Sunday, January 21, 2007


The word fairy, derived from the French féerie (the name of the mythical realm of these supernatural beings), was one of the commonest terms for the male homosexual in America in the 1925-1960 period. In an article published in American Journal of Psychology in 1896, "The Fairies" of New York are mentioned as a secret organization whose members attended coffee-klatsches; dressed in aprons and knitted, gossiped and crocheted; and held balls in which men adopted ladies' evening dress. The spellings faery and fary also appear in the literature.

It is of interest that during the nineteenth century the term fairy applied to a woman or girl, specifically a prostitute. The application of the expression to gay men belongs to a fairly numerous category of terms originally applied to women that came to designate gay men. These include faggot, queen, skirt, nancy and many others.

In our realm the word designated the more stereotypical or "obvious" sort of street homosexual, with the semantic link supplied by the notion of the delicate and fastidious that had attached itself to the expression, so that it was transferred effortlessly to a dainty and effeminate type of male. The image of the "fairy" in book illustration as a winged creature flitting about the landscape probably contributed to the further evolution of flit as a slang term for homosexual.

The semantic development of fairy in this sense began on the East coast and spread to the rest of the country, but not to other English-speaking areas of the world. In the 1960s the word yielded to gay as a positive term preferred by the movement, and to faggot or fag as the vulgar term of abuse.

We turn now to an attempt to institutionalize values purportedly associated with fairy status. In 1979, Harry Hay, his partner John Burnside, Don Kilhefner and Mitch Walker, veterans of various phases of gay liberation, issued the call to a "Spiritual Conference of Radical Faeries." Those who heard the appeal showed up at an ashram in Benson, Arizona over Labor Day weekend (September 1st). Hay introduced the idea of spirituality into gay liberation, challenging the political orientation dominant in the gay movement at the time. Radical Faeries recognize the isolation and disconnectedness that Gay men grow up with, as a spiritual wound needing spiritual healing. This movement, combining counterculture survivals with elements of the hermetic tradition, is part of a larger complex of New Age religious phenomena that are characteristic of the western United States, though they also enjoy some following elsewhere in North America, as well as in Europe and Australia..

In keeping with the hippie, neopagan, ecology, and eco-feminist trends of the time, gatherings were held out-of-doors in natural settings. To this end, distinct Radical Faerie communities sought to create Sanctuaries in idyllic rural settings.

At a gathering rituals may include candles, fires, prayers, chanting, dancing, streamers, bedizened drag queens, ritual music, mud pits, sweat lodges, fire dances, drumming, running through the woods naked, Sufi twirling, and spiral dancing. Nudity at ritual events is common.

While the Radical Faeries have emphasized consensus as a process for issues resolution, some cherish confrontation, ostensibly rooted in the “contrarian” tradition ascribed to some Plains Indian tribes.

Faeries sometimes assume faerie names, blending and borrowing from many traditions of tribal nicknames, magic practice, and covert culture (such as "drag names").

The HIV epidemic did not, as was feared by some, bring about the demise of the Faerie phenomenon. During the 1990s, however, disputes emerged about a number of issues. Some held that the movement should be pangender, including heterosexuals and women, while other felt that only “faggots” (gay men) could become formal members. Other disputes concerned living arrangements at rural “sanctuaries.” In short these are the problems that have plagued utopian and communal movements since the nineteenth century.

At all events, the Faeries' earlier prominence, linked to the Counterculture and to New Age spirituality, has largely faded. Today, the movement probably counts only two to three thousand members in North America, with a scattering of others abroad.

Friday, January 19, 2007


This disparaging slang term for male homosexual carries overtones of effeminacy and cowardice. Because its use is widespread and its origins usually misunderstood, the word deserves careful consideration.

One of the most persistent myths that have gained a foothold in the gay movement is the belief that faggot derives from the basic meaning of "bundle of sticks used to light a fire," with the historical commentary that when witches were burned at the stake, "only presumed male homosexuals were considered low enough to help kindle the fires." An additional twist appears when the Book of Genesis in the Bible is cited to refer to homosexuals stoking the fires of hell (Sodom and Gomorrah). This story, though common, is a kind of urban legend.

The English word has in fact three forms: faggot, attested by the Oxford English Dictionary from circa 1300; fudge, attested from 1588; and faggald, which the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue first records from 1375. The first and second forms have the additional meaning "fat, slovenly woman," which according to the English Dialect Dictionary survived into the nineteenth century in the folk speech of England.

The homosexual sense of the term, originally unknown in England itself, appears for the first time in America in a vocabulary of criminal slang printed in Portland, Oregon in 1914, with the example "All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight." The tendency of American colloquial speech to create words of one syllable yielded the clipped form fag. The first known instance appears in a book by Nels Anderson, The Hobo (1923): "Fairies or Fags are men or boys who exploit sex for profit." The short form thus also has no connection with British fag as attested from the nineteenth century (for example, in the novel Tom Brown's Schooldays) in the sense of "public-school boy who performs menial tasks for an upperclassman."

