On the Radical Potential of Faggotry

Campy, swishy effeminacy is often read as unserious. That’s a mistake.

Drag queens in Paris Is Burning.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo from Paris Is Burning promotional poster.

This piece is part of the Radical issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Some people have a hard time listening to faggots. Take Gary, for instance.

“He was just so effeminate,” Gary said. “And I couldn’t really pay attention to what he was saying.”

“Why do you think that was?” I ask, trying to keep my voice low and steady.

We’re sitting in a bar in Brooklyn. Gary is sharing his thoughts on a play of mine he’s just come to see. The play is about climate change and features a cast of largely queer performers. In it, the offending faggot speaks about art, collectivity, and the particular sense of loss that follows any attempt to fathom climate change. I should say that Gary is a thoughtful, well-intentioned person. He’s no homophobe. He’s just straight and thinks his own experience of the world is a decent yardstick for the human experience in general.

“I guess I just didn’t know why that character needed to be like that,” he says.

“But why?” I ask.

“Just because, you know … ” he says, his eyes asking me not to make him say anything aloud he’ll later regret. “It just felt like he was ambivalent about everything.”

The effeminacy got in the way, Gary was saying, of the faggot’s intelligence and arguments; his swish undermined whatever larger claims the play proposed about where we are and where we might go. The effeminacy made it hard for him, Gary, to tell what he, the faggot, really cared about.

Gary is not alone. Straight people, in my experience, just can’t tell whether they’re supposed to take faggots seriously or not. It’s easy to understand faggots when they’re there to make people laugh (faggots are good at that). And it’s easy to take faggots seriously when they’re talking about AIDS, fag-bashing, or marriage, since those are the topics on which faggots presumably have something heartfelt to say. But climate change? Or race? Or real estate development? Does the yazzz queen–ing mary with the pursed lips mean what she’s saying or not?

Well-meaning, intelligent straight people like Gary want to take ALL people seriously. Because that’s the way well-meaning, intelligent straight people, or WISPs, live out the ideals of our country, by believing that all men are created equally serious. That’s the whole content-of-their-character thing. Straight people want to see through the most flamboyant nancy’s reedy voice and expressive hands to some kind of true-blue beating faggot heart. They like to think that there must be something they’re missing behind the flip-seeming facade.

I am here to tell them there isn’t. Or there isn’t—and there is.

When a WISP feels unable to take a person seriously in the ways he’s used to, the WISP starts to squirm. That squirm is a proximity alert for faggotry. The squirm is a useful thing, for reasons I’ll get to; but it’s a rarer and rarer one, because we’ve made it so.

An example of how: In the last decade and change, queer activists have put a lot of work into getting WISPs to take transgender people seriously. “We are human beings, we mean what we say, we want you to pay attention to our experience of the world.” In some states, this work has paid off in the form of legal protections: anti-discrimination clauses or hate crime laws. Most queer people would say this is a good thing, even if, as Dean Spade persuasively argues in Normal Life, the fight is actually bigger, and those particular legal protections do little to mitigate state violence. (Supercharging law enforcement only amplifies the structural violence, for example, especially against trans people who are also immigrants, poor, or people of color.) With our national antagonism toward trans people becoming even more overt this fall, most queer people would argue that being taken seriously is a good thing, an urgent thing.

But can one say that—can one raise one’s voice against erasure, antagonism, attack—and still come, as I do, to praise faggotry? Does arguing for a queer mode of being that has historically registered to many as camp, parody, or melodrama mean I’m selling out my queer siblings who have worked so hard to position themselves understandably (“seriously,” “realistically”) in the WISP gaze?

If I advocate here for more faggotry in the world, rather than toning it down for the sake of perceived political expediency, am I doubling down on an outdated, cis, white gay politics that turns urgent needs into jokes by landing them as impossibilities on the straight ear? All because I have a fondness for Drag Race? For Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams and all the queens in Paris Is Burning?

Perhaps. But I think that’s a misestimation of faggotry’s higher literary and political purpose. Any faggot knows the limits society places—and has historically placed—on the faggot’s person, behavior, and potential accomplishments. What is faggotry? Faggotry is knowing the hard reality of those limits—and speaking from the heart as if they were not so.

“I wanted to be a big star,” Dorian Corey says in Paris Is Burning. When Dorian Corey says it, it lands on the WISP ear as a kind of camp because it reflects, to the WISP, an impossibility. We all know, Dorian, that you would never have made it as a big star. You must be saying it with your tongue in your cheek. It’s arch. It’s ironic.

But Dorian Corey means exactly what she says. So does Oscar Wilde, another faggot who did a dance with societal impossibilities, when she mutters, “Alas, I am dying beyond my means.” Wilde has little money and cerebral meningitis. He’s living in a dirty hotel with a pus-filled ear and he can’t pay his doctor, all because his life fell apart when it bumped up against the English legal system. I am dying beyond my means. It’s a joke. But it’s also, on a deeper level, the truth. The archness of it comes from the lie at the heart of the English legal system (“trans people”—er, sorry, wrong legal system—“faggots don’t exist”). You may laugh at Oscar, you may pity Dorian, but Oscar and Dorian are speaking their hearts while calling attention to a lie at the heart of the straight realists’ society.

