The strange thing was the politesse in the articles that followed. “The f-word” or “the f-slur,” over and over again. It was only recently, we read in an interview in the U.K. Sunday Times, that Matt Damon realized “the f-slur”—ah, how gentle and unassuming it sounds—was wrong and bad. And this was thanks to his daughter who had to write a “treatise” on it to show him that “faggot” was bad.
In 2021. To a Hollywood actor, who must work around LGBTQ people, who really can’t have been living under a social evolutionary rock all this time. Well, apparently Damon has been, and apparently he wants congratulations from us for his emergence from under said rock.
“The word that my daughter calls the ‘f-slur for a homosexual’ was commonly used when I was a kid, with a different application,” Damon told the Sunday Times. “I made a joke, months ago, and got a treatise from my daughter. She left the table. I said, ‘Come on, that’s a joke! I say it in the movie Stuck on You!’ She went to her room and wrote a very long, beautiful treatise on how that word is dangerous. I said, ‘I retire the f-slur!’ I understood.”
The Sunday Times interviewer glides over the weirdness of this confession and its implications to heap praise on Damon. How cool that Damon knows it’s not OK to call someone “faggot”! What a guy! This, instead of pondering and challenging what Damon had really just said: He thought it was OK to call someone a “faggot”—write it out, enough of “the F-word”—until he had to be told it was most definitely not OK by his daughter. Extremely recently.
The Sunday Times interviewer calls it “the most taboo term for gay people.” It’s not “taboo”; it’s a term of abuse gay people are heartily sick of—and, given where it may be being said to them, scared that it may come with an act of violence attached. (And yes, some—not all—gay people use it among themselves—Larry Kramer even used it as a novel title—but not in the tone of voice or intent homophobes use the word.)
The reason it’s important to write the f-word out—and for Damon and other boneheads to think about how it is wielded against people—is that men who are gay, or who are suspected of being gay by total strangers meaning them harm of some kind, have the word “faggot” shouted and seethed at them.
People who shout and seethe and abuse do not call those men “the f-word” or “the f-slur for homosexual.” If only. Nobody has ever progressed down a street with some lunatic homophobe shouting, “Hey, f-word!” or “Hey f-slur for homosexual!” at them. Using “the f-word” or “f-slur” in articles neuters the word’s violence and intent. So this article will be spelling it out, if only for Damon and people like him who think it is perfectly fine to say.
Hear it. Understand how it may be heard by those who have it used against them. Has Damon ever heard about homophobic and transphobic violence and murder? Is he aware that “faggot” is a one-word piece of a terrible, sometimes terrifying jigsaw? Does he know it gets used against kids at school at an age where, if they are LGBTQ, they are just trying to survive and figure things out themselves?
Perhaps Damon could give some of his post-treatise time to reading the results of the most recent survey of LGBTQ youth mental health by the Trevor Project of 35,000 LGBTQ people aged 13-24 across the United States, which found that 42 percent of them had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, with more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered suicide.
Seventy-five percent of LGBTQ youth reported that they had experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity at least once in their lifetime. “Faggot” doesn’t exist in a context- or consequence-free vacuum.
Why did Damon think “faggot” was acceptable? He has spoken before about his irritation around the rumors that he and close friend and professional collaborator Ben Affleck were gay.
He told The Guardian in 2015 the rumors were “just like any piece of gossip… and it put us in a weird position of having to answer, you know what I mean? Which was then really deeply offensive. I don’t want to, like [imply] it’s some sort of disease—then it’s like I’m throwing my friends under the bus. But at the time, I remember thinking and saying, Rupert Everett was openly gay and this guy—more handsome than anybody, a classically trained actor—it’s tough to make the argument that he didn’t take a hit for being out.”
Damon went on to opine that “I think it must be really hard for actors to be out publicly. But in terms of actors, I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period. And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.”
Some people took this to mean that Damon was suggesting gay actors should stay in the closet to succeed. Thanks to the persistence of such attitudes, there remains no out top movie star. Whatever, the remarks still seem more nuanced than thinking calling someone a “faggot” is fine.
Oddly, as I was becoming more furious at Damon’s casual bigotry, his casual acceptance of it, his casual excusing of “faggot” away, and then his casual presumption that he was somehow suddenly heroic and on the side of the angels now that he realized it was wrong to say, my friend Mark texted me to say he had just been on a New York City subway train on Sunday where a man had shouted “faggot” and other anti-gay slurs at another man on the train.
Mark was shaken up. He and his husband were scared of the homophobe, worried he could turn violent if they confronted him. Mark felt, as many in the same situation would, that he should have done more, but he was hardly a passive bystander. He took photos of the abusive guy, which he will pass on to the relevant authorities and the victim of the man’s words if the victim wants the photographs to pursue whatever case himself. Mark and his husband also got off the train with the victim to make sure he was all right.