In American slang faggot/fag usurped the semantic role of bugger in British usage, with its connotations of extreme hostility and withering contempt. In more recent decades it has become the term of abuse par excellence in the mouths of heterosexuals. It often serves simply as an insult aimed at another male's alleged want of masculinity or courage, without any specific reference to a sexual role or orientation.

The ultimate origin of the word is a Germanic term represented by the Norwegian dialect words fagg, "bundle, heap," alongside bagge, "obese, clumsy creature" (chiefly referring to animals). From the latter are derived such Romance words as French bagasse and Italian bagascia, "prostitute," whence the parallel derivative bagascione whose meaning matches that of American English faggot/fag. In Catalan bagassejar signifies to faggot, "to frequent the company of loose women."

The final proof that faggot cannot have originated in the burning of witches at the stake is that in English law both witchcraft and buggery were punishable by hanging, and that in the reign of the homosexual monarch James I the execution of heretics came to an end, so that by the time American English gave the word its new meaning there cannot have been in the popular mind even the faintest remnant of the complex of ideas credited to the term in the contemporary myth. It is purely and simply an Americanism of the twentieth century.

Given the fact that the term faggot cannot refer to burning at the stake, why does the myth continue to thrive in the gay movement? On the conscious level it serves as a device with which to attack the medieval church, by extension Christianity tout court, and finally all authority. On another level, it may linger as a “myth of origins," a kind of collective masochistic ritual in which the homosexual identifies himself as victim. This is part of the larger phenomenon of abjection, the willing assumption of humiliating and inferiorizing status. Since gay people have enough real burdens to bear, there is no point in assuming this fictional one.

The real significance of the term is different from the one fostered by the myth. The word has been used since the late sixteenth century to mean "old or unpleasant woman". Female terms are often attached to homosexual or effeminate men (cf. nancy, sissy, queen), and this seems the most likely semantic mechanism. In this way misogyny and homophobia are linked.

In British English the term fag (though not faggot) most commonly means a cigarette. A military marching song popular with the British army during World War Ifeatured the line "while there's a Lucifer [matchstick] to light your fag...". This sense comes from the original meaning of "fag-end," that is, the “last part of a piece of cloth,” which by extension became used for "the last part or portion of anything". When cigarettes were invented, this was first applied to the butt, the unsmoked part, and then came to mean the whole cigarette.

There is another meaning, unrelated to the rest, which is somewhat amusing. A traditional British usage of the word faggot, especially common in Wales and the Black Country, is a kind of pork meatball covered in gravy.

In recent years the use of fag and faggot to mean homosexual have become understood as an Americanism in British English, mainly due to their use in films and television series imported from the United States. When Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews was allegedly heard using the word in a bad-tempered informal exchange with a straight colleague in the House of Commons lobby in November 2005, he was criticized for engaging in homophobic abuse.

Because of its strong connotations of cowardice and inadequacy, the word faggot has not lent itself to the kind of reclamation that queer has attracted, though Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots may seem to gesture in this direction.

The overtones of opprobrium have not stood in the way of some popular usages, though.
For example, a fag hag designates a woman who associates with (and may prefer as non-sexual social partners) gay men, though many still regard this expression as pejorative. Young people casually employ the term as a synonym for words such as fool or jerk (i.e. "What a jerk!" becomes "What a faggot!"). Compare the recent nonsexual usage of the word gay to mean “lame, geeky, uncool.”

In 1995 the then Majority Leader of the House of Representatives Dick Armey referred to openly gay congressman Barney Frank as "Barney Fag" in a press interview. The ultraconservative pundit Ann Coulter labeled Al Gore a "total fag," remarking that Bill Clinton was a "latent homosexual." These charming observations occurred during a television interview with MSNBC host Chris Matthews (July 27, 2006).

The second album of New York punk band Mindless Self Indulgence (Frankenstein Girls Will Seem Strangely Sexy) is entitled "Faggot."Another instance of the word's use in rock music is in the song "The Great Deceiver" by King Crimson. The line "health food faggot" opens the album Starless and Bible Black, although no gay reference is intended, as “faggot” refers to a vegetarian meatball.

Students of the historical semantics of the word owe a special debt to the late Warren Johansson. See his "The Etymology of the Word Faggot," Gay Books Bulletin, 6 (1981), 16-18, 33.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Arabic terminology

In his new book Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, the British journalist Brian Whitaker offers some remarks on changes in terminology in the Arabic-language media.

