My first encounter with the word “fag” came in elementary school. No, we didn’t use it in the British sense referring to cigarettes. Rather, it was, just as it is now, a put-down.
Today it is common to hear people say that something is “gay” as a pejorative statement. They don’t mean it’s happy and care-free. They mean it’s bad. I expect, as time goes on and the English language continues to evolve, that “gay” will eventually be something good again, just as “phat” and “sick” apparently have morphed into complimentary adjectives.
Back to fag. In elementary school, to be called a fag was relatively meaningless because as a put-down, most people didn’t even understand what that meant. It was a term, sometimes alternated with “homo” that you could even call your best friend if you wanted to get a response from him. It was not said with any malicious intent. The word could be frequently heard around the schoolyard with no dire consequences.
High school was different though. As adolescents, we were developing our sexual self and the word fag took on a new meaning. It no longer was innocent. It was cutting. It meant you were not a man and never could be. It meant you were less than the lowest piece of filth on Earth.
In grade 8, my elementary classmates and I had the pleasure of moving up to junior high school in a neighbouring community. Since our little three room country school was a feeder school to the junior high, we became blended with the greater student body in the district. For the most part the transition went very well.
Except, I got to meet the Leonard twins, Morris and Paul (not their real names). Paul was a nice guy and I liked him a lot. Morris, on the other hand was a horror. They were obviously fraternal twins as they only slightly had the same family resemblance. Paul was taller with an unruly shock of blonde hair. He seemed to have a very gentle disposition. Morris, was the opposite. Shorter, darker and certainly meaner.
Morris had an unusual face. It was elongated and shaped like a wedge. In modern terms, I’d say he looked like “Jar Jar Binks”, without the ears. His eyes, though, were like a Basset Hound’s. Droopy and almost always moist. I paint this picture for you because it is so profoundly etched in my mind as one of the defining visions of my life.
I was small for my age and usually the youngest in my class. I had a pretty solid circle of friends and my new life in junior high was relatively good. I had realised my attraction to boys in my last year of elementary school but instinctively I knew I had to lock that fact deep within my soul. No one knew my secret.
No one, that is, except Morris. We were sitting in 8th grade English class one day and I noticed a few rows over that Morris appeared to be crying. In reality, I think his eyes were just overly moist that day but it fascinated me to see this. I wondered why his eyes would be so weepy looking. I must have lingered with that thought longer than usual because suddenly and with as much venom as a thirteen year old could muster, he turned to me and shouted, “Quit staring at me FAG!”
Horror! I looked away as quickly as I could. I cast my eyes down upon my scribbler and hoped that no one had noticed. How did he know? Did he have some sort of special vision that could see that word that was undeniably inscribed in invisible ink on my forehead? My timidity rose to meet the challenge and I sunk more deeply into my shyness. From that point on, every time he encountered me, he called me Fag. If he had to read a class list out, he’d replace my name with “Fag”. Sure, teachers rebuked him whenever they heard but usually they weren’t within earshot.
Luckily for me, a year and a half later, my father decided to move to a new town and I no longer had to endure Morris Leonard. I don’t know what I would have done had I had to spend all of my high school years being tormented by that one individual. Morris was my bully and unfortunately, the damage was done.
One of the benefits I believe I have accrued by coming out later in life is that with age comes maturity. And with maturity comes the ability to cope. I had almost half a century of life’s experience to draw from to help me with my journey out of self-imposed exile. As I’ve written before, my journey out has been one of liberation and joy. With liberation comes strength and one of the joys of my freedom has been the ability for me to take power from the word “fag”. During my “gay adolescence”, I went through a defiant stage. I am Gay, hear me roar! I even contemplated getting a t-shirt made up that said “I’m a Fag. Wanna make something of it?”
A day ago, I made a Twitter friend from South Africa. We had a great interchange of tweets. At one point, I made the statement that “Fag is my power word”. I was describing to him that if I call myself a Fag, I take the power that it has over me, away from it. It can’t hurt me as it once did; therefore I have gained power from it. To my delight, my new friend turned that sentence into a Twitter hashtag “#FagIsMyPowerWord”. I’ve since added that hashtag to my Twitter profile.
I may have allowed my age and maturity to soften my new-found defiance but I still think that “Fag” is my power word . . .