Thursday, 26 December 2019

So Could Anyone

Let’s be clear: the last thing I want to be doing in the wee small hours as Christmas Day turns to Boxing Day is to be writing something about a song we’re all sick of discussing. But the alternative would be lying in bed unable to sleep as the same old thoughts rotated through my brain with the insistence of the NYPD choir singing Galway Bay.

So the upshot is, I’m sat in my sister’s lounge, where the only light is this laptop, trying to explain yet again how this time of year is harder than it needs to be if you happen to be a cheap lousy faggot.

Last week I was in the glassware department of John Lewis at Brent Cross, trying to find one last Christmas present for my faggot of a husband. I was listening to a podcast but, faggotishly enough, I don’t have noise-cancelling headphones so I became aware of a song that was playing in store.

It’s a fucking brilliant song: rackety and festive and sad and funny and ding dong merrily on high. But it’s gradually become a song that has made me flinch. There’s a word in it that faggots like me- not all of us, but a good number of us- have found harder and harder to hear, over the years.

There was a time when the word, in context, didn’t bother me at all. I bellowed it, eight pints down, along with everyone else, and then we all talked about how the song it’s in is the best Christmas song, because it is. But the thing is, there have been a lot of changes in the last thirty years or so. The thing about being a frightened minority (and we faggots all know how that feels, even though there are other minorities worse off than us) is that you don’t even know how oppressed you’ve been until you start being a little less frightened, and that can take generations.

As a cheap teenage faggot in the 1980s, I internalized the idea that being different made me worth less. I was so, so ashamed of what I loved. As a lousy twentysomething faggot in the 90s, I welcomed the changes to the law that made me a little less lesser. I didn’t believe in equal marriage then, by the way: marriage was for the people who were real. I hadn’t yet met my husband, but I sure as hell believed I wasn’t allowed him. As a scumbag thirtysomething faggot in the 2000s, I started realizing that language had been a huge, huge part of the narrative of shame I’d grown up with: that the fear of being called a word, or words, had diminished me in what should have been the shiniest years of my life.

This was round about the time the vocalist who sang the word in the Christmas song started singing an altered lyric, by the way, because she was a brilliant human being who saw what it meant before most of the rest of us did. You'd think that would have been the end of it, but she died in horrible circumstances so her opinion on how words change over time became irrelevant for some reason.

And then, just the other day, I was in John Lewis buying a Christmas present for my husband when I heard the song and I couldn’t bear, couldn’t BEAR, that I was about to hear the word in a nice cosy shop surrounded by hundreds of other people. I wanted to turn up my headphones and drown it out, but a part of me thought that would be cowardly, so I came to the good old faggoty compromise, and accepted that I have to hear a vicious slur about myself a hundred times every Christmas, and that the little stab it gives me every single time is something I have to deal with, because to be upset by it is snowflakey and PC and woke and it’s just a word in a song for god’s sake and they’re singing in character and what’s your problem with hearing that word while you’re doing Christmas shopping, faggot?

(That ‘it’s a character’ defence, by the way: what a doozy. I’ve been in quite a lot of plays and played quite a lot of characters. They say all kinds of stuff. I’m going to write a Christmas classic where a ‘character’ sings ‘I have cancer/ It’s terminal/ I will probably die in agony/ During the Nine Lessons And Carols’ and if anyone finds it less than festive I will say ‘Unfortunately that is what the *character* in my lovely Christmas song is thinking and of course you should put it in your TV ad/department store/sitcom because DUUUH CHARACTER DUUUH’.)

So tonight- Christmas night, ffs- some of my family (which includes two faggots) watched the ‘Gavin and Stacey’ Christmas special. The Christmas special of the beloved sitcom, on BBC1, on Christmas Day, that decided to include the song, and the word, in a way that dared anyone to have a problem with it. ‘It’s a song! It’s a word!’ they winked as the character whose probable gay past has been a running joke for nearly a decade sang ‘faggot’ to families everywhere. It’s funny because he hates himself!

They definitely knew. All of them. When they decided to put it in a scene, they knew. When the producers received the script. When they shot it and edited it. When they trailed it and broadcast it and tweeted about how proud they were of their show. They all knew that they had decided to address the fact that some faggots feel their shoulders tense up when that song starts to play: that we instantly start the internal debate over whether we’re allowed to be upset, that our hearts beat a little faster and we get a stab of anxiety. That every year, the season of peace and love and goodwill to all men yells a word at us that is formed entirely of hate, and we have to be good sports and claim not to be bothered. They knew that, and the message they decided to send to us was ‘suck it up, faggots’. To put it mildly, that doesn’t feel like punching up.

Of course it didn’t make things instantly, materially worse for queer people. It was just a moment in a sitcom. But I can promise you that a lot of queer people had a moment of sadness. Of otherness. A lot of us were reminded that we exist in your world for as long as you permit us, and if you ever changed your mind there wouldn’t be enough of us to make it a fair fight. History kind of bears us faggots out on that one. That's a sad thing to be reminded of on Christmas Day.

(In fairness, some queer people instantly took to their social media to say how unbothered they are, and that they wanted to distance themselves from anyone who has a problem with the song or with the sitcom. To those people I would like to say that nobody would EVER know and it is TOTALLY fine to LIKE being MASCULINE because god knows you wouldn’t want to be one of THEM. Btw and fyi boys: the people who hate the queens hate you just as much. Unfair, right? Soz).

The rest of us, though: we’re tired. And sad. And increasingly scared. And if- like Shane McGowan, or Rob Brydon, or James Corden, or Ruth Jones- you’ve never been called a faggot (or any of the other words for difference) by someone who knew it to be true and wanted to do you harm, then you don’t get to tell us that our sadness and our fear aren’t valid.

Happy Christmas, that word in that song. I pray god it’s your last.


N04 said...

You're making a really good and important point. Tbh, arriving here in 2002 and never celebrating Christmas up until then, I never got the adoration this song got. It's a good song, it's "so rebel anti Christmas" Christmas song. Great. It shouldn't play in public without a bleep or a slight change (I'm guessing she changed it to maggot?!? Easily digitally done these days). Of course there would be an outrage for censoring and changing "art" but FFS it's either that or just take it off the air... It's hardly a British treasure. I hope you got some sleep. X

Jess said...

This is well said, and it's reassuring to hear another queer voice saying it. I didn't watch the show last night but I've heard that song too many times to count and it gives me that little twinge of pain every time. I've stopped saying anything about it, mainly because my wife is happy to take the "it's in character" angle and it's not worth the argument, but damn, that word makes me so sad. A reminder of all the history of it not just for me (I've had it comparatively easy and am endlessly grateful for it) but for all of us. People may love that song for its depiction of humanity's imperfection, but I still think we don't need to celebrate ugliness between humans.

slepkane said...

Brilliant. Brilliant. You're brilliant. Thank you, Jon.