The old term for a male homosexual, roughly equivalent to “sodomite,” is luti, derived from the Biblical patriarch Lot. Khawal and khanith/mukhanath refer to effeminate men. According to Whitaker, other traditional terms include ma’hun, a passive sodomite, mu’ayir, a passive male prostitute, and dabh, an active sodomite who rapes victims in their sleep.

Still common in journalistic usage is the heavily pejorative shaadh (queer, perverted, deviant) Suhaaqiya, lesbian, is somewhat less disparaging.

More enlightened journalists are coming to prefer al-mithliyya al jinsiyya, sexual sameness (an expression modeled on the West European term homosexual). Mithli can be used to mean simply a gay person. A glossy magazine, apparently the only one of its type in the Middle East, is published in Lebanon with the title Barra! (Out).

The spread of Western-derived terms is the accompaniment of the fact that an increasing number of young people are adopting Western customs and life styles. This has led some local observers to denounce these fashions as manifestations of cultural imperialism. Ostensibly, according to some, the condition of same-sex persons was just fine until these divisive foreign habits were introduced. This mistaken view dovetails with the claim of Western savants that historically Islam had no such thing as homosexuality. This assertion in turn rests on terminological arguments, which do not take account of the fact, attested in many other spheres, that concepts and practices can exist before the words to describe them have been found.

In dress Whitaker notes a preference for the color black, as in the black tee-shirts worn by brave gay activists. A prominent nightclub in Beirut had an interior painted entirely in black. This color preference seems to have no real parallel in the Western world, though black is, of course, the color of anarchism.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Queer" in retreat

Together with many of my contemporaries, I cringed in horror as the vogue of “queer” spread in gay circles (and even in some straight ones) during the eighties and nineties. Many of those in my generation had acute memories of how the q-word had been hurled against them in acts of public shaming. The earlier history of the adjective was no more reassuring, in as much as etymological analysis shows that in the eighteenth century queer meant “dishonest; fake” as in “queer money.”

The recuperation of queer has been sold as part of a larger campaign of detoxification of negative terms. Ostensibly, “black” is the model. Yet the term black never bore the negative charge of queer. In fact there are sharp limits to the validity of the detox principle. There have never been any attempts to sanitize such terms as “k*ke” and “c*nt” for such purposes.

In its heyday no such problems attended queer—or so its enthusiasts claimed. Among other selling points, the word was hailed as a unifying term, eliminating the potentially divisive character of “gay,” which could include lesbians, but often did not. In this sense the q-word was touted as inclusive. It also served to bring into the fold transsexuals and transvestites, who did not regard themselves as homosexual. And other eccentrics of various kinds could find shelter under the Big Queer Tent. Needless to say, gun-toting survivalists and Holy Roller evangelists were not welcome—though they too, by the lights of mainstream American society, are also queer.

Cobbled together from bits of Michel Foucault and American Social Constructionism, there was even supposed to be something termed Queer Theory, which gained a tenuous foothold in universities. On some campuses Gay Studies, formerly folded into Gender Studies, has now morphed into Queer Studies. A silence that speaks loudly, though, is the absence of departments of “N*gger Studies” and “K*ke Studies, even though Black Studies and Jewish studies are flourishing disciplines on American campuses.

Why this insistence on a term that, contrary to assurances, has not shed its negativity? It looks as if this is a matter of abjection, the embrace of disparagement. And that embrace looks very much like internalized homophobia. At all events, the term was mainly popular among academics and some movement types. Chapters of the organization Queer Nation, never very robust, seem all to have expired. The q-word never enjoyed much popularity among the gay and lesbian masses, for whom recourse to queer seemed, well, “queer.”

The subtext of the promotion of queer was a kind of PC disapproval of “assimilationism,” the tendency of many younger gay men and lesbians to adopt coupled, suburban lifestyles, little different from those of their heterosexual neighbors. As a proponent of free choice I welcome this development. By the same token, though it should not involved a historical and cultural falsification that denies the camp exuberance and nonconformism that gay men and lesbians have evolved over the generations as coping strategies. In that sense some element of queerness will always remain. What is objectionable, though, is the pars-pro-toto strategy that identifies this strand of gay tradition with the whole.

The touting of queer was a powerful instance of groupthink. Faced with the tidal bilge of such a term, it was probably vain to oppose it. Eventually the expression will collapse of the weight of its own contradictions, not to mention changing fashions. Fading will probably also afflict the cumbersome alphabet soup of GLBT, LGBTQ and the like.

In a wide-ranging survey, the Amsterdam scholar Gert Hekma observes that the word queer has come to seem dated. My friend Paul Varnell expresses the hope that 2007 will see the demise of queer. Maybe it will take a little longer, though, for this moribund status to be fully established.

It looks as if we are coming full circle. The term of choice in my youth fifty years ago, the word “gay” is back in style. In fact, it never left.