Maybe it's the second syllable that does it. Just last year famous sociopath Ann Coulter called Al Gore a "big fag," and there was nary a ripple.
This year, however, the meanest of mean girls dropped the whole bomb on John Edwards' $400 head, and a caravan of conservatives ducked for cover.
Meanwhile, Grey's Anatomy actor Isaiah "Oops I Did It Again" Washington is trying to save his career with a PSA for GLAAAD that's about as convincing as a hostage video.
I'm not sure how it happened, but sometime between Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, "faggot" become the gay version of "nigger."
Unlike the n-word, which has been socially unacceptable for over a generation, casual use of the f-word has endured. A 2004 California study reported that 91 percent of all students have heard their peers use various slurs about sexual orientation, and more than 40 percent reported hearing teachers making such negative comments or slurs.
I will never forget the day in March of eighth grade when, for the first time, I actually got through an entire day of school without being called a fag. In celebration, I threw my hat in the air just like Mary Tyler Moore, which both confirmed the assessment and doomed me to three more months of abuse.
In 1995, Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey got away with calling openly gay Congressman Barney Frank "Barney Fag" without censure.
Frank refuted Armey's claim that it was a slip of the tongue by consulting his mother, who reported "that in 59 years of marriage, no one ever introduced her as Elsie Fag."
Frank, of course, is still free to call Armey a Dick anytime he wants.
But gay people continue use the word among ourselves, although we're more apt to say "fag" than "faggot." (There really is something so aggressive about that final "t," like you're spitting in someone's face.) After all, membership has its privileges, and we understand the irony because, hello... we invented irony. We take a Studio 54 approach to the word—only the people we approve of get to use it. Gay activist and author Larry Kramer even wrote a book called Faggots, a seminal work, pun intended.
So now that we've finally succeeded in vilifying the term, do we maintain the double standard of using it ourselves? After all, we reclaimed "queer," a worthwhile catchall if only because LGBTQ is a pain in the ass to say and sounds too much like a deli order. But queer, meaning "odd," doesn't have the abusive ancestry of "fag."
The word "faggot" derives from the Old English term for kindling wood, which is probably why the British refer to cigarettes as "fags." Today in Great Britain you can still ask the question "fancy a fag?" and mean no disrespect to Sir Elton John. As far as we know, the word came to refer to homosexuals from the medieval practice of burning them at the stake.
I think this is why we decided to call ourselves gay: because we're happy that we're not being roasted like marshmallows.
Lesbians, Goddess love 'em, have done an excellent job of defanging "dyke," although I'd argue that they still don't want to hear it screamed at them by some redneck in a pick-up with a gun rack.
Which is why I'm happy to bequeath the "fag" and "faggot" to Ann Coulter, or that religious wingnut Fred Phelps, who protests at funerals with signs that read "God hates fags."
In the current Disinformation Age, it's refreshing to know exactly where people stand—even if it's in a big pile of shit. Sure, it's fun to use the word among ourselves, but it ain't that fun. And every time our oppressors open the valves on the cesspools of their brains, they can reveal to the world what they really are...
Marc Acito is the author of How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater.