One of my favorite Oprah Shamings was when she interviewed the cast of “Crash,” and informed Terrence Howard, Don Cheadle, and Ludacris (a triple-shaming!) their usage of the expression “nigga” was not a softened euphemism. They were saying “nigger,” and they needed to own up to that and cut it out. Cheadle argued that taking ownership of the word was his way of effectively removing its power. But, he was quick to add, white people sure as hell couldn’t say it.

I myself don’t say that word because I’m neither racist enough to mean it the old way, or apparently cool enough to mean it the new way, but I do find the escape clause of calling it “The N-Word” preposterous. If we’re going to have an adult conversation about a word that’s in the damn dictionary, then let’s just say the word and stop treating it like we’re talking about Voldemort.

Which brings me to the newly crowned most expensive word in American English: “faggot.” The NBA’s Kobe Bryant paid $100,000 for the privilege of using the word to brand a referee. Joakim Noah got the bargain price of $50,000 for hurling the same word at a (presumably former) fan. The message has been delivered and reinforced, at least in the world of professional sports: A public utterance of “faggot” is gonna cost ya.

Then why do we still get to say it for free?

I say it constantly. “Faggot, stop calling me, I’m on a deadline.” “If that faggot doesn’t bring me another vodka in the next two minutes, he’s not getting a tip.” “I cannot believe you’re singing along to ‘Friday’ without a trace of irony, faggot.”

None of these usages, in my estimation, constitutes a hate crime. I am not expressing my hatred for your desire to sleep with other men. I am expressing my hatred for you not supplying me with overpriced vodka in a timely fashion, and in the process I couldn’t help noticing that you’re a 25 year-old man wearing a baby doll tee.

In the wrong context, the word can sting. It brings up all those feelings of otherness that made growing up so damn hard, plus it’s just rude. But here’s the thing: I was not called “faggot” in junior high nearly as much as I was called “prissy.” I defensively adopted a lumbering gait like a giant golden retriever to assure that I never moved with anything resembling grace.

Nearly two decades later, a redneck can call me faggot without it registering, but if someone called me prissy, I’d wanna slam them. And yet, Kobe or Joakim could call me Prissy on national TV and not pay a dime for it.

So out of all the possible insults — sissy, prissy, cocksucker, mariposa, fairy, fruitcake, etc. — why did we decide “faggot” is strictly verboten? I’d rather be called a faggot than a fudgepacker, because I think the latter is disgusting and implies a lack of cleanliness — but that’s probably just me being prissy.

Do I think it’s good that efforts are being made to extract “faggot” from the insult lexicon? Absolutely. It’s also opened up a great discussion about homophobia in sports that’s worth exploring.

Do I think it’s the source of all evil? No, I do not.  I don’t think Kobe meant “I hate gay people” when he said it any more than I do when I say it.  Attempting to eradicate “faggot” from usage is impossible. It’s a word. We can’t even call it “The F-Word,” because that’s already taken.

Treating it as forbidden is what gives it real wallop: It’s the $100,000 insult. A solid approach might be taking people to task when they say it, and really asking, “What exactly do you mean by that?”

 


Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.

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