Queer the Smear

No matter how much we watch our own words, some hateful things keep hanging around our language and our children

By Sean Bugg
Published on August 9, 2012, 1:02am | Comments

It is absolutely no secret that I have a foul mouth, a propensity for profanity that goes beyond those within earshot and often ends up screaming across computer screens. During the recent derecho blackout that left my home powerless for three-plus days, my Facebook feed ended up being my outlet for frustrated obscenities. This, just about the time some of my older relatives back home had friended me, so I probably managed to cement some pre-existing ideas about me.

I've been paying more attention to my loose lips recently because my husband, annoyed with my verbal habits, started peppering his own speech with random ''fucks.'' Because he is not even remotely a natural-born foul mouth and is congenitally cheerful, it's like being cussed out by a Nickelodeon character. But it got his point across and I've tried to cut it down a bit.

Around these parts, of course, I don't pepper my sentences with lots of profanities because I'm writing an op-ed, a Washington establishment format that rather demands that we keep things classy through the use of, say, asterisks, as in f*** that s***.

Wade Davis

Wade Davis

(Photo by Todd Franson)

Where I'm generally best at reining in my tongue is when my nephew is around. It can be close at times — ''What the fuuuuuuh-uh-rickin' heck are you doing in there?'' — but so far I've managed to keep it under control. Yet I know from my own experience hanging around at my father's repair shop, which was a social nexus for our small town, that the kid's going to pick up the language anyway. I knew them all by the time I was his age and I didn't have the Internet to help me along.

That's why it struck me so strongly when I was talking with Wade Davis about his childhood time playing ''Smear the Queer.'' It's a game I played fairly regularly in elementary school — well, until they stopped us from playing it after we broke one boy's leg, leaving him with a permanent limp — and I suppose a part of me hoped that people growing up 10, 15 or 20 years after me would at least have come up with a new name for it. But, no, the power of that rhyming consonance is too sweet to pass up. It's still one of those insidious little language things that creeps in from the side, teaching kids to hate what's different, and teaching kids who are different that they should be afraid.

Some LGBT activists — the late Frank Kameny prominent among them — have never warmed to the ''reclaiming'' of queer, generally on the principle that you can't reclaim something you never owned. During the Queer Nation era, I was all for it. It felt mean and aggressive and sharp on the tongue. Using an epithet used to degrade me was an act that made me feel more like a man. But it didn't stick, in large part because by becoming a catchall term for everyone from radical academics to slightly freaky straight people it lost its edge. Now ''queer'' straddles the line between an edgy marketing technique and a schoolyard taunt.

And so there the word sits, on the playgrounds of the nation where massive groups of 10-year-old boys gleefully chase their friend with the ball, run down the queer and tackle him with ferocious, yet still innocent, roughhousing. As Davis shows in his story, a football field can teach a lot of lessons. It's just sad that after all this time, casual bigotry remains one of them.

Sean Bugg is the co-publisher of Metro Weekly. You can reach him at sbugg@MetroWeekly.com or follow him on Twitter, @seanbugg.


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