Why is the term “fag hag” still acceptable?

Why is the term “fag hag” still acceptable?

Is it not both homophobic and misogynist?

Yet I hear it bandied around without concern by self-identified feminist women who will avoid, or express guilt about, using other terms of abuse for women, such as “bitch.”  And I’ve heard it used by liberal, lefty men and women who would never dream of referring to gay men as “fags” in any other context.

I’ve noticed that “fag hag” is often modified with a “just,” as in “She’s just a fag hag,” or “They’re just fag hags,” as if a heterosexual woman’s preference for friendships with gay men reduces her to nothing more than that preference.  No longer a complex human being, she is just a fag hag.

But what does this say about the underlying attitudes to gay men?

I’ve also noticed that when women use this term there is often a sense of real anger at these “fag hags.”

Why are we so hostile to heterosexual women who befriend gay men that we have a special term of abuse for them?

What is the root of the problem here?

If a heterosexual woman chooses to make her friendships with gay men primary in her life why is that a) a problem or b) anybody else’s business? Why do we feel we have a right to comment on these relationships at all?

According to the Urban Dictionary, the equivalent term for heterosexual men who tend to befriend lesbians is “lesbro.”  But this is not as widely used and, as far as I’m aware, and it doesn’t have the homophobic misogynistic sting of “fag hag.”

There definitely seems to be a feeling that women who befriend gay men are being stupid and the relationships are unhealthy, perhaps because they are seen as postponing their graduation into “mature” sexual relations with heterosexual men.  This is a big part of the plot of the sitcom Will and Grace. Will Grace ever “grow up” and get herself a “real” man?  Preference for gay men as companions may also imply a critique of socially constructed heterosexual masculinity – the idea that women may find the behaviours culturally associated with gay men more attractive than those associated with heterosexual men could be disturbing for a lot of reasons.

This is not to say that I don’t see any problems in the popular discourse that surrounds the idea of relationships between gay men and heterosexual women because I do, especially in the way it constructs gay men as acceptable only as long as they adopt the role of everybody’s best friend — as long as they are suitably entertaining and non-assertive.  As I’ve said before, any future for constructive mutually enriching friendships between gay people and straight people must be devoid of the implication that gay people exist to please, pander to and stroke the egos of straight people, or as substitutes for unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships.

But this is an aspect of the way we think about relations between gay men and heterosexual people in general.

And critiquing a discourse is not the same as denigrating real-life relationships which involve real individuals and are no doubt as complex as all other relationships.

You call this friendship? Positioning Gay Men in relation to Heterosexuality

This week I glanced over a couple of articles in the Guardian online about relationships between heterosexual people and gay men which have been chaffing me ever since. You know that feeling when you read something that’s presented as all sweetness, light, and loveliness but makes you feel really uncomfortable for reasons you can’t quite pin down? I read them again this morning and think I can articulate a few of the problems.

The first, by Joanna Walters, is entitled Why Every Girl needs a Gay Best Friend

Diamonds may be forever, but it turns out that a gay boy is actually a girl’s best friend, according to a new book that is the first definitive guide to the ‘fag hag’.

That many straight women set great store by gay male friends won’t surprise fans who’ve watched Will and Grace sharing the secrets of their souls, or Sex and the City’s Carrie and her screaming-queen buddy Stanford or Madonna and Rupert Everett, on- and off-screen.

Now a new book chronicles the (mostly) ups and (occasional) downs of having a gay man as a girl’s best friend. Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys – true tales of love, lust and friendship between straight women and gay men was launched in New York last week with a rainbow of hysterical real life stories and a few predictably melodramatic tear-jerkers.

It’s not the “fag hag” thing that bothers me, beyond the fact that from a feminist perspective I wish we weren’t still making use of that term because it’s one that women often use against each other with surprising vitriol, and it’s about time we stopped and asked ourselves why we feel impelled to use abusive language towards women who befriend gay men. No, my main issue with the article, aside from the self-congratulatory tone, is the implicit suggestion that gay men exist to make straight women feel better about themselves.

