Fags Are People Too
In which the Terms of Service are only protecting us from ourselves
By T. Bloom
As a fag, I have an uneasy relationship with free speech. I can't count on a platform’s moderation policies being enforced to protect me from hatred, nor can I speak openly about myself without running afoul of them. Such policies are presented as a useful tool for protecting the marginalized, but in practice they’re like a bread knife that’s handed to us blade-first; we are left to slice our loaf with the handle end.
At least I’m in good company: self-avowed dykes are facing a similar struggle against censorship of their identities online. And even though “queer” has been an established identity for decades, the term has become a centimeter-high stumbling block for those who can only interpret it as a slur — despite the fact that “gay” and “lesbian” are also euphemisms which were slowly, painstakingly reclaimed from those who sought to smear us with them.
What is it that makes someone a fag? Other people! From a young age, I was slowly indoctrinated into faggotry not by exposure to gays (who were nonexistent in my sphere) but rather by certain straight folks who recognized the tell-tale signs before I did, and made sure to inform me when I was being faggy.
In some instances this was intended constructively — i.e. “If you keep doing that, people will think you’re a fag.” Not unlike informing someone about a sesame seed lodged their front teeth, except the seed in question relates to talking, singing, dancing, laughing, or reading too many books. It’s the shorts someone’s wearing, the games they like to play, a lack of self-consciousness in their gait. Innocence in itself can be quite faggy — and if one persists after being warned, innocence having been firmly dislocated, that is the beginning of one’s path through life as a dedicated fag.
There’s currently a lot of money to be made in issuing such warnings, on this very site. At the time of this writing, one of the top articles on Substack is "When Artists Become the Censors: The new moral majority comes for Joe Rogan." Meanwhile, anti-vax newsletters are pulling in $2.5 millon on this very platform. Substack, which gets to keep 10% of that money, chalks this up to “free expression.”
In a short time, this platform has become notorious for actively recruiting authors who’ve been booted from other platforms for spreading LGBTQ hate, offering cash advances and other perks to entice them into creating a newsletter.
"We believe that hosting a broad range of views is good for democracy,” says Substack’s official Substack. But anyone tracking the fitful decline of America’s democracy has observed how much money can be made from amplifying fringe ideas to the point where they compete with more democratic views, even those held by the majority. Is building a marketplace specifically for these ideas really “good” for democracy… or is it just good for business?
Before leaving Substack for another platform, nonbinary writer Annalee Newitz observed:
“[Substack’s] leadership are deciding what kinds of writing and writers are worthy of financial compensation. [ … ] Substack is taking an editorial stance, paying writers who fit that stance, and refusing to be transparent about who those people are.”
The hateful views of Substack authors don’t stay here on Substack. They can be copied, pasted, quoted and otherwise shared across all forms of media. In some instances, Substack’s content delivery system has itself been weaponized, with prominent trans figures finding themselves signed up by mischievous third parties to have the latest dreck from the likes of Bari Weiss, Jesse Singal and Abigail Shrier sent directly to their inbox.
(Notably, those names are often treated like slurs themselves — written in tweets as “B**i W***s” etc. to foil searches — because merely mentioning them can be enough to provoke waves of attack from their devoted fans.)
In short, the people who want to call me what I am are able to gather huge audiences as they edge up to that line or even sail across it. Fags (and others) who head them off by crossing that same line are penalized — in fact, I've likely already lost subscribers just by emailing them with that word in the subject line.
When I was in second or third grade, there was a popular playground poem that began: “I pledge allegiance to the flag; Michael Jackson is a fag.” At that age, I barely knew who the singer was, and had no idea what a fag was, but I was already old enough to recognize a brutal indictment when I heard it.
Everything about the King of Pop seemed to be viewed through the lens of his alleged faggotry: he wore makeup, he liked to grab his crotch when he danced, he spoke in a soft, feathery voice. Nothing else he accomplished was impressive enough to place him above this suspicion, long before the molestation reports surfaced. If anything it was the opposite, his superstardom triggering “The Emperor Has No Clothes” reactions from the fag-bashing set, which were deeply affirmed by those later allegations. The case against Jackson was, in spirit, litigated against every single one of us.
