punks

Or: new adventures in sexuality slurs. Brought to my attention by “Is Punk the New F Word?: The word has been used to bully gay black boys for decades” by Charles Stephens in The Advocate issue for June/July 2018:

… Of all the homophobic slurs thrown around, being called a punk is the one I recall the most vividly. It cut the deepest. I don’t remember the first time I was called a punk, but I do remember the faces of those who hurled the curse my way. I can still see how their mouths contorted as they pronounced the slur and the contagion that followed — poisonous words polluting the air, followed by the deafening silence of teachers and other adults watching passively. I learned two things from this: (1) adults don’t want to be punks either, and (2) you can fight back or run away, but no one will protect you.


(#1) Bikini boys: punks defiantly giving off “In yo’ face, bitch!”

The photo illustrates Stephens’s observations only too poignantly. It’s from the DumbDrops (dumdrops.com) mockery site — “Your daily dose of dummies” — specializing in images of (stupid or repellent) black people and images of (disgusting) fat people (though its contempt extends to other targets). I don’t know the source of #1, but on DumbDrops, it’s intended as a warning to black men: if you don’t raise your sons properly, teach them to be real men (beat it into them if necessary), this is what they will become — pieces of punk trash, to be thrown away.

Stephens continues:

When I came out and started hanging around other black gay men, the word “punk” morphed into something different. Gay clubs were referred to as punk bars and frequenting them would be to go punking. Even the club, our most sacred space, was not safe from the word. We brought it with us, hoping that if we could transform the word, we could transform ourselves.


(#2) Some adults embrace their punk identity

… I acknowledge that white gay men and other nonblack gay men of color may not have the same relationship to the word “punk.” And yes, theoretically, when used as a noun, “punk” may refer to a wide range of people one might associate with weakness, a lack of integrity, or being sneaky. But when black gay men in particular are referred to as punks, it’s absolutely used as a homophobic slur, often followed by violence. It’s far from an innocent word.

Bulletins from the punks who survived (including Stephens himself), collected into a book:


(#3) Keith Boykin (ed.), For Colored Boys (2012)

Meanwhile, a Google search on “gay black boys” netted not only #1, but also images of black Brazilian model Vitor Melo (now working in the US and Europe), displaying his body as an object of male desire (he’s been featured in the British gay lifestyle magazine Attitude), as here:


(#4) Overalls coming off


(#5) Down to minimal tighty-whities, plus a white flower behind his left ear (so he’s partnered? or the character he’s playing is partnered?)

Now, things to come. First, notes on Stephens and on Boykin and For Colored Boys. Then, a treatment of the complex and tangled  history of the noun  punk referring to people (dismissing the rotten-wood noun punk and sidelining the rock-musical punk), as treated in four dictionaries.

Stephens and Boykin. On the HuffPo site:


(#6)

Charles Stephens is a writer, cultural activist, and organizer. He is the founder and executive director of the Counter Narrative Project. He is the co-editor of the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.

The Counter Narrative Project works “to advocate around issues impacting Black gay men, and stand in solidarity with other movements committed to social justice” (link).

And then Boykin, from Wikipedia:


(#7)

Keith Boykin (born August 28, 1965) is an American progressive broadcaster, author and commentator.

… Boykin’s most recent book, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough [:Coming of Age, Coming Out, and Coming Home], … was published in August 2012. His previous book,Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America focusing on the down-low phenomenon, was published in February 2005 and released in paperback in February 2006.

From the publisher of For Colored Boys:

In 1974, playwright Ntozake Shange published For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf. The book would go on to inspire legions of women for decades and would later become the subject and title of a hugely popular movie in the fall of 2010. While the film was selling out movie theaters, young black gay men were literally committing suicide in the silence of their own communities.

When a young Rutgers University student named Tyler Clementi took his own life after a roommate secretly videotaped him in an intimate setting with another young man, syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry to inspire young people facing harassment. Their message, It Gets Better, turned into a popular movement, inspiring thousands of user-created videos on the Internet. Savage’s project targeted people of all races, backgrounds and colors, but Boykin has created something special “for colored boys.”