While her female friends are competitive when shopping and ‘secretly want your ass to look fat’, her entourage of gay men makes her feel like ‘Marie Antoinette and her court’ as they encourage her to buy extravagantly, telling her she looks divine, while ‘holding my handbags more gracefully than I do’.

De La Cruz described how, despite unrequited lust for the gay boys at her university, she valued their encouragement. ‘They told me I was attractive and pushed me out there to start dating.

Throughout the article there is a suggestion that friendships between gay men and straight women are valuable because they make straight women feel good. Now this isn’t actually representative of real life friendships and we know that straight women and lesbians have provided a lot of support to gay men over the years, especially during the AIDs crisis. The book itself probably acknowledges this, but the article bothers me because it takes part in a developing discourse which justifies the existence of gay people in terms of their services to straight people. The article also implies more than once that gay men are serviceable to straight women as partner substitutes because straight men are useless or obnoxious. This is basically the plot of Will and Grace.

One of the book’s editors, Melissa De La Cruz, said she sought to puncture the high-camp stereotype by telling how her gay male co-editor Tom Dolby was the rock-solid shoulder who was most there for her out of all her friends when she suffered a miscarriage and she and her husband were heartbroken. ‘He was a real man,’ she said.

A real man, huh? As opposed to a pretend one? All men are real Melissa.

Doonan claims fag hags became obsolete because straight men are now less ‘obnoxious’ to be around.

Well that’s nice. You can throw out your gay male friends because straight men have become more bearable. Is this whole narrative really about heterosexuality, insofar as it’s really about problems in relationships between heterosexual men and women?

Then I read another article which took the discourse to more disturbing levels, Nirpal Dhaliwal’s A Fine Bromance

My heart sank at the opening “Gays are a guy’s best friend.” But then it improved, citing good examples of equal friendships between gay and straight men and I felt more hopeful. Perhaps this one is actually going to say something useful I thought. However, when he describes his experiences of “bromance” we came back to same problem:

One was an American film director, who invited me to a festival in Turin where I hooked up with a fabulous, cabaret-singing New York drag queen. They were fun, warm and intimate experiences that thrilled my ego and made me feel gorgeous.

Because it’s very important that straight men get their egos stroked. Couldn’t straight people do more stroking of gay egos?

Having tested my sexuality and been sure of what it is, I have no issues with homosexuality and can throw myself into a bromance with no misplaced hopes or fears.

Ah, nice, because gay people love it when straight people test their sexuality out on us. Personally I’ve found such experiences painful and humiliating, but no matter!

What’s even more striking here is that Dhaliwal’s relationships with gay men have served to bolster up his heterosexuality, to make him more heterosexual because he is surer of his sexuality than other men who don’t have relationships with gay men. Then misogyny makes its appearance:

My friendships with straight men have often deteriorated because of rivalry, and from talking to my gay pals I know that gay men are just are competitive. Bromances offer men an opportunity to discuss sex without worrying about one-upmanship.

I talk about women much more with gay men than I ever have with straight ones. And given that women speak far more openly with gay men – and that gay men actually listen to them – my gay pals provide many useful insights into the female mind.(emphasis mine)


And finally,

Bromances are the future for men in this country. We have a shared biology and a basic outlook, compared to which our choice of sexual partner is merely a detail.

What Dhaliwal actually seems to propose here is a fantasy future of relationships between men in which women become "merely a detail." Heterosexual men will bond emotionally and intellectually with gay men who will stroke their egos and give them tips on how to seduce women. Welcome to the new patriarchy. Just at a time when a lot of gay men do seem to be working on misogyny in their subculture, it’s rather alarming to see a straight man writing it into his future male utopia. But with gay men again positioned as substitutes for women, this narrative also seems to be more about problems with heterosexual relationships rather than with gay people. I suspect Dhaliwal is writing polemically with the genuine intention to subvert homophobia but there seems to be a lack of self-awareness in the piece with regards to his attitude to women and also the question of what gay men are really getting out of these friendships.

