Sn*wflakes and F*ggots
How did a Christmas classic get enlisted into the culture war?
Before I start today’s essay, a special offer — 20% off a paid subscription to my weekly newsletter if you sign up before New Year. They arrive straight in my subscribers’ inboxes, with personal essays and podcasts on topics from gay pride to the political history of spiritualism, from notes scribbled in found books to story-telling, from sex to more sex. Your subscriptions help me pay the rent as a writer, and allow me to put out essays that could never find a home in mainstream newspapers and magazines. If you choose a free subscription, you’ll get one every month instead.
It’s a complicated word, is faggot. I use it, not regularly, but in certain contexts, amongst certain friends, to describe ourselves. But I also know that I can’t remember a single time I’ve experienced homophobic violence or harassment where it didn’t come attached with the shout “fucking faggot”. It’s a matter of context — who is saying it, and why.
I know why I want to say it, sometimes. When a gay or queer friend refers to me as a faggot, not only does it not bother me, but its very usage makes me feel safer, more included. In fact, it’s the very fact it’s loaded with hatred that gives it that positive power to me; when another queer person uses it as a term of affection, I know that they know how powerful it is, and they can only know that power because they’ve heard it too, from straight people, in anger. We’ve stood in the same place, we get each other. I also appreciate that lots of gay and queer people don’t feel the same, and would respect their right not to hear it, if that’s how they felt.
What I don’t understand is why straight people want to say it. It can’t mean the same thing to them, and yet lots of straight people, people who would probably never regard themselves as homophobic, really want to say it. That became clear enough this week when the BBC aired a Christmas Special of Gavin and Stacey that included a rendition of Fairytale of New York, the Pogues’ Christmas standard featuring Shane MacGowan and the much missed Kirsty MacColl as a dissolute couple of codependent drunks, bickering their winter night away. I quite like the song; like all good Christmas culture it juggles the right amount of sentimentality with an unpleasant darkness. In one back and forth, MacGowan calls his girl a slut on junk. MacColl calls him a scumbag, a maggot, a cheap, lousy faggot.
That line featured in the Christmas Special of Gavin and Stacey. I don’t blame gay people who get pissed off by that. It’s not strictly necessary. Personally, it doesn’t offend me, so to speak, to hear it. Shane MacGowan, when asked about it, said “The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate.” MacGowan’s statement about the piece is a fine justification — of course it would be beyond crude to suggest that the views of a character necessarily reflect the views of the writer.
What I’m trying to understand, however, is why so many straight people get so agitated by the idea that they don’t have to sing it. There’s not feasible means to genuinely censor it, and anyone can download the song and play it and sing it to their hearts content, faggot included. But why do straight people get so vocal about it when gay and queer people saying they don’t like to hear it?
For years it simply wasn’t so much of an issue. Clearly some gay people have always disliked it; Kirsty MacColl started switching out “you cheap lousy faggot” for “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” in performances soon after it was released, presumably because someone had let her know how it made them feel. Nobody complained of censorship when she switched the words on Top of the Pops, as far as I can find. But in the past few years I can’t help but notice that the whole debate has got roped in to the wretched ongoing culture war in the UK, and this year has been the worst yet. It can’t simply be that people either do or don’t like it, do or don’t sing it. In fact, it’s not even about whether faggot is or isn’t an offensive word. Instead it’s loaded with a new power. To not sing it is to give in to censorship, to sing it is to stand up for free speech against snowflakes. How did that happen?
For a start, the BBC released their press release defending the use of the word and commenting on the controversy before the programme screened. That is, they used the inevitable opposition of LGBTQ people to use of the word to market the programme. Tune in, they said, you will hear someone get called a faggot on Christmas Day, knowing that the expectation of that controversy will generate viewers for the show — not least those pleased to see that Gavin and Stacey hasn’t bowed to those PC snowflakes. That editorial decision seems particularly cynical, but unsurprising; within their news output the BBC have been enthusiastically running “culture war” stories for a few years now, largely because of the returns it gives on social media. That, for me, is key here; there’s a regressive feedback loop where frontline reporting of the culture war drives hits, and those hits drive more fighting in the culture war.
I think, at this moment, it’s time to acknowledge that, if you’re either on the side of nuanced cultural output, or on the side of minorities, the culture war is not going our way. But then, that’s not the point of the culture war. The point of the culture war is precisely to nurture the animosities of the majority. To remove the nuances of sensitivity and replace it by absolutes — use faggot or lose it. And then to sing it, for you, changes its meaning. It’s not about how you feel about homosexuals. It’s about how you feel about being told what you can and can’t think. The homosexuals are mere collateral damage.