The new book, For Colored Boys [a set of (often harrowing) essays from various authors about their life experiences as gay black men], addresses longstanding issues of sexual abuse, suicide, HIV/AIDS, racism, and homophobia in the African American and Latino communities, and more specifically among young gay men of color. The book tells stories of real people coming of age, coming out, dealing with religion and spirituality, seeking love and relationships, finding their own identity in or out of the LGBT community, and creating their own sense of political empowerment. For Colored Boys is designed to educate and inspire those seeking to overcome their own obstacles in their own lives. [One essay is by Charles Stephens, one by Boykin himself.]

The collection is impressive. Here’s the complete table of contents, in four pages (you might need to embiggen the images):

(#8)
(#9)
(#10)
(#11)

Backtracking briefly to Boykin’s prevous book (in #7 above). From my 12/31/04 LLog posting “Implicature in the service of a moral panic”, about life on the DL:

There’s a lot to be unhappy about in J. L. King’s recent book, On the Down Low (Broadway Books, 2004) …

Life on the DL was last discussed here back in July. Since then I’ve read King’s book, with some dismay, though possibly not as much as Keith Boykin, as expressed in his article “Not just a black thing” in The Advocate of 1/18/05, pp. 31-3 (Boykin, an openly gay and politically very active black man, has a book Beyond the Down Low soon to be published.)

When white guys do it, they’re MSMs (men who have sex with men); when black guys do it, they’re living on the DL. And when white boys deviate from normative masculinity, we used to be sissies, but for a long time now we’ve mostly been faggots / fags; when black boys do that, they’re punks, and have been been for about 50 years.

The noun punk. A little lesson about language in communities and subcultures: in each such world, people share all manner of attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and linguistic usages, and it’s not unusual for people in one such world to know little about how people in another world live. Most blacks are obliged to live embedded in white worlds and to learn about the customs of these other lands — though there’s a lot they’ll probably miss — but most whites are able to, and do, choose to live in almost total ignorance of the texture of life in black worlds. For both professional and personal reasons, I know a lot more than your random old white guy off the street, but I’ve never experienced the world of young gay black men, so the ‘fag’ use of punk was news to me. It was reported in the OED and GDoS, but then so are tens or hundreds of thousands of other usages that I don’t recall having experienced. Thanks to Stephens for writing about it and about the pain it gave him growing up. (I easily embraced fag and faggot, but came very slowly to accepting sissy — because that was the hostile sexuality slur that wounded me as a child, around 60-70 years ago. When I was Arniella — their label, not mine. I note how hard it is for me to type this.)

Now to the dictionaries on punk ‘fag’ and otherwise.

The Advocate piece by Stephens has a box with four senses of punk from “Merriam-Webster” (so, some MW dictionary):

A young, inexperienced person, especially a young man

B petty gangster, hoodlum, or ruffian

C a young man used as a homosexual partner, especially in a prison

D punk rock, punk rock musician, one who affects punk styles

MW sense D, the rock-music N punk, is a spin-off from other uses of punk to refer to persons; it has a fascinating history of its own, but I’ll now put it aside. (There’s also a N punk referring to rotting wood, but it has a different etymology from personal punk, so I’ll disregard it completely.)

(Etymological note: OED3 labels personal punk as “of unknown origin’ (OUO), though I prefer ‘of obscure origin’, because that gives the initialism OOO. Maybe the etymology has something to do with punch, but don’t bet on it.)

