper giving your name and all relevant particulars — so that your friends and acquaintances might reach their own conclusions — I shall not, because to do so would provide a convenient, possibly irresistible opportunity for some white knight of bigotry to come galloping to your defense under the banner of “victimization.”
You are, after all, an undergraduate student of Yale College, and I see it as part of my responsibility as a civilized adult above all to set an example of moderation. Instead I shall write your name on a piece of paper and place it in my refrigerator, a particularly satisfying and enjoyable form of private voodoo that I learned from an old friend in politics. Then I shall await the extravagant bunch of two dozen pale pink tea roses, which I feel is the most appropriate form of apology. I see that you can easily afford it.
Angus Trumble is curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art.