Any real future for constructive mutually enriching friendships between gay people and straight people must be devoid of the implication that gay people exist to please, pander to and stroke the egos of straight people, or as substitutes for unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships.

Moreover, the problem here is not the more complex realities of such friendships, the problem is the defensive discourse being created in these articles– the necessity for justification itself drawing attention to homophobia – which says “this is ok because straight people are getting something out of it.”

I work with a lot of gay men and, in my opinion, if there’s one thing they don’t need it’s any more incitement from heterosexual culture to find their sense of self worth in being presented as clowns, comedy side-kicks, counsellors, shoulders to cry on etc. And if we could get extra government funding for a project for gay men, I can tell you right now that we would spend it on assertiveness classes for young gay men. Many of the gay men I know have an understandably strong desire to please, having grown up under the constant threat of verbal and physical violence and family rejection. My boss had his arm broken by his male peers at school, so little wonder he turned to female friends. In the office, we talk quite openly about the various ways in which gay men are infantilised and rewarded for presenting themselves as non-threatening and for masking the realities of their sexuality from view. They are often referred to as “boys,” for example, because, we suspect, “boys” don’t have big scary cocks; "boys" don’t fuck.

Ignoring the role homophobia plays in encouraging gay male children to grow up to be everybody’s best friend/entertainer while taking their rage out in unhealthy ways is not actually being any kind of friend to gay men.

Thoughts on the Needs of Older LGBT People

Recently, I’ve been doing some work with a network for older LGBT people. The issues raised in the meetings are so important that I’ve decided to share some of them here. When older LGBT people require extra care or need to enter residential accommodation they encounter a whole range of problems which heterosexual people do not experience, some of which can have a devastating impact on their lives.

At present, managers and care workers in the UK are not required to undertake training in LGBT issues and they often do not know how to deal with the specific problems that may arise. A lot of the trouble stems from good old fashioned heterosexism – the assumption that the world is heterosexual – but older people also have to face more overt homophobia and transphobia. In the first instance, when placed in residential care, they have to confront the coming out process. Bearing in mind that they have to live with these people every day, do they come out to their care workers and fellow residents, or face a secret life again? If they’ve lost their partner, is it safe to put out photographs? Is it safe to talk about their life to anyone? A fairly large percentage of older LGBT people are single and questions and comments about grandchildren and family can be very painful, especially if they have been disowned by their own families. If they do have a partner how do they insist on staying together in a system which tends only to recognise marriage and in accommodation where staff and other residents may not react positively to the presence of a lesbian or gay couple? Moreover, homes rarely recognise the alternative families of choice often so important to LGBT people.

Actions which seem unimportant to heterosexual people can cause intense distress to older LGBT people. We have cases of older lesbians denied pyjamas and given nightdresses when they haven’t worn such a garment for 40 or 50 years and to do so is wounding to their sense of identity. Older gay men express fear that their camp self-expression will be received badly by their heterosexual male peers. For some older people whose sexuality has long been repressed, desires can surface late in life. The staff in one home were bewildered when two older men who had been married and widowed entered into a sexual relationship together. It had simply never occurred to them that this could happen. Dementia can also bring long repressed desires to the surface and create a situation which, without training and proper understanding, can be distressing to everyone.

In the UK the Government is pushing for more care in the home. This is all well and good, but the shift actually presents additional fears for older LGBT people. Members of the network expressed a feeling that this could lead to a worse situation if they found themselves alone in their homes with a homophobic or transphobic carer. They don’t want to denigrate the work carers do, but where are the safeguards against bullying?

