What do you mean, faggot?


As a longtime reader of Dan Savage's smart, tasty column— and sometime writer for the paper he now edits in Seattle— I'd like to dredge up some ancient history regarding the use of the word "faggot" in Savage Love [in response to Jake Milton's letter to the editor 2/28/02].  

Once upon a time (okay, until March 1999), Dan Savage was as famous for his inversion of the ubiquitous "Dear Abby"-type salutation in syndicated columns as he was for his racy content. Every reader letter printed in Savage Love began, "Dear Faggot:" 

In 1999, he dropped this trademark intro because, ironically enough, he felt the shock tactic was getting tired. However, he defended his use of the term as follows: "So far as hate words are concerned, I've always been of the opinion that intent makes a word hateful, not a particular arrangement of letters. 'Faggot' can be said with hateful intent, but so can 'homosexual' or 'gay' (have you ever heard Jesse Helms drawl out 'homahsectshul'?)… 

“As I see it, the alphabet isn't magic. Nothing is created by arranging or rearranging letters, much less something so powerful as hate. Words can be used to express hate, but they are not hate in and of themselves. How someone uses words, what they choose to express, reveals much about their beliefs but nothing about the words. The meaning of a word is created solely by the intent of the speaker, so it's not only possible to change a word's meaning, but to change it instantly" (The Stranger 3/18/99).  

Apparently, according to Dan Savage, language is a free play of signifiers, and he can say whatever he wants, as long as he doesn't mean the wrong thing.  I don't think I would go that far, but I sure do love me some Dan "Faggot" Savage.

 

Annie Wagner

Charlottesville

annie-w@virginia.edu