|Posted on November 29, 2013 at 1:30 AM|
By Dennis Stone
Times change. And perceptions of words change. Like the word “faggot.”
I was thinking of that today as I drove to my brother’s house for our family Thanksgiving. When I turned on the radio the song “Alice’s Restaurant” was playing. That is an 18-minute song from the late 60s by Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary folk and protest singer Woody Guthrie. The song partly recounts an incident that occurred on Thanksgiving, and somehow it has become a Thanksgiving tradition on radio stations (especially classic rock stations) across America.
I haven’t heard the song for a few years, but I instantly thought of THAT word that occurs toward the end of the song. In today’s world would that word be allowed, or would the station bleep it out? After all the hubbub about Alec Baldwin and other incidents, it was hard to imagine that an unedited version would be played.
Arlo on the cover of the original album from 1967
The song is mostly a spoken monologue, backed by guitar, with a very brief song chorus at the beginning and end. In brief, here’s a synopsis of the story. Arlo was visiting his friend Alice in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving in 1965, when Arlo was 18. Alice owned and ran a restaurant named, naturally, “Alice’s Restaurant.” Arlo and a friend were arrested for littering when they dumped some of Alice’s garbage after finding the town dump was closed. The song hilariously recounts the tale of being arrested, tried, and found guilty (by a blind judge – giving new meaning to complaints about “American blind justice”).
The story then moves to Arlo’s misadventures when called before the military draft board in New York. This was at the height of the Vietnam war, when 18-year-olds were drafted and sent to fight what turned out to be a pointless, viciously bloody war that accomplished nothing. Arlo tried to get out of being drafted by pretending to be a homicidal maniac, but “the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, and said, ‘You're our boy.’” In the end Arlo was rejected because of his criminal conviction – for littering!
Like his father, Arlo Guthrie was a left wing protest singer, and so was strongly against the war and the military in general. At the end of the song he whimsically suggests that if a listener were drafted he should go into the psychiatrist’s office, sing the chorus of “Alice’s Restaurant,” and walk out. “If one person does it, they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him.” Uh oh…here comes THAT word. “And if two people do it…in harmony…they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them.”
The radio station played the unedited version of the song today. It was immediately a bit jarring, but then I started to think about it. When I was a kid and young adult I never thought twice about hearing that word in that song. It didn’t strike me as particularly derogatory, just a humorous way to refer to gay people in the context of them trying to get out of the draft. I knew Arlo was on our side, and at that time the word - though a negative word – didn’t carry nearly the same amount of baggage it does today.
When I got home tonight I did a bit of research. I discovered that radio stations generally play the unedited version. The mystique and longevity of the song appears to have insulated it from censorship. I also discovered that Arlo long ago gave up using the word when he performs the song. In the 1990s he began to use that section of the song to make a pointed denunciation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In recent years it’s become more generalized (and unfortunately rather toothless, in my opinion).
Arlo on the cover of the 1996 "Alice's Restaurant: The Massacree Revisited"
The more I thought about it tonight the more I came to the conclusion that we’ve made a big mistake by trying to turn “fag” and “faggot” into our version of “nigger.” The more reactive we have gotten to the words, the more vehemently we’ve demanded that they be removed from the lexicon, the more power we – WE – have given them. When I was a young man in my formative and discovery years as a gay person those words were just run of the mill slurs. I think “queer” and “fairy” were more hateful in my area of the country. But our CHOICE to focus on “fag” and “faggot” as THE words never to say has done two things. For homophobes it has given them phenomenal power – they just have to say one of them to hit home, to harm, to make us feel small and marginalized. On our side it is so easy to be hurt, to have our days ruined, by a simple word.
Homophobes rarely say “queer” any longer. That’s because the word has lost its power to wound for so many. “Fairy” also doesn’t have anywhere near the same bite as “fag” or “faggot.” In logical terms both “queer” and “fairy” should be more damaging. I think there has been throughout the past couple of decades a decision – partly conscious and partly subliminal – by gay “leaders” to align our struggle with the black civil rights struggle. And since the black community has one word that surpasses all others for representing raw hatred, we should have a similar word. If we don’t have that word we’re somehow not an equal civil rights movement.
I wrote a piece earlier on the latest Alec Baldwin incident. Consider for a moment what really happened there. Baldwin engaged in a confrontation with a photographer who he considered to have gotten too close to his family. As he was walking away, with his back to the camera, he muttered to himself a slur in an almost unintelligible manner. And yet, because the slur allegedly contained “that one word that must not be said,” the encounter between celebrity and photographer became a worldwide headline that dominated entertainment news – and especially gay news – for several days. This is bizarre, this is madness. The word should have nowhere near that power, and WE gave the word the power to lacerate our souls.
Arlo at the draft board exam from the movie "Alice's Restaurant"
I’m an odd duck – always have been, always will be – but “fag” and “faggot” just don’t emotionally impact me very much. There are homophobes in the world who don’t like me today, just as there were homophobes that didn’t like me when I was a kid and bought my first Arlo Guthrie album. My reaction to those words today is very much like it was when I first heard “Alice’s Restaurant.” They are slurs, but slurs come with the territory when you belong to a community that some people don’t like. I can honestly say they just don’t get to me. I shrug them off because I have not invested those words with the power that much of my community has invested them with.
Consider this situation. You’re walking hand in hand with your boyfriend around the lake here in Minneapolis, and a car with a bunch of teenagers drives by. One of the kids leans out the window and yells “FAG!” Is that going to ruin your day, is that going to make you feel bad about yourself, is that going to cause you to never walk hand in hand around the lake again? If you say “yes” you’d better examine your attitude. The power – what I would strongly argue is the artificial power – of one word trumps all the other supportive or at least live-and-let-live people around you, it trumps the freedom you have today (in many places) to be openly gay, it diminishes the positive self perception that you have built up over the years. But no word – not even THAT word – has a power like that unless you give it that power.
Earlier tonight I was reading a message board that followed a brief article talking about the history of the word “faggot,” and saying that some gay activists are trying to reclaim the word. Several posts were interesting.
1. “I think I find this word more offensive than any other word, even most profanities. Whenever I hear it, it seriously makes my skin crawl.” Well, so much for not investing a word with more power than it deserves.
2. “As a woman, I don't feel I have any right to use that word at all, and I spell it "f*gg*t" when I have to quote it.” It strikes me as absurd to think a word has so much power that it can’t even be spelled out when discussing the word.
3. The following is from a man who has adopted the word “queer” as an empowering term. “It is almost comical now when someone attempts to hurt me with a term I hold near and dear. I believe that we need to prioritize where our offenses occur. With so much actual physical violence occurring worldwide on a daily basis towards queers, I am more likely to focus my attentions there than on the proverbial ‘sticks and stones.’” Now there’s a man after my own heart!
Nothing I’ve said here represents a thought that we should condone these words, or any slurs. But we can oppose the concept of slurs without granting them the extraordinary power that we have granted to “fag” and “faggot.” As I listened to “Alice’s Restaurant,” knowing the word was coming up, I wondered how I would emotionally react to hearing it in that context. It was a relief when it was not bleeped, and it was a relief when it slid right off my back just as it had done when I first heard it so many years ago.
Here is a link to the original album version of “Alice’s Restaurant.”