Unsurprisingly, some of the worst stories have to do with transsexual and transgendered older people. We have one older pre-operative transsexual woman who’s been in hospital for a year because all the local homes are refusing to accommodate her. Worse still, we have recently had two cases of older pre-operative transsexual women actually being denied their hormone prescriptions when they entered residential care because the care home doctors “didn’t believe in it.” They rely on the hormones to keep them physically, mentally and emotionally stable. ** During the 1960s an influential psychiatrist discouraged people from fully transitioning and some of these women are now surfacing as they grow older and need care. They’re in a kind of gender limbo and can be treated as the sex written on their birth certificates, despite the fact that they have lived as women for many years. When I hear these stories I’m angered by the disjunction between some kinds of feminist theory and the dangerous reality of people’s lives. Some feminists argue that people shouldn’t get bottom surgery because it reiterates gender roles; well, tell that to an older LGBT person denied treatment or refused admission to a care home because she or he didn’t get the surgery. I doubt it would be much consolation. But if you have had the surgery, you still have to face the decision whether to tell people or the fear of being found out.

Of course this is also an economic issue. As ever, people with money will have a fair bit of choice and power in terms of what kind of services they use, whereas poorer people will have to take what they’re given and will not have much chance of changing the situation if it turns out badly. I’m therefore convinced that we’re in dire need of good advocacy services for older LGBT people and that those who work with older LGBT people must receive compulsory training in the issues. We probably need care homes and services which are publicly designated LGBT friendly and we might even need LGBT-only homes, as some older people are not comfortable living with heterosexual peers who they fear may well be homophobic and transphobic.

** I should add that this situation has now been rectified, but not without a considerable struggle.

Forced to Serve Homosexuals!

Gay civil partnerships went through in the UK with barely a whimper, but it seems that the real test has come with the Goods and Services Act which is designed to prevent organisations offering public services from discriminating against anyone. In terms of gay people, this basically means that if you’re running a hotel and you hire out double rooms to heterosexual couples, you have to hire out double rooms to gay couples as well. You will not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of your customers’ sexual orientations.

From the Guardian. The sexual orientation regulations, which came into force in Northern Ireland on January 1 and will apply in England and Wales from April, require organisations to treat gay and lesbian people just as they would treat anyone else. Discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or religion is already disallowed, and the change in the law is a sensible recognition of a form of equality which already been accepted by parliament in everything from a single age of consent to civil partnerships.

The act has whipped up nasty homophobic backlash with the Daily Mail and various faith groups in the lead, spreading some outrageous stories about the Act’s implications.

Polly Toynbee on the homophobic panic: Get one thing clear: this law does not stop religions from banning gays joining their congregations or becoming priests. (Though they don’t seem to be very good at it.) But it does oblige any organisation or business offering services to the public to offer them equally to all comers. Bizarre and repugnant ads in newspapers from Christian organisers have spread outright lies about what this law does. Their campaign, strongly supported by the Daily Mail, has whipped up a degree of homophobia still lurking under an apparently tolerant surface. The gay rights group Stonewall has been horrified at the resurgence of threats and obscene abuse. To make their case, the religious have struggled to think up extreme scenarios where the law might affect them, but each has proved to be wrong, as ministers have refuted them all. They claim the law will "force all schools to actively promote homosexual civil partnerships to children (from primary-school age) to the same degree that they teach the importance of marriage". No it won’t: the curriculum does not "actively promote" homosexuality, nor even make sex education compulsory. They claim the law will "force a printing shop run by a Christian to print fliers promoting gay sex". No it won’t, unless the same printers promote heterosexual porn too. Or how about this one? "Force a family-run B&B to let out a double room to a transsexual couple, even if the family think it in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow such a situation in their home." Oh no it won’t: it doesn’t even cover transsexuals – and what a daft scenario anyway. The National Secular Society has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. But on and on go the prurient situations the religious homophobes dream up. The Christian Concern for Our Nation, petitioning the Queen, claims they "love their neighbours", but "Christians, of course, earnestly desire the repentance and salvation of homosexuals".