Well, this is it, from now on. Like the War on Christmas, the faggot debate is set to become a perennial staple of the culture war. Every year column inches will be devoted to it, thinkpieces like this one will be written, people will become more polarised on the issue, and more and more straight people will gleefully sing about faggots, not because they hate queer people but because they’ll be damned if they’ll be told what to do by the ‘woke’ left. Meanwhile more and more queer people will be reminded of those people who do hate them, and everyone will trust each other a little less and the world will get a little bit shittier for everyone. We need, as a culture, to break out of this loop. The problem is, we won’t, until it’s too late.
Sometimes I wonder if not engaging is the answer, but I’m rapidly coming to the opinion that these disputes could be about anything, and will be about anything. The point is not necessarily about the etymology of the word faggot, nor about the literary justification of a characters voice. It’s just about exacerbating this divide between contextual and absolute. It’s about cultural force, about never having to think about what you like and why you like it. A week ago I read about Morrisons’ Supermarket renaming Brussels sprouts as ‘Yorkshire Sprouts’ or ‘Lincolnshire Sprouts’, a move celebrated on Brexit twitter. I pointed out that the British used to mock the Americans for renaming french fries as ‘Freedom Fries’, for similarly anti-European reasons. Now that’s the level of weird patriotism our country is at. I was interested to note how many responses I got accusing me of being a snowflake. Strange — it could just as easily have been the other way round. Aren’t they the snowflakes for being unable to bear the word ‘Brussels’, even in their kitchen?
That’s it, I thought — the snowflake discourse is an infinite regression. The right is no less sensitive that the left to cultural signifiers, to insult or slurs. Our faggot is their Brussels. You’re a snowflake for changing a name, but you’re also a snowflake for pointing out a name change is ridiculous. The only answer is to get in your charge of ‘snowflake’ earlier, but then you’re just adding to the momentum of the term, the logic of oversensitivity. The content of the dispute is irrelevant. There is no argument to win — the aim is to beat your opponent into tired submission. Only one side will ever be a snowflake, and the point is to reiterate that until the argument can’t even be heard any more. That’s the culture war, baby.
I’m open to ideas of how best to circumvent a logic that was once restricted to some of the shittier opinion columnists, the Rod Liddles and Richard Littlejohns, but is now pretty much the operating system for all broadcasters and newspaper publishers. Partly I think that LGBTQ people in general should take courage from their history, and go back to building and nurturing our own audiences. I return to this idea regularly, but architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote that one reason certain gay cultures flourished in New York in the 20th Century is because they built a specific gay audience, who had a shared bunch of references and a shared language. Their cultural production wasn’t oriented to a straight crowd, and didn’t have to explain first principles of straight culture to people. I’m all for people trying to introduce new crowds to drag, for example, but a drag scene whose primary aim is to educate Sharron Davies is not going to produce anything worthwhile or sustaining for those who need it, namely, fellow queers. Of course it’s important to call out bigotry when we see it, but how far do we get sucked down the rabbit hole of engaging with bad faith attempts to sap us of our strength before we call it a day?
I’m not suggesting that this territory should be ceded to the right’s culture warriors, nor that there’s no hope in fighting. After all, the right’s culture warriors are fighting a rearguard action here, a counterattack to the huge leaps in social progress made in the past decades. But much of that progress was made by staking out new cultural territory and by refusing the terms of debate we were offered. As the UK faces down another five years of conservative government and emboldened right-wing and fascist culture warriors, perhaps recognising that the nuance and complexity we need from our culture can only come from looking to ourselves is a start. Unlike those LGBTQ people in the 50s, or facing the emerging AIDS crisis in the 80s, we have a headstart on that thanks to the platforms the internet can provide, and the work of our elders. How much energy will we waste pouring our arguments into a mainstream culture war that doesn’t ever intend to hear and to understand us?
We should prepare, for example, for the fact that The Faggot Debate will now be a culture war perennial, entering our queer lives every December, and that every year a new generation of queer teenagers will be exposed to the people around them, straight people, furiously defending their right to sing-along-a-faggot. The best we can offer them may not be fuelling the fire of the culture war but instead producing a visible alternative of what faggots are, what music they can make, what joyful communities they can build, what visions of the world they can offer beyond James Corden swigging a lager and singing FAGGOT! at the top of his voice.
If we want to live in a world without censorship, then we must all be prepared to listen and think more carefully about context and nuance. It does mean something different when a queer person says faggot compared to when a straight person says it. It does mean something different when a character sings faggot compared to when a pub of drunk men sing it. It does mean something different when someone asks you not to use word compared to when someone tells you not to use a word. As for me, I don’t care if you, as a straight person, do or don’t sing the lyric about the faggot, but I would like to live in a society where you’re not desperate to.