Pansies, Fags, and Dykes—Flowers, Sticks and Ditches

I remember a time when a group of young dudes called a friend and I, “Faggot” as we drove by in my convertible. I thought, how did they know? What could either of us possibly have done to be called out like that?

I was about 40 and looked as I do today, fairly normal and not a bit “fiery” in clothes or in manner. I generally hadn’t gotten slurs yelled out at me, ever since I had adopted a more “straight approach” to clothes and hairstyles. Neither of us did anything out of the unordinary either. We actually were having a casual conversation about the death of a friend. Perhaps, two men riding around in a convertible at night looked gay. Who knows.

I remember yelling back at them, “Does it bother you?”

Anyway, what do flowers, a bundle of sticks, and flood banks have to do with individual personalities and personal sexual preference? I’ve often thought about why these words reference gay men and women, and why do the words sting so badly. So I did some research.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, dressing in bold fashionable clothes was called Pansying up! This is the first known reference to gay men, who traditionally dressed in a bolder more feminine way to stand out and be secretly noticed as gay, when it was a crime to be so.

The term dike has been researched to begin at a novel written in 1928 where the term Bulldyker was used to reference a masculine woman. Dike, meaning ditch, may be a term that describes the vulva. And bull often has been a term referring to masculinity. Put them together and you have this derogatory term.

Fag, however, was slightly harder to trace, even for gay historians. A Yiddish word describing homosexuals is Faygeleh. This may have been the source of the term. But “faggot” specifically used to mean a gay man is traced back to the 1920s when Earnest Hemmingway used the term in The Sun Also Rises in 1926: “You’re a hell of a good guy, and I’m fonder of you than anybody on earth. I couldn’t’ tell you that in New York. It’d mean I was a faggot.”

Some think the terms were coined from the very groups that now feel the terms pejorative. For example, some think the word faggot started when the straight-acting gay males used the term to delineate them from the more fiery, effeminate gay men. The straighter-acting gay men reserved the word “queer” for themselves.

I know, I’ve also heard the “N” word used by many African Americans in a joking and brotherly fashion.

I find that terms reflecting negativity are often softened by the casual use of the term by the very group they refer to. In other words, if the word feels like it hurts, use it a lot and use it to poke fun of the stereotype, then it won’t have as much of a sting.

I don’t like being stereotyped or called out for my differences. I suppose no one does. But the truth is words can hurt, especially young men and women and children who haven’t developed a thick skin to the terms.

Use your words with care and distinction. Try always to love first and judge later. Compassion is a high calling for those who walk a spiritual path. It is the first order of business in the Buddhist tradition and called to be a fruit of the spirit by Jesus in First Corinthians.

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