Straight society hears a desire it reckons impossible, incoherent—“What man would want that?”—and so attributes a secret wink to the speaker, turns sincerity into tonally unstable melodrama. Straight listeners like Gary assume the faggot holds nothing sacred, cares about nothing.

But the faggot can hold her heart’s desire in one hand and her empty wallet in the other. She can even tuck a sophisticated social critique between her thighs while she’s touching up her eye makeup and figuring out how to work in a nod to Gloria Swanson. If it’s irony, it’s a heartfelt kind of irony. An irony abundant in sincerity, desire, clarity, and hope. If the WISP hears ambivalence or nihilism, the bug’s in his ear, not on the faggot’s tongue.

To be fair, many straight men have a hard time making sense of desires that they have not themselves experienced. They see their own reality as a map of the terrain of the possible. They are not used to the idea, as the rest of us are, that there could be experiences of the world that surpass or do not square with their own. It’s why straight men find the dream of an intersectional political agenda hard to conceive.

“I just think people tend to care about other people like themselves,” Gary once told me. A revealing self-portrait.

So why bother with faggotry then? Why, if in the end we’re going to have to operate on the terms of straight society to win concessions? Isn’t it more realistic to lower our voices, peel off our eyelashes, and put on our respectability drag? Can’t we be more measured, more masculine (read: decisive), more, ahem, “realistic”? Gay marriage happened when gay men and women started doing just that, after all. Its advocates were reasonable, sincere, and direct. Shouldn’t we fight all of our battles that way?

The “we” here being … who? Because many of the gay marriage people retired from politics once they got their marriage licenses and their Mrs. degrees. A lot of them are back at home now, walking their dogs, taking their children to soccer practice, and checking in on their 401(k)s. Maybe I’m closer to them on more counts of privilege than I’m willing to admit. I’m a white guy who went to good schools and tends to identify with the gender I was assigned at birth, so maybe I feel like I have a little more room to be flip, to play, to provoke, when it comes to questions of gender and sexuality than my more vulnerably situated siblings. And I’ll admit that lately the news has me pretty morose and angry and impatient for change. I do want things to change. But I’m being serious about the costs of certain expedient-seeming political wagers. And I’m being serious about the meaning of faggotry. Why?

Because expedience-based realism tends to reinforce what’s already real. Liberal WISP sincerity demands a modest ask. As a political project it gives us nothing beautiful to fight for. The gay marriage lobby’s realism is why Jeff Bezos, architect of our global undoing, was the honored guest at last year’s Human Rights Campaign gala. Goddess save us from Jeff Bezos. Goddess save us from the Human Rights Campaign.

The faggots, I’m trying to say, can be the higher realists, can be the more effective agitators. A faggot sees through the pieties that the Human Rights Campaign buys wholesale. A faggot knows that sex work is, in important ways, no different from traditional marriage—an exchange of labor. A faggot knows that industriousness is no guarantee of economic stability. That the reason white baby boomers passed on houses and capital to their children was not because white baby boomers were especially responsible and intelligent, but because many states refused to give educational grants and home loans to black veterans after World War II. That the reason Dorian Corey wasn’t ever a big star is that poverty is structural, persistent, and tied to segregation; that racism and misogyny are alive and well in America.

What is faggotry? Faggotry is knowing that hard reality perfectly well—and speaking from the heart as if it were not so. Troubling the listener who privately thinks that things are mostly all right. When the faggot’s desire lands as an impossibility on the straight ear and the straight mouth replies, “Be realistic,” that’s not realism—it’s giving up. That’s accepting things as they are. And, pretty quickly, that’s forgetting the reasons why things are the way they are. It’s passively swallowing the white supremacist and misogynist lies at the heart of it all.

It’s why Gary was so confused to hear the faggot speak of oceans in my play. Why would a faggot have genuine desire, genuine dreams, about the environment? My faggotry is not a lampoon of your reality. It is a critique, a prayer, a fist, a song from my heart. The faggots I know are not camp ironists, nihilistically sending up ideas of beauty and glamour. They are beautiful and powerful as fuck. Our faggotry is a reminder to anyone who knows how to listen to us that our world is yet unredeemed.

There are monoliths that still need to be toppled. We still need to reckon with the perils of the insular biological family and restructure our economy to make space for other forms of collectivity. We need to let go of the word freedom, because neoliberalism has emptied Sojourner Truth’s “freedom” and filled it with Milton Friedman’s. The word has become a bludgeon for knocking down anything that stands in the way of that great god Growth. (Don’t give us freedom; give us housing, health care, and meaningful relation!)

I could go on, but there are other faggots waiting backstage.

I’ll be brief:

WISPs: The too-much, the over-the-top, the campy-ha-ha you hear when your local faggot takes the stage is the sound of that faggot’s desire grinding up against the limits of your imagination.

Faggots: When you see them squirm, grind harder.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Radicalism. And queer your ears with a special radical-themed episode of the Outward podcast.