Content warning: This piece contains censored vulgar language as well as descriptions of sexual assault and homophobia.
It is an unfortunate truth that on a given Sewanee weekend, there will be an SUV with overhyped boys playing some mixtape, rolling down University Avenue, Georgia Avenue, or zipping down Texas Avenue, calling students “f*****ts.” It is a word that is littered in group chats, lobbed at queer students in fraternities, screamed in response to the smallest slights, disproportionately putting students of color in danger on our campus. When sharing the stories of these accounts, straight people, regardless of gender, feel so comfortable with the word that they use it. “Jack was called a f*****t last night,” is a sentence that I have no comfortable response to, when it is said by a non-queer student. The word is so casually used between students, close friends of mine do not feel the need to use any cloaking moniker–no “f-word” or casual air spelling “f-*-g” needed. My fraternity’s picnic tables have been spray painted, “Y’all F*gs,” since a week past shake day, when I, an openly gay member, rushed. This past weekend, at a fraternity that I do not frequent often but who has members I am friends with, I was called it. To a group of people I do not know, “He’s a f*****t,” was shouted. We need to talk about it.
From my understanding of where the straight community is, I do not believe you understand what that word means to me or my community. F*****t has recently been at the center of vibrant debate on reclamation or cessation in the queer community. The word, which is often used against queer men, is also lobbed against all queer people and heterosexual people who deviate from a gender standard. It is an act of stigmatizing gay people, but it is often an act of enforcing percieved gender norms. The word, on this campus, might most often be used against heterosexual cisgendered men, who break an unspoken rule of being the Sewanee straight male. Wear a tank-top? “Homo.” Paint your nails? “F****t.” Don’t finish your beer fast enough? “Drink faster c***ksucker.” We normalize violent language between men on our campus, but these words do the work of normalizing violence between men.
It is a word that has haunted my experience as a gay man. As a high school freshmen and a center on our highschool’s football team, no one in my family or group of friends knew that I was gay. I was sleeping in my room while a friend of my brother’s, a senior and fullback on the team, snuck into my room, held me down by the wrists, and thrust his hips into my entire back, oscillating between a violent hump to a resistant squirm. Attempting to laugh it off or pretend it was a game, we later all got into my brother’s car. Half a mile down the road, sitting in front of me in shotgun, my brother’s friend turned to him and said, “damn Sparkman, did you know your brother is a f*****t?” With a tension in my neck, adrenaline rushing into my lungs, a cold sweat forming in my palms, I am reduced to a thirteen year old, awkwardly large for his age, half-confident because his braces just got taken off, in the back seat of my brother’s Chevrolet Impala, wishing I was very much not asleep or gay in the moment.
As an out Sewanee student, I am told when the word is used against me. Or when my name is brought up in locker rooms. Or when, on shakeday, people are asked which gay sex act is more embarrassing. I get pulled into corners at parties, and people I barely know tell me they are bisexual and cannot tell their friends because they use “f*****t” or share how “gay men are usually predators.” Casual homophobia, coerced heteronormativity, or the use of crude language that assumes that no queer students are around you to be offended, is everywhere.
There might be 15 openly queer men in the college of the University of the South. There are many, many more whose friends keep them in an embarrassing liminal space between understanding that they are queer and unable to publicly identify as such. They might be out to a small group of students, or out in their hometown but reenter the closet when they re-enter the Domain. They are a part of our athletic teams, our choirs, our fraternities, our outdoor programming, our theme houses, our religious organizations, our theatre troupes, our drinking societies, our student governments; there is no corner of our university that isn’t touched by queer people in or out of the closet. We need to start treating every organization as such.
It seems we have built a system of platitudes that enables these bad actors. One of the most frustrating and persisting shared thoughts are that people who engage in homophobia publicly are themselves, secretly gay. Though this might be true for an incredibly small portion of our community, homophobic acts have nothing to do with ones proximity to a queer identity but ones proximity to being a bigot. Straight people, who do not use that word, do not deserve praise for being “in-touch with their feminine side.” You have committed to the bare minimum. No one needs to have made peace with their gender identity, political identity, religious identity, or sexuality to not use hate speech.
Another empty gesture is effective boycott, which is incredibly hard considering that every fraternity and organization, in some form or fashion has homophobic members or deals with casual homophobia. The simple delineation of, “queer affirming” and “queer non-affirming,” is pejorative, only useful to a small group of students, and it ignores the queer members that are already members of homophobic organizations. They are there. There shouldn’t be any organizations on our campus in which the use of homophobic language is normalized. The world in which we feel safe should not be smaller than a straight persons’.
Yet another empty gesture is a romanticization of violence to solve the issues. If the use of “f*****t” perpetuates a violent history between men, no gay person can beat homophobia out of someone. It shouldn’t be an expectation that queer people should fight the person that is homophobic to them, but it is a prescription often given to us by straight people. It also places the work of a queer person to fix homophobia on our campus. Fixing queer hate is not a project that queer people can solve. The gash will only be mended when the straight community decides, when each organization on our campus decides, that queer hate is a problem.
The remedy to ending homophobic speech on our campus is fairly simple. Hold your friends accountable. Hold your co-workers accountable. If your organization does not have any openly queer members, ask if there are systematic barriers that keep them from coming out. Straight people, stop using homophobic or transphobic slurs. Stop policing others’ gender, regardless of who they are. Live, and let live. When your friends come out to you, throw them a party. Read a book about the problem. I recommend Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Listen to a podcast. Do anything but stay still.