There are a plethora of derogatory words for gay men: fag, faggot, sissy, fairy, Nancy, limp-wrist, pansy, pillow-biter, catamite, bum boy, fudge-packer, cocksucker, queer, queen. Even ‘gay’ was originally derogatory.
These words have a long history of being used as statements of contempt and hatred, used to ridicule gay men and to police the boundaries of heterosexual behavior. As ‘limp-wrist’ implies, men who failed to use their hands properly were derived as being insufficiently masculine, demonstrating that for much of the mid-20th century, there was an acceptable way to perform heterosexual masculinity and there were unacceptable ways. (Indeed, when I first started out in leather, my mentor, who was a good 20 years older than me, once felt a need to tell me to straighten my wrist, because leathermen are expected to perform their sexuality with a heavy gloss of 50s masculinity to it.) Many insults–sissy, fairy, pansy, Nancy, queen–revolve around the idea that men behaving too much like women are bad.
As an insult, ‘cocksucker’ makes clear that while having your cock sucked might be a good thing, doing the sucking was a bad thing. Slurs like ‘pillow-biter’ and ‘bum boy’ emphasize that getting fucked was unacceptable. I could go on.
My point here is that all of these words either originated as or have a substantial history as terms used to exclude, stigmatize, and denigrate gay and bisexual men. They were often used as preludes to violence. The 70s game Smear the Queer involves children re-enacting as play adult men chasing down and beating up gay men, showing how children were conditioned to see gays as acceptable targets of violence.
However, as the LGBT community found its voice and began demanding political rights in the 1970s and 80s, gay men began to find a new way to use these words. We reclaimed many of them by employing them for ourselves in a way that robbed straight people of the power to hurt us with them. ‘Gay’ and ‘queer’ have lost much of their original malice and now commonly used affirmatively. If I am proud of being gay, I cannot be hurt by someone hurling that word at me. ‘Queen’ now describes a man who dresses as a woman who carries herself with style and self-assurance. Harry Hay’s Radical Fairies group sought to reclaim male spirituality for gay men by helping them escape the soul-crushing straight-jacket of masculinity that mid-20th century America imposed on men.
And kinky gay men use many of these terms in our erotic lives. We doms regularly use words like ‘fag’, ‘faggot’, and ‘cocksucker’, as well as terms like ‘bitch’, ‘cunt’, ‘slut’, and ‘pussy’ as words to add an erotic punch to our play. The terms are used with much the same intonation and force as they originally were, but now they carry a charge of erotic pleasure for those who enjoy humiliation play and verbal abuse. Using words like these is enormously empowering for me, both because it breaks the taboo against using them and because it positions me as the cruel abuser and my sub as the victim of my aggression.
And a curious thing happens when I do this. On the Outer Layer, my words drip with cruelty, but on the Inner Layer, they become affirming. My boy knows that these words are cruel, but as much as he feels the sting of them, he also feels the pleasure I am giving him. These words affirm the validity of his desire for humiliation and abuse and they become a type of praise for his ability to embrace them. When I call a boy ‘fucker’, it’s a term of friendly acceptance into my social world.
But I don’t use these words with a boy until I have an indication that he will enjoy them. Most of the guys who seek me out crave verbal abuse and respond to me because I’m damn good at it, but unless a boy signals to me in his initial contact with me that he wants that (for example, by calling himself one of these names), I will always sound him out.
The reason I exercise caution is not simply a matter of consent, although it is that. I am cautious with these words because although they have erotic power, for some men these words still have the power to wound them deeply. When you’ve been victimized by these words deeply, sometimes escaping that hateful conditioning is impossible. While I love using these words, I would never willingly use them to inflict harm.
So I use them in the context of the dynamic I build with a particular boy. When I say ‘faggot’, I am sending a series of erotic messages to the boy I am calling a faggot. I am telling him I am asserting my dominance and his submission. I am telling him I want him to feel the sting of that word. I am telling him that his submissive desires are good and that I wish to pleasure him. The word becomes a part of our power exchange–me given cruelty and him receiving it.
My point here is that context matters. A word like ‘faggot’ can be cruel or it can be loving. How it is meant and how it is received are all about the context.
But as kink play has jumped to the internet, as porn has proliferated at our fingertips, and as findoms have begun plying their trade online, a third usage of these words has emerged, a more performative use. Findoms frequently post Tweets in which they perform their dominance by calling the audience ‘faggots’ or ‘bitches’. On porn microblogs, like BDSMLR, guys often post images of humiliation or aggressive sex and then add a tag like “that’s how you should treat fags.”
This third usage signals that the user is a specific sort of man, a strong, confident, perhaps arrogant man who is willing to humiliate others. For findoms, this is part of ‘hanging out their shingle’, advertising for clients who will pay them for such treatment. On microblogs, this is simply a way to assert that one is dominant, not submissive.
But what sets it apart from the second usage is that there is no power exchange going on. The user of these terms is giving cruelty, but he is not giving it to a specific person. There is no submissive to consent to receive it, no boy to experience the joy of being called a cocksucker’. There is merely the cruelty of saying the word. The internet decontextualizes porn, remember?
And the result is that the third usage quickly starts to shade over into the first usage. The first usage involved normalizing slurs as a way to assert a heteronormativity. By dehumanizing gay men, it becomes easy to deprive them of their rights and to engage in violence against them. Smear the Queer is just a children’s chase game, but it’s a chase game that sends deep messages about who chases whom and what should happen when the chase ends. Reclaiming these words operates by recontextualizing them, creating a new Inner Layer of meaning that is controlled by gay men and dictated by rules of consent. But when the internet strips away the new context, what is left is the old hateful word. And that threatens to undo some of the hard work the LGBT community has done to assert its rightful place in the world.
Recently someone Tweeted that words like ‘fagtax’ and ‘cashfag’ were homophobic slurs and called on findoms to stop using them. I agree wholeheartedly with this. We must have the freedom to explore our erotic lives as we see fit (within the bounds of consent), but we have to insist on ethical standards, just the way that two decades ago, kinksters began to insist that consent had to be a critical component of power exchange. Findoms need to find better ways to advertise their services, lest we normalize the hateful usage of these words again.