That leaves us with MW A-C, to which Stephens adds X punk ‘fag’, and I further add the senses ‘worthless person’ (in three of the four dictionaries I’m citing here) and ‘coward, weakling’ (attested in GDoS and OED3). That gives six principal senses (of which NOAD, easily available on-line, has three). The scorecard for four dictionaries plus Stephens:

‘worthless person’: NOAD 2a (not in MW) = GDoS 4 = OED 3a(a)

‘coward, weakling’: (not in NOAD or MW) GDoS 9 = OED 3b

‘hoodlum, ruffian’: NOAD 2b = MW B = GDoS 6 = OED 3a(b)

‘catamite’: NOAD 2c = MW C = GDoS 2 = OED 2a (plus GDoS 3 = OED 2b)

‘young, inexperienced person’: NOAD 2d = MW A = OED 4 (which covers several GDoS entries)

‘gay black man’: (Stephens, not in NOAD or MW) GDoS 10 = OED 2c

The linguistic history radiates from a ‘prostitute’ sense (female, young) and its own further sense developments, on the dimensions of:

youth; use for sexual purposes; inexperience; weakness; criminality; deviance from social norms; membership in a disparaged group

I’ll give the NOAD, GDoS, and OED3 entries in an appendix, but let’s get back to Stephens’s usage, GDoS 10 = OED 2c ‘gay black man’. GDoS and OED3 (Sept. 2007) cover the same territory, often in exactly the same terms, and it’s not clear to me who’s borrowed from whom (that’s not important here), but here’s their set of cites, classified according to who speaks or writes punk:

1945 Kerouac white (the meaning of this cite isn’t entirely clear to me; it needs context); 1964 Baraka black; 1972 Goines black and in prison; 1980 Folb black; 1999 Bunker white but in prison

Fair to say that the ‘black fag’ sense has been around for half a century, and it’s been a slur the whole time. Bad news for black boys. (If you’re wearying of the dictionary stuff, go back and watch the first section of the amazing film Moonlight, about a punk — in Stephens’s sense — in Miami.)

APPENDIX. From some dictionaries.

NOAD on the noun punk referring to persons (note: NOAD orders entries according to their current significance, most significant on top):

2 North American informal [a] a worthless person (often used as a general term of abuse). [b] a criminal or hoodlum. [c] US derogatory (in prison slang) a passive male homosexual. [d] an inexperienced young person; a novice.

GDoS on the noun punk referring to persons (some entries have only one cite, some refer to women) (as a historical dictionary, GDoS orders entries according to their appearance in time, oldest on top):

1 young female prostitute. [1st a.1575]

2 (US prison) a young inmate used for sex by older, stronger peers, thus an inmate’s ‘boyfriend’ or ‘wife’. [possible antecedent 1698; 1st clear cite 1904]

3 (US) a tramp’s younger companion; usu. a catamite. [1st 1907]

4 A general term of disparagement. [1st 1904]

5 (US) a person, irrespective of character. [one cite 1904]

6 (US) a young criminal or street gang member. [1st 1928]

7 an adolescent boy. [1st 1926]

8 a youngster, a child. [1st 1931]

9 (US/W.I.) a coward, a weakling. [1st 1930]

10 (US) a male homosexual. [1st 1945]

11 (US) a sexually forward teenage girl. [one cite 1953]

12 (US) a male prostitute. [1st 1961]

OED3 (Sept. 2007) on personal senses of punk:

I. Senses denoting types of person
1.  A prostitute. Now rare [1st a1575]

2.
a. Originally: †a boy or young man kept by an older man as a (typically passive) sexual partner, a catamite (obs.). Later: a man who is made use of as a sexual partner by another man, esp. by force or coercion. Now chiefly Prison slang. [1st 1698]

b. U.S.slang. A young male companion of a tramp, esp. one who is kept for sexual purposes. Cf. gunsel n. 1. [1st 1907]

c. U.S.slang (derogatory). Now chiefly in African-American usage: a homosexual man. [1st 1933; see above]

3. U.S. slang.
a. (a) A person of no account; a despicable or contemptible person; (broadly) a person, a fellow (rare)  (b) a petty criminal; a hoodlum, a thug. [1st 1904]

b. A coward; a weakling. Cf. punk v.1 2 [to punk out ‘display cowardice’]. [1st 1939]

4. U.S. slang.
a. An amateur; an apprentice. [1st 1923]

b. A young person, or a person regarded as inexperienced or raw. Also: a young circus animal. Cf. earlier punk adj[‘prostitute’]. [1st 1926]

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