January 31, 2007
Is the 'F word' the new 'N word'?
Posted by: Chris
Does actor Isaiah Washington deserve the serious heat he's getting for calling "Grey's Anatomy" cast-mate T.R. Knight a "faggot" on set, or even for using the same word later in a Golden Globes press conference?
After all, since the initial flap Washington has issued two written apologies, admitted himself into counseling, and even met with leading gay activists with a promise to make things right. Yet still the fallout continues, as rumors swirl that he'll be yanked from the popular program.
Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, chose rather dramatic language to condemn Washington, particularly considering the actor used the "F-word" the second time only in denying that he'd used it the first.
"When Isaiah Washington uses this kind of anti-gay slur," Giuliano said, "whether on set or in front of the press, it does more than create a hostile environment for his cast-mates and the crew of 'Grey's Anatomy.' It also feeds a climate of hatred and intolerance that contributes to putting our community in harm's way."
GLAAD ratcheted down the rhetoric once Washington took a meeting/self-flagellation session with Giuliano and with Kevin Jennings of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, but the issue has dominated GLAAD's public activity for weeks. Does it deserve the attention?
At first blush, the whole thing struck me as more political correctness than protecting "our community." It's not as if Washington launched into the kind of expletive-laden racist tirade as Michael Richards (a.k.a. Kramer from "Seinfeld"), much less the anti-Semitic diatribe that exposed Mel Gibson (again) as a bigot we knew him to be. And that's even assuming (and I do) that Washington actually used the "F-bomb" against Knight, who came out as a result of the original on-set flap back in October.
To make matters more prickly, Washington is a prominent African-American with a history of taking on challenging roles, including gay and even drag queen characters, with an uncharacteristic sensitivity. (Will Smith, are you listening?)
Washington Post columnist Jabari Asim even uncovered an Essence magazine essay by the actor from a decade ago, in which a thoughtful Washington writes about his first amateur acting gig, playing a "flaming drag queen" named Sweetie Pie, which offered him "a firsthand look at gay-bashing."
"I was the target of angry expletives, jeers and nervous laughter and was even spat upon by a junior-high-school student who took my performance just a little too seriously," Washington wrote back then. Not exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from a heartless homophobe.
In fact, Jasmyne Cannick, a respected black lesbian activist and columnist, has leapt to Washington's defense, accusing "white gay America" of hypocrisy and the "gay mafia" of "smelling meat, dark meat."
Cannick's beef isn't just that the gay press and activists overreacted. To her, "the whole thing reeks of white privilege" and hypocrisy because, she claims, white gay America hasn't protested a peep against Charles Knipp, the white gay drag performer (somewhat) better known as Shirley Q. Liquor, a self-described "inarticulate black woman on welfare with 19 kids."
Of course, even mentioning a huge star like Washington in the same breath as a two-bit drag act like Knipp is a bit like comparing apples and watermelons; their respective cultural influences aren't in the same time zone. And to suggest white gay activists relished frying up "dark meat" is nonsensical to anyone remotely familiar with the racial politics of the gay rights movement.
What's more, Cannick is flat-out wrong on the facts, since I know for a fact that many gay publications (including those I've edited) have covered Knipp and the protests that follow his performances in many cities. When he was invited to appear at a gay benefit in Atlanta two years ago, negative publicity from articles in Southern Voice resulted in his being uninvited. And while I agree completely that Knipp goes way way over the line, he has been defended by legendary black drag queens like Washington, D.C.'s Ella Fitzgerald and RuPaul herself.
More importantly, Cannick misses the same point I did in chalking up the whole mess as P.C. run amuck. It isn't about Isaiah Washington or his race or his TV show. It's actually about taking a page out of the playbook used so effectively by African American activists. Nothing focuses the public on an issue like celebrity, and Washington's temper tantrum offers a unique opportunity to consign the "F-word" (in its short and long form) to the same dustbin of history as the "N-word."
Efforts to combat anti-gay bullying will only go so far so long as anti-gay slurs — not to mention the use of "gay" itself to mean "lame" or "stupid" — remain playground de rigueur. Like it or not, Washington's abject apologies, like those of Richards and Gibson (and Jesse Jackson's "hymietown") before him, jump-start social change, getting through to teachers and parents and even the kids in ways that years of earnest press releases couldn't hope for.
So spare me the sympathy for Washington, who'll no doubt redeem himself and be jumping on Oprah's sofa in no time. I'll keep my eyes on the prize.
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