This man didn’t just shout “faggot.” He had the full homophobic verbal arsenal, which also included, “You have fucking AIDS”—an old familiar to those of us old enough to have lived through the 1980s and ’90s, where sometimes you’d score the double of “AIDS faggot,” or even, “Fucking gay AIDS faggot.” The abusive combinations were endless.
On Sunday, Mark said the man on the subway train who was being abused and shouted at responded to the foaming bigot: “You have no power over me. Your words mean nothing.” That, confronted by a potential lunatic meaning you goodness-knows-what harm, is true bravery—and something that Damon should really think about when he mulls how aww-hey-shucks-like-totally-weird it is that “faggot” is a bad word.
It is clear that, pre-his daughter’s intervention, Damon thought “faggot” was a perfectly acceptable descriptor and insult. The word lodged in Damon’s brain early, and somehow—as the world moved on, and “faggot” became a vile insult that people generally recognized as such—for Damon it just stayed the same snickering word. The interview does not probe this.
But then Damon has likely never been on a subway train with a lunatic shouting “faggot” in his face. He has never been on a dark street, when it scythes the air. He has never known the threat, the menace, the awful lurch in the stomach where you are not sure that “faggot” is going to be followed by a fist or worse.
Damon has clearly never seen the excellent documentary, The Celluloid Closet—the screen adaptation of Vito Russo’s classic work of cinematic scholarship—which contains a section of the word being used in films. Over and over again. Sometimes it’s violent, sometimes it’s sly, and sometimes it’s maybe how Damon always felt so comfortable in saying it—as the ultimate jocular, emasculating insult.
But Damon, perhaps his interviewer, and perhaps so many others, have never had the word said at them; they have never felt the threat of the word, and so for them it just becomes a chin-stroking heterosexual-guy question of the day.
The interviewer mentions Damon was criticized for saying, about Harvey Weinstein, “As the father of four daughters, this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night.” After that, people said Damon shouldn’t need to be a dad to recognize such a thing.
Well, similarly, you shouldn’t need to be gay, and you certainly shouldn’t need a treatise from your daughter in 2021, to recognize that “faggot” is not an insult you happily use for gay men. What does he mean, “a different application” back in the day? Homophobia has always been homophobia, although it was certainly more acceptable and profuse when Damon was growing up.
Even the way he tells the anecdote about being educated by his daughter has the weary tone of the poor embattled heterosexual man yet again being educated against his will, and then throwing his hands up in resigned defeat. He will “retire” the word! Oh, thanks, Matt, and sorry for inconveniencing and imposing upon you!
The real question is why his daughter had to write down in words something which should be mind-numbingly obvious. What is the stunning lack of empathy or even basic sensitivity, for heterosexual people like Damon that means that unless something directly affects them or is part of their experience, that they just don’t understand or get it? Why do they need tortured explanation and treatises for things that should be clear? What informs this basic lack of fellow-human understanding?
Tellingly, Damon complains—as so many celebrities do—that the stuff they say, the stuff that they are not coerced to say, causes them trouble. “Twenty years ago, the best way I can put it is that the journalist listened to the music more than the lyrics [of an interview]. Now your lyrics are getting parsed, to pull them out of context and get the best headline possible. Everyone needs clicks. Before it didn’t really matter what I said, because it didn’t make the news. But maybe this shift is a good thing. So I shut the f*** up more.”
Got it. Damon is really the persecuted one, not being allowed to say words like “faggot.” This article will be greeted with a told-you-so Damon shrug, the damn media piling on again—as opposed to the real issue which is that he thought “faggot” was OK to say. Articles like this one questioning why that may be so will be deemed unfair. It’s a neat gaslight to avoid personal responsibility or questioning, to turn yourself into the victim.
The Sunday Times article ends with this absurd gushing. “He (Damon) listened and he changed. But the point is not so much that he only just stopped using that word, rather that he is open about it. This is because he is more of a personality than a brand. A human, not a billboard.”
Pass the sickbag. Damon said he thought “faggot” was an acceptable word to use about gay people. It isn’t. He had to be told it wasn’t OK to use by his daughter in a written essay. This isn’t heroic on his part. It’s shameful. And instead of playing the put-upon straight guy, assailed by forces of social change, Damon might instead want to think about the abuse and violence LGBTQ people face. It’s not casual. It’s not a joke. It’s horrible.
Homophobia, transphobia, happens. It shouldn’t take being LGBTQ to understand the very basic fact of that, although Damon has shown—unintentionally—how it goes so often ignored by those whose support and allyship would be extremely welcome, if only their minds, and eyes, were open.