Read the rest.

They had themselves a protest outside Parliament too. I couldn’t give a damn about the feelings of people who base their homophobia on their religion. If you claim to be offering services to the public, you have to accept that the public includes lesbian, gay and bisexual people, just as I have to accept that the public includes homophobic religious people. If you don’t want to offer services to the lesbian, gay and bisexual public then, in my humble opinion, you shouldn’t be offering services and you certainly should not be getting any public funding.

This homophobic backlash makes me even more concerned than I already was by the Government’s push to farm out more public social and educational services to faith-based organisations.

Queer Childhood

A few weeks ago I read a post over at Rhetorically Speaking about the Daily Mail’s objections to the LGBT History Month currently being introduced in UK schools. The post made me so angry that I couldn’t immediately form a response, although I’ve been mulling my reaction over ever since.

Basically, The Mail implies that LGBT history month is political correctness gone mad: totally unnecessary and potentially harmful. The Mail objects to advice given to teachers because the project aims to teach children about sex and gender diversity and about famous gay people from history who’ve made positive contributions to society.

Ok, you might say, but why are you getting so upset about this stupid paper? Well it disturbs me because it taps into my own childhood and I can’t help but see The Daily Mail as a proud representative of the larger assault on queer children which is still supported by so many people in society. To what assault do you refer? The assault of silence; the assault of denying us our identities and our histories; the assault of refusing to acknowledge everything LGBT history month sets out to acknowledge. The Daily Mail’s bad journalism represents all those “I don’t care if they’re gay as long as they never speak about it” people. It represents everyone who supports the status quo and contributes to the confusion, loneliness, alienation and outright danger still suffered by queer children in our society. It confirms the thinking of all those who think it is better that queer children suffer and perhaps even die than that they should acknowledge the legitimate existence of queer people.

If you’re a straight person reading this, try and imagine what it would have been like to grown up with no positive acknowledgement of your sexuality or sexual identity. LGBT history month certainly won’t solve everything but it’s a start and, for some children, it might provide a lifeline. As queer theorist Michael Warner observes, “Almost all children grow up in families that think of themselves and all their members as heterosexual, and for some children this produces a profound and nameless estrangement a sense of inner secrets and hidden shame” (The Trouble with Normal 8). There was a lot of good in my childhood, but I well remember the isolation, the nameless estrangement, alienation, depression, confusion and secretiveness which has characterised my own experience. To be sure, some children have nice liberal parents who sit them down and explain that some people love people of the same-sex and that’s ok. But most of us don’t. Most of us still grow up expected to be straight with our parents afraid of even mentioning other possibilities, in case saying it makes it come true.

The idea that telling children about homosexuality will make them homosexual is one of the most insidious weapons of homophobic discourse. Silence won’t make your gay kids straight, but they probably will be more prone to depression, mental health problems and suicidal tendencies. Something like LGBT History month might have made a big difference to my own life. My upbringing, although non-normative in many respects, was certainly heteronormative. I grew up in a middle-class Roman Catholic family, initially in a rural area, later in a small town. At no point during my childhood was homosexuality mentioned in the home, nor was I made aware that there were any possibilities for desires or identifications outside the framework of heterosexual marriage. I couldn’t put any name to my sense of estrangement until I was about 9 and then it was not a good name. In a moment I still recall vividly, I was watching the film The Color Purple with my mother and at the moment when Shug and Celie kiss, the same moment I was thinking “Ah ha!” my mother exclaimed, “Oh, are they funny ladies?” I don’t know why she was asking me. At that moment I discovered three things: 1) The ladies were not Ha Ha funny 2) There was more going on in the world than they had been letting on 3) I identified with what I was seeing on screen more than with what I had so far understood to be sanctioned by my parents.

