I have a high school yearbook in which a “friend” wrote one large red letter on each page: P-R-E-S-T-O-N I-S A F-A-G.

I was reminded of this memento when I heard that Kobe Bryant called a referee a “f*cking fag.” Openly gay former NBA player John Amaechi gives a thoughtful response in the the NY Times, but here is my simpler take…

  • No single use of it really offends me. When cohorts casually drop the f-bomb I couldn’t really care less. I’m not that sensitive.
  • At the same time, the relentless use of it to mean a despicable loser is a huge problem.

Joan Amaechi (Chris Goodney/Bloomberg News) and Kobe Bryant (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters) both via the NY Times

There has been extensive discussion this week about how the use of faggot compares with the use of the n-word. While our culture’s treatment of gay people has been abominable, nothing in US history compares to what we did, and still do, to black Americans. We have few words as taboo in our society as the n-word, and if black Americans say that’s how it needs to be, then that’s how it needs to be. I don’t find the comparison helpful.

I think the way we use faggot is more like the way we used Polack when i was a kid. Polack jokes were standard in America in the 70s, even for kids in Utah who had never met a Polish person. I grew up a little unsure whether Poles were actually stupid, not because anyone directly slandered them, but simply because they were always the punchline. That ended when Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement initiated the demise of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, Poles were no longer the butt of jokes.

“Faggot” can be unnerving when slung at me by a hostile teenager, but that’s not the most dangerous use. Hey, at least the kid is accurate, if a little overly venomous. In that case it isn’t the word that makes me nervous, but the physical violence that may follow, which is actually rather rare.

No, the most damaging use of the word is exactly how Kobe Bryant used it — to mean the most horrible thing he could think of. A $100,000 fine is surreal to me, but good on the NBA for making a dramatic statement. This casual use of the word as a negative put-down, small in each individual case but large in overall affect on the culture, needs to end.

For a different take on how to address this problem, read this account of a Brazilian volleyball player (from the land of where beach volleyball rules) who got heckled by a crowd for being gay. His supporters filled the stadium with pink thundersticks and a massive banner against prejudice. Maybe the Brazilians can come teach Americans how to address homophobia in sports with playfulness and humor. A stadium full of pink thundersticks sounds great to me.

Pink thundersticks rule in Brazil.