A few years ago, during an awkward attempt at father-son bonding, I found out my father was a homophobe. It was right after the Academy Awards, and there was a lot of discussion about the film Brokeback Mountain being snubbed for best picture. My father and I were watching television together, and he said to me, with a chuckle, “I’ve watched Westerns all my life, and never once did I think cowboys were faggots.”
I don’t know that he recognized how visibly uncomfortable I was with his word choice, because he used it again before I left the room. I never thought my father had particularly warm feelings about gays before that moment, but the open-air homophobia was jarring.
It’s a big part of the heterosexual-male bonding experience: In an effort to prove a sense of collective manhood, some heterosexual men trade homophobic barbs with one another, denounce and deride being gay and vehemently defend their own heterosexual credentials. It starts pretty early in the socialization process, with “gay” being used as a derogatory term on the playground before most even know what “gay” means, and eventually it makes its way into other spaces that tend to be perceived as havens for heterosexual manhood (e.g., locker rooms, basketball courts, rap music).
This is what Kobe Bryant was doing when he shouted “f—ing faggot” at a referee during Tuesday’s Los Angeles Lakers-San Antonio Spurs game. Bryant says his use of the homophobic slur was not intended to offend anyone, which hardly seems plausible.
He is well aware that “faggot” is a homophobic slur, or else he would have felt no need to apologize for his comments; he would have claimed ignorance. Given that he was visibly angry when he blurted out the slur, any comment that he made toward the referee at that point was clearly intended to offend him. But the use of this particular word reveals something deeper.
It’s the belief that homosexuality is inherently inferior and an undesirable trait; therefore, to refer to someone with slurs usually reserved for gays is an attempt to belittle that person further. The quickest and most efficient way to insult a man has become to call into question his sexual orientation, and the easiest way to bond with one another comes through sharing a mutual homophobia (regrettably, these are things that I have personally done in the past but now recognize their idiocy).