For the past thirty years, queer-rights activists have fought against homophobia and hate speech in America. These activists, however, have underestimated the fluidity of fag discourse. More than just a sexual identity, the ‘Fag’ is a gendered identity that can adhere to any white male who exhibits non-masculine behaviors. In his essay, “‘Dude, You’re a Fag’: Adolescent Masculinity and the Fag Discourse”, C.J. Pascoe situates the ‘Fag’ as a spectre that haunts, and ultimately regulates, adolescent masculinity in American schools. Two social activists, Ryan Schey and Ariel Uppstrom, experienced their fair share of homophobia as co- advisors of a high school GSA. In their chapter, “Activist Work as Entry-Year Teachers”, they share what they learned in their first year of work. When confronted by obstacles, Schey and Uppstrom urge teacher activists to build strong support networks and to work strategically through inquiry. This response will consider both the merits of an expanded definition of fag discourse and evaluate the ability of teachers to enact social justice in the classroom.
In American schools, ‘Fag’ is a pejorative label that can be given to any (white) male who exhibits behavior defined as non-masculine. When working with students at River High School, Pascoe discovered that the word ‘fag’ was being used as a “generic insult for incompetence,” which is “central to a masculine identity” (Pascoe, 2005, p. 337). ‘Fag’ does not necessarily denote a homosexual person. There is always a possibility “that a boy can be gay and masculine” (p. 337). In fact, most students at River High know not to direct this insult at their gay peers. They don’t “call people ‘faggot’ becaue of their sexual orientation but because they’re weak and unmanly” (p. 338). Thus, the term ‘Fag’ is a non-masculine identity that is employed primarily to insult and regulate the behaviors of heterosexual white males.
Furthermore, adolescent masculinity is constituted by the continual repudiation of the fag identity. The ‘fag’ is a spectre that threatens every young man; it “can be mapped, momentarily” onto any white male body (Pascoe, 2005, p. 339). In response, young men have developed various ways to deny its presence in themselves. One way is to imitate the ‘fag’ through performance and then “mock their own performed femininity and/or same-sex desire” (p. 339). By invoking this identity, only to mock it later, these young men affirm their masculinity and debase all things feminine. A young man must also fear the ‘fag’ identity being attached to him in the never-ending “verbal game of hot potato” (p. 338). In this case, the boy must “deflect the insult quickly by hurling it as someone else” (p. 338). He can only escape the repercussions of being a ‘fag’ if he can prove that it exists in another. Young men assert their masculinity by denying it in others.
The fag discourse is perpetuated by the same culture of homophobia that confronted Ryan Schey and Ariel Uppstrom in their first year as GSA advisors. For example, they immediately received backlash upon announcing their intentions to organize a national Day of Silence. The community was outraged and “[i]ndividuals attacked the school for promoting a ‘gay agenda’ and a ‘gay lifestyle’” (Schey & Uppstrom, 2009, p. 93). In the face of strong backlash, Schey and Uppstrom recommend that teacher activists work strategically. An educator can’t win every battle, for they must consider the “cost of a high-stakes zero-sum game” (p. 94). So they decided to not distribute rainbow ribbons and instead focus on working “for the approval to advertise and participate” (p. 94). Schey and Uppstrom were successful in their endeavor and their gradual, piecemeal approach made the Day of Silence possible in a largely hostile environment.
Schey and Uppstrom further argue for the benefits of inquiry and support systems. Coming in as outsiders to the community and the school, they underestimated the opposition to their program. However, “by engaging with the staff and students who supported the organization… we were able to see where there were barriers and why” (Schey & Uppstrom, 2009, p. 91). These initial meetings produced three positive results. First, they were in a position to better anticipate potential conflicts and opposition. Furthermore, they were able to identify other educators who “could discuss with students in their classes events happening in the GSA” (p. 91). These kinds of conversations can create more visibility and legitimacy for a young, developing group like a GSA. Lastly, these engagements helped them “create a network of like-minded professionals who wish to pursue the same goals in and outside of the district” (p. 100). If a teacher can affect policy change at the district or state level, their work becomes easier. Teacher activists need to build the infrastructure necessary to carry the burden of social change.
To conclude, fag discourse affirms and constitutes masculinity in ways that queer activists never imagined. Students now know not to lobby the ‘fag’ insult at their homosexual peers, but it is still carries significance for all young white males. The ‘Fag’ is a weapon that students still use to regulate and police their growing masculinity. As teachers, and social-rights activists, we are walking into schools where this discourse is still very present. Whether LGBT affiliated or not, we must all stand with the programs and organizations that support our queer students. We may not win every battle, but gradually we can dismantle the spectre of homophobia that haunts our young male students.
Pascoe, C.J. (2005).‘Dude, you’re a fag’: Adolescent masculinity and the fag discourse. Sexualities, 8(3), 329- 346.
Schey, R. & Uppstrom, A., “Activist Work as Entry-Year Teachers: What We’ve Learned”, in M. Blackburn (Ed.) Acting Out! Combating Homophobia through Teacher Activism, 88-102. New York: Teachers College Press.