The most telling—and bizarre—portion of Alwan’s essay is the idea that “homophobic feelings are no more of a choice than homosexuality itself.” This is a really terrible thing to write, but more importantly it’s false. And I know it’s false because I was once a homophobic bigot. When I was a teenager, my anger almost certainly manifested itself in the same way as Baldwin’s. Calling someone towards whom you meant violence a “faggot” was what you did. The fact that it was what “you did” doesn’t make it any less bigoted. It means that bigotry was that much more pervasive. “Faggot” littered our understanding of English. Crews who were worthy of beat-downs were “faggot-ass niggas”; when our friends were behaving in weird ways they were “acting like fags”; when a boy shook a man’s hand and it was weak, he was told to not “shake hands like a faggot.”
I have often thought back on those days. How many gay men were actually around, silently watching all of this, fearfully keeping their peace? I never bullied anyone for being gay. But that isn’t because I wasn’t bigoted, it’s because I was an active agent in a world that made it dangerous to be yourself. The couple of kids who tried, who were bravely game, hung out with girls and were the subject of snickers. Those snickers were mine, too. And who knows what else they were subject to that I simply never witnessed?
The only thing that changed in my life was that, as an adult, I was forced to confront gay men on an equal plane. Sometimes it wasn’t even equal. One of my most influential editors was gay. I was 21. He was a great editor. What values did I hold that would allow me to see him as weak? What right had I to be disgusted by anyone? I was kid who’d seen West Baltimore and little else. What did I know about anything?
Alwan responds to TNC and me (my response after the jump):
The problem with these responses is that they redefine “bigot” away from its well-established common usage.
In fact, the primary function of a word like “bigot” is to very precisely exclude more conflicted, doubtful states of mind, as in: a bigot is “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance” (Merriam-Webster). The obstinate devotion to certain avowed, intolerant beliefs is critical to the way that “bigot” traditionally has been used. The word has its origins in the general notion of close-mindedness: the idea is that a bigot is someone who is un-persuadable, who cannot be argued out of their beliefs. But accusing someone of being close-minded and un-persuadable requires that they adamantly hold the beliefs in question in the first place: it cannot be the case that they’re conflicted or akratic – that for example they sincerely favor gay rights as a matter of principle yet betray this principle during bouts of homophobic rage. Having unsavory impulses and poor impulse control is simply not the same thing as being closed minded and systematically intolerant. To extend the word “bigot” to someone like Baldwin is just to pervert it in order for the sake of exploiting its toxicity to his reputation.
Perhaps the best synthesis of all of our reactions to a consistent pattern of bigoted statements directed at actual individuals, often with a veiled or implicit threat of violence, is that Baldwin was being a bigot at the time of those incidents, which is not the same thing as saying he is a bigot through and through as some sort of cosmic, ontological reality. The problem I have with this notion is that it doesn’t make sense of a repeated pattern of homophobic slurs directed at actual people, along with a veiled or explicit threat of violence. It also doesn’t make sense of Baldwin’s reflexive lies about his slurs, as in the ridiculous claims that he had no idea that the word “queen” or “cocksucking” had anything to do with homosexuality, or the idea that he said “fathead” instead of “fag.” Why would someone not a bigot not simply confess he lost his temper in ways that made him sound bigoted and he now regrets it? The pattern of homophobic slurs, the refusal to own them, the righteous fury and deception about his own record: all these are not what you’d expect from a man who, like TNC, has learned about his own bigotry and ended it.
Look, as I said before: it’s almost never a good idea to use the word bigot if you are trying to persuade anyone. That’s why I have long been very sparing in the use of the term. And secondly, we’re all sinners, me more than most. But excusing obviously bigotry by euphemizing it or dismissing it because of progressive public positions is not something I’m comfortable with as a public writer. But I do believe in forgiveness and our common brokenness. And in that, my heart and open hand goes out to Baldwin, and to anyone with such a past.