Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Sept 12, 2000

Eminem's fag jag.
Author/s: Bruce Vilanch

Eminem, America's rapper du jour; uses fag in his lyrics almost as much as bitch, which is almost as much as a map of Los Angeles uses freeway.

Let us travel back to the days when gay meant happy. We may have to take quite a little schlepp. As far back as the 1930s, Cary Grant used the expression in Bringing Up Baby to describe the emotion that swept over him just before he put on a negligee. A portion of the audience knew even then that when Caw said, "I just went gay all of a sudden," he had more in mind than joie de vivre. Now, of course, everyone immediately knows what you mean when you say you're gay. We own the word, sister, to the point where any other definition of it seems beside the point. Gone is the lighthearted notion that you could be a giggly, bubbleheaded heterosexual girl and have a heart that's young and gay. No more can a torch singer warbling her way through "Am I Blue?" tell the audience that she was gay up until today.

If the campaign to own the word gay has been a whopping success, however, queer may take a little bit more doing. It's a word many of us don't want to take back even if by doing so we neutralize it and render it useless to the opposition. We have too many unsettling memories of just how effectively the opposition once used it. It's a word we want to see in our rearview mirror and not because it's catching up with us again.

And then there's fag. We still call each other "fag," usually when we want to bring each other down to earth. Yes, it's self-loathing, and, yes, it's so politically incorrect you could put a tie on it and call it Jesse, but it does have a way of putting a pretentious, prissy, nose-in-the-air specimen in his place. But that's because we know what it means. Don't we? A gay boy, obviously, and maybe sort of swishy, wouldn't you say? Perhaps a stereotype nelly of the old school. Or any somewhat butch-challenged milquetoast. Perhaps a shade flamboyant, perhaps a shade dramatic, perhaps a shade shady. More important, a man who at least appears to be seeking sex with other men, which somehow diminishes him as a man--a charge not unlike the one that put the first nail in Oscar Wilde's coffin. So we pretty much know what we mean when we call each other "fags."

You may be as surprised as I was to learn that some people have a whole other definition of fag. And I don't mean cigarettes, although every gay visitor to London remembers the first time a stranger tells him he'd fancy a fag if he could find one. Eminem, America's rapper du jour, who has managed to elbow his way to the top of the music charts in between being accused of armed hostilities and other fun weekend activities, uses fag in his lyrics almost as much as he uses bitch, which is almost as much as a map of Los Angeles uses freeway. He doesn't seem to like fags very much, and he weaves all sorts of threats through his music about what he's gonna do to them when he meets them, which may be happening sooner than he thinks if any of these charges and allegations stick.

Amazingly enough, Eminem is surprised when gay people take exception to his work. He's not writing about gay people at all, he says. He's writing about fags. Fags are weak people. You don't have to be gay to be a fag. Although he doesn't seem to be able to offer any examples of fags who are not gay, probably because the other groups he might name are not quite as weak as he might think and somewhere in his little blond head he might just know that. So he sticks with his definition, which I have to say makes a certain sense for a person his age.

Lots of younger straight guys do call each other "fag" when they're not calling each other "wuss," "pussy," or "dweeb." But most of them know that "fag" has a harsher connotation. They must because they use it when they really want to score, when they really want to get under somebody's skin--which is exactly the way Eminem uses it. Gay people calling each other "fag" in an almost mock-affectionate way may be politically incorrect, but if we want to rag on each other like misprogrammed replicants, that's our business. It's different when Eminem does it. The next Matthew Shepard is sitting in a bar listening to an Eminem record along with his predators. They all know fag means gay. And not just gay, but prey.