I have not exactly been a defender of Isaiah Washington lately. But I have to kinda-sorta come to his defense–or at least criticize one of his critics. At the Golden Globes, he denied–implausibly, if you believe his costars–having used a slur against gay Grey’s Anatomy costar T. R. Knight last fall: "No, I did not call T.R. a faggot. Never happened. Never happened." The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) issued a statement denouncing him, to wit:
Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
(GLAAD) President Neil G. Giuliano today condemned Isaiah Washington’s
on-air use of the word "faggot" during a backstage press conference at
the 64th Annual Golden Globe Awards, calling on him to apologize and
make amends for this second use of the slur in the past four months.
"When Isaiah Washington uses this kind of anti-gay slur – whether on
set or in front of the press – it does more than create a hostile
environment for his castmates and the crew of ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’" Giuliano said. "It also feeds a climate of hatred and intolerance that contributes to putting our community in harm’s way."
Now, assuming Washington called Knight "faggot" on set: that’s wrong. Assuming he then lied about it: doubly wrong. But that’s not what the statement says–it criticizes him simply for using the word "in front of the press"–by which logic, simply saying "faggot" in the course of his denial would have been wrong even if he were telling the truth.
This is not a small distinction, especially when it comes to how openly we can have frank, grown-up discussions of bias. Calling someone "faggot" out of anger or contempt is one thing; quoting the word faggot or acknowledging that the word faggot is a slur that exists in the world–as I did in this sentence–is another entirely. Making the word taboo even in quotation or reference–as I wrote after the Michael Richards incident–not only fetishizes it and makes it more powerful, it makes honest discussion of important issues more difficult, because it makes the very conversation seem furtive and illicit. ("The cultural history of… y’know, the n-word… is complicated…")
In Slate, Christopher Hitchens wrote about going on MSNBC and citing "nigger" and "queer" as examples of slurs that were re-appropriated by the communities they were used against. He was, he said, quickly un-miked and booted off the segment. Say what you want about Hitchens’ opinions on Iraq or Mother Teresa or whether women are funny–are we really better off to have people afraid to discuss this stuff in public for fear of self-immolation?
Of course, maybe GLAAD was just upset with Washington using the word in the process of telling a (purported) lie. But then they should make themselves clearer. As GLAAD knows well, language is important.