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A reluctant defense of the word ‘faggot’ in Fairytale of New York

A reluctant defense of the word ‘faggot’ in Fairytale of New York

Fairytale of New York is problematic, but does that make it a problem? | Photo: YouTube

There is a period around Christmas when, like the performing monkey I am, I play the piano at my parents’ house like a holiday card vignette of family togetherness.

I joke – a tad – but I do actually love it. It feels Christmassy. And I can always rely on my dad to be there – merry on dessert wine, mince pies and brandy – singing along.

And come Sunday, like it has been around Christmastime as long as I can remember, it will happen again.

There is always a moment that never fails to make me laugh. During The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York, as I slow the ‘Irish jig’ part down a little, and the lyrics read ‘You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last’.

And just like the entire song, my Dad sings boisterously along full of cheer and wine to one of his favorite songs.

Now my dad has never called me faggot in his life. He never would. But the moment I hear it roar in my ear might make me wince the first time, but then I laugh uncontrollably, because it’s funny. This lovely caring man just shouted a homophobic slur in my ear, his gay journalist son. But he didn’t sing the word to be abusive, but because it’s ‘Christmassy’.

The reason why I don’t care because I know the intention behind my Dad’s tune, or at least why he’s singing it. It’s because it’s the song’s lyrics, and it rhymes with ‘maggot’, and it doesn’t really mean anything more than that. He says it like ‘cur’ would be used as an insult, something that makes contextual sense in a Shakespeare play but never in real life. If someone was to yell ‘faggot’ at me in the street, and I was with my dad, he would be angry and hurt and concerned. That’s who he is.

I can see why people don’t like ‘faggot’ in Fairytale of New York. It’s a homophobic slur, it’s a song written during the height of the AIDS crisis, and it is deeply offensive. It’s a red handle for many people.

Many gay, bi and trans men and women have been called the word at the worst points in their lives. They hear it again and it stings. I hear it, and it cuts me deep too. Even though I know it’s only a word, it’s a word with heavy brutal connotations. It means that you, a gay person, is less than me, a straight person. It means I get to treat you like shit. It means you’re worthless to me.

But you know and I know that me writing the word faggot right now isn’t offensive. In the context of this piece of writing, you know that I am not censoring it because you can handle it.

And in the mouth of Kirsty MacColl, there is also context. Fairytale of New York was an anthem for those who didn’t have picture perfect families to go home to in December. They didn’t have tinsel and fairy lights and Christmas TV.

pogues_kirsty_maccoll

It was the gamblers and losers and scumbags that roamed the streets of New York in the 1980s, it was those trying to get by in a world of gunshots and dirty needles. It was the world of Stonewall post-revolution. Even more than today, LGBTI people often didn’t have homes they could go back to. The people were the Marsha P Johnsons and Sylvia Rivieras of that time. It was those people, the ones that built the city, that the song was written about.

Other arguments around the song say the slur is an old Irish insult based on the original meaning of the word, as in sticks or planks, so calling someone that slur would be like saying ‘you’re as thick as two short planks’. If it makes a difference, it was partly written by gay Pogues guitarist Philip Chevron and Kirsty MacColl was very gay-friendly.

And it’s not a bad to like things that are ‘problematic’ when viewed in 2016. Friends, despite having a gay co-creator and showing a lesbian wedding in its first season, has several moments that could be considered homophobic and transphobic. Does that mean you refuse to watch it ever again?

Should Fairytale of New York be censored? Every year it comes up, with the BBC even choosing to do so briefly in 2007, and there are several reasons why it should be.

I always think of the people who grew up with the song, the ones that feel that taking out a lyric seems absurd. And then I think of the 15-year-old queer kids hearing it for the first time on the radio, and what they must think.

And every year I’m left feeling divided. Do I want kids to grow up singing ‘faggot’ at the top of their lungs? No, I don’t. Do I think just because it’s a gay word it’s ‘less offensive’ than all the other racially motivated words that are banned on TV and radio? No, I don’t. But do I want to see it censored? I’m just not sure.

You can hate Fairytale of New York, you can love it, or you can like it with the exception of that lyric. And that’s ok.  But when I think of the people who sing along to the track around Christmastime, and then think of those who use faggot in their everyday lives, it is the latter ones who are inexcusable.

Always ask, before you cry out in offense – are you angry at the word, or are you angry at the emotion behind it?

Joe Morgan is the editor-at-large at Gay Star News. He can be found on Twitter.