I was in high school in 1994, the year he married Lisa Marie Presley, and I remember cringing at the videos and photos depicting their relationship — an idealized parody of heterosexual intimacy which seemed to prove nothing, only fueling further ridicule.
[from “You Are Not Alone,” 1995]
This was everything I was terrified of becoming, or being compared to. That’s the self-hatred part of the journey to Fagdom: a desperation to control how one is perceived, a sense of being doomed to futility in one’s efforts, never able to see one’s own inadequacies as quickly or acutely as others spot them. From this miserable state, the behavior of other fags (confirmed or merely alleged) seems particularly threatening, adding to the war-chest of insinuations that may whispered about you — just ask those guys who used to follow me around at school making gerbil jokes.
Pop culture was occasionally quite instructive in this way. The social liability of fagginess was raised numerous times in the movie Heathers — perhaps why I watched it so many times at a vulnerable age. Upon finding a bottle of fancy mineral water next to two young men killed in an apparent double-suicide, one of the cops exclaims: “Oh man! They were fags?” The joke serves as a wink to queers in the audience, but also a warning: the silliest, most arbitrary evidence is enough to indict you.
Later on, through the process of embracing my own faggotry, I uncovered piles of suppressed guilt about my avoidance of all the other fags and fag-adjacent experiences during those sensitive years: misguided attempts to protect myself from this kind of scrutiny. What a waste — especially since it didn’t even work!
Having exhausted all other realistic options, at nineteen I moved into a gay boarding house, sharing quarters with a series of older men I’d never met before and have never seen since. Many lessons were learned — for example, when one of the tenants moved out, the landlord (who lived on-site) converted that guy’s entire room into a cage-free habitat for a pair of iguanas he’d adopted from a classified ad. It turns out you can’t replace a man with a reptile: you need at least two of them.
I made the best of it, largely because this was my first opportunity to study fag life up close, learning how to live without shame, or in spite of shame. Too shy to ask questions, I mainly studied these men via stray belongings that spilled out into the common area, cataloging these like archaeological finds.
Here is the Grace Jones LP “Island Life.”
Here is an unmarked VHS tape that contains BDSM porn if you fast-forward past the first ten minutes.
Here is a framed snapshot of two sunburned, adult men holding hands on a beach.
Here is a flyer for a drag show at a local bar that I’m still too young to get into.
Here is a former tenant’s long lost Prince Albert jewelry, left in a dish containing matchbooks and spare keys.
Very little of this (save Grace Jones) pointed to a life that I wanted anything to do with… and yet here we are all the same.
I’d love to present this as an inspiring and life-affirming chapter in the life of a budding queer, but it was mainly one marked by confusion, fear, and profound disappointment. The landlord’s chihuahua, Desiree — another classifieds adoption — chewed through a lamp cord and died of electrocution, inspiring him to fall off the wagon, and one night he drunkenly kicked in my locked bedroom door while I was at work. My days in the house were numbered after that.
While that bone-deep unease related to faggotry seemed inescapable at the time, it only ended up lasting a few more years. By twenty-three I’d finally experienced enough fag-related catastrophes to relax and actually consider some of them funny, and sharing them became a way of bonding with other fags. This could be the phase which many outsiders view as “performative,” because one’s frankness and exuberance strikes seems so unwarranted, so out there. A gay person keeping their private business zipped up and palatable to mixed company, they could accept. But who (and why) is this fag?
Perhaps they’re just worried about being tarnished by association, or setting even one foot on the slippery slope that leads to becoming just like us. I shared those same worries once, and now… well just look at me.
The concept for this post arose during a dinner party with other fags. Having swapped a few funny/awful tales from youth, I suggested getting some “Fags Are People Too” holographic stickers printed — a manifesto which could be charmingly reduced to the abbreviation FAPT.
