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Vanity Fair’s F-word Problem, But Not the F-word You Think

There was a time that the word “fag” probably wouldn’t cause much of a stir.  But Vanity Fair contributor Brett Berk has found himself in the middle of a weekend firestorm after dropping the f-bomb in a column about the recent episode of Glee in his Gay Guide to Glee on VF’s website.

Nice singing. But how can having girls in the audience make these cartwheeling, foam-party fags straight-sexy?

Berk, who describes himself as the “Fun and Faggy editor” for VF, found himself at the blunt end of some criticism–including from me at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association blog–both on VF’s website and across the web.  Prominent bloggers including Perez Hilton–who knows a little something about f-word controversies–and Towleroad highlighted the controversy.  The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation tweeted about the column.

All the publicity ultimately led Berk to update his column late Sunday evening, where he removed the term (and eliminated the “Fun and Faggy” descriptor on his Twitter profile).  Here’s Berk’s explanation.

I would like to apologize sincerely to anyone I offended with the use of the term “fag” (now removed) in this “Gay Guide to Glee” column. As an openly gay writer writing in an overtly overblown style, my intent in using the word in this offhanded way was to continue my consistent efforts to confront and challenge stereotype, to unpack the way in which language works, and to deconstruct the clever gender politics at play in the scene I described: teasing out the purposeful incongruity of this (foamy) attempt to make the conspicuously gay Dalton Warblers seem “sexy” to females. Anyone with even a whiff of familiarity with my writing will know that I am, and have long been, a tireless agitator, here at VF.com and elsewhere, for gay rights, as well as a huge supporter of everything Glee has accomplished in advancing a meaningful dialogue about homosexuality in our popular culture—and in our youth culture in particular.

Berk’s argument is that he was confronting stereotypes and that by “reclaiming” the term “fag,” he was actually flying the rainbow flag for gay rights and identity. It’s an argument that many commenters on the column made at VF and one echoed in the gay blogosphere. Like an African American rapper using the “n-word” as a badge of honor and confrontation of racism, so too is a gay writer’s use of the term “fag.”

But what Berk discovered was that a blow for equality can often backfire when people don’t understand the context.  Berk assumes that people know him and know his writing, so people should understand the context.  There are, however, few writers who have the kind of following that allows them to use the term “fag” without it raising some eyebrows.  There is always a danger for any writer–or artist–in assuming their audience is either so small or so large that the reader will be “in” on the context.

You also get the sense that Berk used the term not just to “deconstruct the clever gender politics” on Glee, but also because it’s the kind of phrase that he tosses around within his social group: gay men and gay-men loving women. Like the n-word, the term “fag” may be a word people toss around as an “in-group” word where everyone realizes there is no harm intended.  What you say over cocktails with your friends sounds very different when used by a group of strangers at a football game.

I’m not going to suggest that a writer can never use the term “fag” and its variants. But it’s important to never underestimate the impact of the term of your audience or the lack of familiarity your readers have about you.  Even gay writers can’t assume they are free from criticism just because they are trying to “confront and challenge” a stereotype in an otherwise breezy review of a television show about a high school glee club.

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