If we’d had LGBT history month in school I would have been taught about the existence of lesbians. It took me years to glean more information and often in guilty secret, because queerness is not nurtured or encouraged by even the most liberal of parents. It certainly did not occur to mine to entertain the possibility for one second. ‘Families’ says Gayle Rubin, quite rightly, ‘play a crucial role in enforcing sexual conformity’ (‘Thinking Sex,’ 22). This is not surprising because many families are simply too scared to do anything else. You will often come across rather revolting arguments for allowing gay people to adopt or have custody of their children on the basis that they won’t bring them up to be gay. Meanwhile, the morality of enforcing heterosexuality and strict gender norms on your children is rarely questioned.

I would ask people considering becoming parents what they would do to nurture a queer child, by which I also mean to nurture their queerness. Imagine encouraging your 14 year old gay son’s sexuality in the same way you would encourage your 14 your old heterosexual son. Imagine how you would be viewed as a parent. It doesn’t take long to realise in the current social climate it would be difficult and even perilous for parents to positively support their children’s queerness. Some queer theorists have argued that heteronormativity is a field of violence; they are right on many levels. We still have a very long way to go. Here’s to LGBT history month for making a start on breaking down the fear.

Homophobic Bullying

Disturbing article in the Guardian about homophobic bullying.

The victim’s stories are appalling and, apparently, the problem is on the increase. In 1988 more than 80% of schools were aware of such bullying taking place. Now, researchers reckon that 1 in 3 LGB kids experiences bullying, but only 6% of schools have anti-homophobic bullying policies in place. There is a perception that gay people in Britain are now more visible, more socially acceptable and better protected by the law. But, Rivers says, "None of these messages has got through at a school level […] Homophobic bullying carries a particular menace because rarely does any young person want to admit to the nature of their abuse. Children who are victimized might not even be gay, or know they are, or have come out. They are unlikely to raise such a subject with teachers or parents. So they suffer in silence. And because it is so hidden, this type of bullying can have horrifying consequences. Something To Tell You, a study of lesbian and gay teenagers, showed that one in five had attempted suicide at least once (emphasis mine).

Schools will often claim that they can’t deal with the problem because the parents go berzerk if the school is seen to be soft on homosexuality. But Sue Sander’s from the campaign group Schools Out argues "There is a massive myth that parents would be uncomfortable if we did this work to combat homophobic bullying, but it just isn’t the case," she says. Most parents just want their children to be taught in a safe environment – and heterosexual kids are also prey to homophobic bullying."

I’m not so convinced that parents in general would be comfortable with giving homosexuality the OK. Moreover, all these little homophobes are picking up a sense of tolerance for homophobia somewhere, and I don’t get the impression that very many families are having sit down talks with their kids about homosexuality and explaining why it’s wrong to attack people perceived to be gay. Most of the campaigners interviewed recommend more educational programmes in schools. That’s great, but getting into schools to do anti-homophobic work is no easy matter and, furthermore, no one’s sure what can be done about the UK’s 7,000 faith based schools where homophobia is rather likely to be written into the school ethos. While I agree that more education is a good idea, personally, I don’t think we’re going to be able to fully tackle homophobic bullying until we acknowledge and talk about the very real social function which homophobia serves in our culture. Homphobia is not arbitrary, not some bizarre anomaly that comes from nowhere; the kids who bully are symptomatic of a society which has long depended on homophobia. Sanders hits the nail on the head when she notes that heterosexual kids are also subject to such bullying. Yes, of course they are, because for homophobia to work properly, it’s crucial that everyone feel at risk of becoming a victim.

In the words of the queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, homophobia is ‘a mechanism for regulating the behaviour of the many by the specific oppression of the few’ (Between Men 88). Until we accept that homophobia is a weapon used to keep everyone sexually in line, we will not be able to deal with it adequately, not even with all the educational programmes in the world. It’s going to be incredibly hard to get people to lay down this particular weapon. Since admitting that homosexuality is not wrong means giving up enormous heterosexual privilege, we can’t expect society at large to let it go without a fight.