November 10, 2010

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.

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14 Responses to I’ve been thinking lately about the term “fag hag

  1. heidi says:

    Etymology and subversive words are always fascinating topics! Great post šŸ™‚

    how about fly girl? it has a kind of ‘wingman’ connotation, which i like.

  2. Jeffrey says:

    I was thinking an analogue to wingman would be most appropriate. I love fly girl, though its origins and other commonly understood meaning might be problematic too. I can’t seem to think of anything else, though.

    (Wordplay is fun, isn’t it?)

  3. Kenneth says:

    As someone who came out in the late ’70s in Northern California, I must say that what you describe doesn’t match my experience. The meanings you attribute to the ’80s and ’90s were already how we used the term “fag hag” when I was in college. There was no scorn nor pity directed towards the straight women who gladly (and proudly) were part of the gay men’s community. In fact, quite the reverse (especially since the women in my circle were, quite frankly, hot).

    And I have never heard fruit fly used to refer to a man. (Slang is, of course, quite fluid, so I’m not surprised that someone a generation younger and on the opposite coast might use a phrase differently.) As for connotation, however, I’ve always thought fruit fly was quite negative. Go figure.

  4. heidi and Jeffrey, I like “fly girl” but I feel like it sounds a little bit like a superhero little sister. Like, Wonder Woman and Fly Girl!

    Kenneth, to tell the truth I was a little careless in my dates above. It seems (I understand after further research) that the shift in question happened around the time of Stonewall, in the late 60s/early 70s.

    I’ve also heard “fruit fly” used as a gender-free umbrella term to describe both women (“fag hags”) and men (“fag stags”).

    There’s got to be a word in French we could use or something.

  5. Wade says:

    My friends who disliked the term “fag hag” because it also contained the term “fag” have used fruit fly. However, some who think it classier have also chosen “Flame Dame.”

  6. tychoish says:

    I’m not opposed to “giving” queer to straight women and others who are by all rights members of the community/family, but who may practice differently… Why not? The more people under the tent who get it, the better.

  7. ssmith says:

    Someone I knew used to use “fagnet”, as he took issue with “hag” more than “fag” and enjoyed the word play element. As a child of the 80s and 90s, fly girl means young J-Lo dancing in knee pads. And “fruit” just seems so dated…

  8. Christian says:

    Slang is fascinating as the meanings you ascribe to the terms aren’t at all what I’m used to in my neck of the woods (Mountain West). Out here, a fruit fly doesn’t refer to a guy

  9. TED says:

    I disagree with you on one point:

    Instead, we’ve tried to change it from a term that separates us into a term that unites us

  10. maryse says:

    No, unfortunately, and unless I’m mistaken, no word in French you could use… But you can always invent one.

  11. Kenneth says:

    Ooh, I approve of inventing a French word to use!

  12. Jeff says:

    It seems like you have more of a problem with the definition than the phrase. Maybe we could just do without a defining phrase at all, but I know a lot of women who are proud of the fact that they connect with a segment of society that not only quasi-defines their relationships with men but how they relate with other women as well. They’re proud that they get something from some men that other women can’t. In terms of the semantics and what words we should use, I’m not sure I have that much to add to that discussion (fruit fly seems like a leap to me), but I seriously don’t think the term is always derogatory. That said, I don’t say it as much as I think it.

  13. Linda Price says:

    I’ve never responded to a blog; just couldn’t remember it was Christopher Marlowe who wrote “Faustus”–as an English prof. it bothered me to forget what I knew but as far as search engine optimization you are on page one which is impressive. Any student, instructor, or neophyte playwright will, first off,come to your blog. Are you aware of the “filter bubble” used by google and yahoo? Not sure if you are familiar with “Ted” who grabbed my attention with the fact google and yahoo filter the information you get when you use their search engines based on where you’ve been before. Ted used the example of no longer receiving politically conservative information as well as different responses to his search queries since he is politically liberal. This prevents anyone from getting the whole picture and makes me angry and distrustful. I wonder if Sarah Palin did a search on “Faustus” if your blog would even be included should she use google or yahoo. Anything remotely Orwellian gets my synapses snapping. Don’t have a clue how you stand on issues, hard to get past the “fag hag” stuff since labels are bad enough without wasting energy thinking of new ones. But if you are gay, it would be interesting to see if my search results change or even the ads on FaceBook. Since “brevity is the soul of wit” I’m signing off. Now, who said that? Wonder if my interest in Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud had anything to do with your blog’s position of importance? Nah…I’m sure it is good stuff. If you love word play try “The Devil’s Dictionary” by Ambrose Bierce. A true Faustian wouldn’t be caught dead without it! Linda

  14. Haze says:

    Why is there a need for a special name anyway? I have friends, full stop. They are of all sexual persuasions and have widely different interests and personalities. All these friendships are special to me.

    The very fact that the term “fag hag” originated within the homosexual community really does speak volumes about their depth of feeling for the women who enjoyed their company and I dislike it intensely.


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