Gay slurs in New Zealand

… with quotations from a Stanford linguist.

The story: “Garry Mallett’s explanation of the F-word falls short” by Jeremy Olds yesterday in the NZ website Stuff (stuff.co.nz), about fag(got), beginning with events in Hamilton City NZ (south of Auckland on the North Island):

OPINION: It’s unclear why Hamilton City councillor Garry Mallett believes pink is a “homo colour”. Perhaps he thinks it’s effeminate; perhaps he thinks it’s cute.

Whatever the case, when Mallett described a pink piece of paper from an agenda last week as a “homo colour”, before using the word “fags”, his comments were perceived as homophobic by his colleagues, including councillor Angela O’Leary.

While he apologised for his language this morning, Mallett was last night defending his comments, saying gay people are comfortable with the labels, and to think otherwise is to be “sucked into this politically correct vortex,” The Spinoff reported.

“Many homosexuals freely and willingly identify with these words. Indeed, to some extent, homosexuals have ‘commandeered’ these words such that many non-homosexuals feel uncomfortable using them,” he said.

Ah, the right to use fag openly and proudly as a slur, threatened by the pansies, fruits, and fairies who have begun reclaiming fag for their own use.

Pieces of background information:

[from e-mail from Jeremy Olds to me:] stuff.co.nz is New Zealand’s most popular domestic website and has 2 million unique monthly readers. Small numbers compared to US sites but it’s almost half our population.

[from Wikipedia on Mallett:] Garry B. Mallett is a New Zealand politician. He was the fourth President of ACT New Zealand. As of 2010 he resides in Hamilton, New Zealand, and is a former owner-operator of a branch of Les Mills International there.

[from Wikipedia on Les Mills:] Les Mills International is a New Zealand company that is the world’s largest provider of choreographed exercise-to-music group fitness classes distributed to health clubs.

[from Wikipedia on ACT New Zealand:] ACT New Zealand … is a right-wing, classical-liberal political party in New Zealand.

… The name comes from the initials of the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers, founded in 1993 by Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley, from which the party grew in 1994.

[some positions taken by ACT New Zealand:] controlling government debt, lowering tax rates, reinstating private prisons, welfare reforms, increased spending on defense, re-introducing interest on student loans, denying that the New Zealand climate is warming and labeling global warming a hoax (but by narrow majorities supported same-sex civil unions and legalization of brothels)

Olds’s Stuff piece continues:

“Some extent” is right. “Fag” is a short word that, for some gay men, cuts deep. As a homophobic slur, the label both identifies someone as a gay, and insults them, says Arnold Zwicky, a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. Consider its use on the protest signs of Westboro Baptist Church members (“GOD HATES FAGS”), or hearing it chanted by a mob of white nationalists, as seen in Charlottesville, Virginia this week. Zwicky has called the word a “double-barreled reference and disparagement all in one”.

“Many gay men aren’t comfortable using ‘fag(got)’ in any context; the words still bear the sting of hatred for them,” Zwicky says. “In general, I’d say that more gay men are now more comfortable using the words of themselves, though part of the effect is sheer defiance: I embrace the worst things you can say about me, and I throw them back in your face, asshole!”

For gay people, using the word “faggot” is a much more nuanced issue than Mallet’s explanation conveys. The Samon-New Zealand playwright Victor Rodger titled his 2013 play Black Faggot, and used the phrase for his recently released book of plays. “That is a term that has been lobbed at me both as a term of endearment from people who mean no harm, but it’s certainly been lobbed at me as an insult,” says Rodger. To him, the context of the label is key: What is the intention of the speaker? What is the perception of the listener?

“It’s not black and white, but I know when I’m offended and I know when I’m not. It’s all about the intention,” he says.

Mallett has said his comments were made in light hearted jest, but Zwicky reads them as a clear insult towards gay people. “Word choices convey beliefs and attitudes, so they can indeed do great harm, especially to children,” he says. This was evidenced in the 1999 case of 14-year-old Wellington schoolboy Jeff Whittington, who was kicked to death by attackers who thought he looked like a “faggot”.

Mallett apologised this morning before a finance committee meeting: “Unfortunately some took offence at these comments, which were not directed at anyone in particular,” he said. “I apologise to anyone who was offended by my comments as no offence was intended.”

He may have said the words light-heartedly, but for those impacted by homophobia, this is irrelevant. To tell them “faggot” is inoffensive is to deny their experience. Within Mallett’s apology is the same attitude he displayed in his original comments: if you take offence, it’s your problem.

The classic non-apology apology; see Edwin L. Battistella’s Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology (Oxford, 2014).

What Mallett did in his original response to pink paper — an extravagant irrational reaction to a small thing, expressing grievance and an apprehension of threat — is one of several tactics for saying nasty things while disclaiming responsibility for them:

I was just kidding (some people can’t take a joke)

It was a slip of the tongue (everybody makes little mistakes)

I didn’t know that others would be offended by what I said (this one supplies the non-apology apology in advance)

It’s just the way guys talk amongst themselves (don’t rag on me for being a Real Man, bitch)

I was just using words neutrally, the way some other people use them (Mallett’s choice)

Mallett’s full set of responses manages to mix paranoia, aggression, contempt, and evasiveness. Way to go, councillor.

(Mallett appears to be antipathetic to Maoris as well as gay men. Dirty fags and horis.)

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