I’ve been thinking lately about the term “fag hag.”
I don’t like it.
But: while it’s easy to refer to a straight woman who’s best friends with a gay man or who spends a lot of time with gay men as a fag hag, it’s also a little careless, because “fag hag” has, throughout its brief history (it seems to have arisen in the middle of the twentieth century), almost always had negative connotations.
In the ’40s and ’50s, a fag hag was a straight woman who hung out with gay men because she was lonely, because she couldn’t get a date, because she needed the attention. She was a pathetic figure, deserving of both pity and scorn, and her gay male friends gave her more than enough of both. She hung out with them because she was an outcast from straight society; gay men were the best she could do. They in turn were aware of their status as the dregs, and in justified resentment kept her on the fringes of their company, never fully accepting her, but never fully rejecting her wither, because they knew what it was like to be outcast from straight society.
(Note, please, that I am making explicit the connotations of a term, not describing actual people.)
In the ’60s and ’70s, the meaning of “fag hag” shifted and the term came to describe a woman who was in love with an openly gay man or who only fell in love with openly gay men. Her feelings would never be requited, and she knew her feelings would never be requited, and so once again, though for different reasons, she was a figure of pity and scorn. It’s human nature to feel some measure of contempt, however slight, for somebody who loves you more than you love him or her, and here was someone who was not only always on the wrong side of that equation but also evidently unwilling to do anything about it. And yet, since the men she was in love with, like gay men today, were also all thirteen-year-old girls inside, they felt keenly the pain of unanswered longing. So once again the fag hag was kept on the edge of gay society, never in, never out.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, people began to subvert the meaning of “fag hag” in much the same way they had begun to subvert the meaning of “queer.” They—we, I should say, since by this time I had come prancing out of the womb—took the term “queer” from our oppressors and transformed it into something positive and defiant; once we welcomed the word it lost its power to hurt us and our enemies were left with one weapon fewer. “Fag hag,” too, took on a provocative connotation, denoting a woman happy to flout society’s standards and spend her time with unacceptable people. Both “fag hag” and “queer” came to mean, essentially, “Yes, I’m that thing you’re calling me, and you’re simply too limited to see that it’s a thing to be celebrated.”
“Queer” has pretty much stabilized by now, somewhere in the intersection of sexuality and sociopolitics. It can mean “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, intersexual, asexual, and/or pansexual”—that is, “not straight”—or sometimes simply “disobedient to sex and gender rules”—and it has become very useful, especially as our understanding of sexuality broadens.
But here’s the thing that “queer” has going for it that “fag hag” doesn’t: “queer” is and has always been a term that separates us from them. The us and the them have changed over time, but what has stayed the same is that it’s a word that divides.
We’re no longer looking for, however, a term that divides gay men and straight women. If “fag hag” had been appropriated by straight women in the face of sexism and other forms of oppression by gay men, it would be one thing, but that’s not what’s happened. Instead, we’ve tried to change it from a term that separates us into a term that unites us—and I’m not sure that’s possible. A knife can be used as a weapon for good or ill, but no matter what something’s going to get cut apart. I can’t hear “fag hag” without feeling division, and that in fact is exactly the opposite of what I think we want here. Because what we’ve realized is that there’s an affinity between gay men and straight women that often makes us each other’s strongest allies, and that’s a force that invites not defiance or subversion but celebration.
So I don’t know what the right term is. It’s certainly not the unpronounceable “gwlbwlb” (girl who likes boys who like boys). We can’t use “fruit fly,” which has its own distinct meaning, problematic in its own distinct way, of “a straight man who hangs around with gay men.”
I guess for now I’ll use “friend,” but that’s woefully insufficient too.