But would a prominent online sticker manufacturer give voice to such a provocative (yet undeniably true) statement? Are human eyes scanning Sticker Mule’s design submissions, or is it all robotic by now? How quick are they to act where Wes Anderson’s favorite slur is involved?
These days one really never knows where one stands. A few years back, the merch generator TeeSpring decided the term “TERF” [short for trans-exclusionary radical feminist, describing those steering the current transphobic “gender critical” movement] was a slur, banning users from including it in their designs — even as more canonical forms of hate-speech such as tr*nny and sh*male were still available on many of the products hosted on their site, as well as slogans promoting sexual assault.
Inconsistencies such as these abound across every platform, we encounter them constantly. Just the other day Instagram immediately nuked some of my cute dog pics because the caption “Joyfully reviving the trope of Evil Gays With Small Dogs” scanned as hate speech. Getting actual instances of hate-speech addressed on these platforms can take weeks, if they ever follow through at all. Who am I being protected from, myself? My queer friends?
But I guess the real question is: who are they protecting from us?
Such examples are stockpiled and shared throughout the LGBTQ+ community online, but our voices alone will never be enough to compel major platforms like Twitter or Substack to take threats against queer people as seriously as our jokes about ourselves. This is unfortunately an area in which we’re dependent on intervention by those who are sickened by threats like these even if they can’t relate, and/or take vicarious joy in our more shocking forms of self-expression and -identification.
For what it’s worth, Teespring has been quietly working to correct course since their little oopsie; the site’s been updated with examples of acceptable vs. unacceptable mentions of racial and sexual identity which appear progressive. “We do not allow content that promotes or glorifies harm or violence to individuals or others,” they say, “including campaigns in support of self-harm, incitement to violent acts or harassment, or praise or reverence of terrorist groups or figures” — a policy which sounds nice, but ultimately still places TERF-scorn on an equal level with transphobia, leaving it up to the censor (or sensor) to enforce such distinctions.
Our enemies feed on these kinds of ambiguities, and grow stronger.
Image: TeeSpring, 2022
As for Sticker Mule, their Terms of Service forbid anyone to “disseminate or publish content that is unlawful, obscene, illegitimate, defamatory or inappropriate.” Whatever that means! But apparently they decline to intrude unless they receive an inordinate amount of complaints, which means I was very easily able to accomplish the following triumph in poor taste:
I ordered a hundred, still half-expecting the transaction to be canceled at the last minute. When they arrived, it felt like Christmas — partly because of how pointlessly excessive this flashy pile of stickers was, and partly because of the enjoyment I knew they would bring to my friends. And then there’s the curiosity and distaste I knew they’d elicit in many strangers, which gave me something like a queer nicotine high.
This feels like all we’re left with, sometimes. Online, and in some spaces, I can be among folk who understand and welcome each other’s differences, even if we still have to flail against certain corporate protocols in order to express ourselves freely.
In the “real world,” it’s a different story. I might be the only fag of this caliber that someone sees all day. And it’s important for them to know: I am the bad word, but I am not (all) bad.
As a coda, it’s worth mentioning that not everyone in the LGBTQ-sphere feels the way I do about the f-slur.
I understand and sympathize. Just know that while this backwards knife we are wielding may be waved in your general direction at times, it doesn’t actually cut you, or require any defense on your part whatsoever. My freedom and happiness in reclaiming the term and finding identification with it isn’t something you have to relate to. I would never want you to encounter this word casually, spoken or written by non-fags — even those who are confident in their inability to do harm.
If you must hear or see it, I want it to be a love letter addressed to the broader struggle, to the ludicrous conditions we’re all laboring through in order to simply be recognized as ourselves. Somehow we’ve each made a real person out of the very ingredients that should have disqualified us. Is that not something to celebrate? If you bleed us, do we not prick?
Hm, someone really oughtta to put that on sticker.
Stickers currently available while supplies last! One for $3, or four for $10 — Venmo @arcanalogue and send your mailing address to: email@example.com
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