Conservatives don’t need any reason to dislike their opponents, but they’re quick to use any excuse they can find—especially when handed to them on a silver platter when our side acts silly. We just had a good example of that in New Zealand.
On TVNZ’s Breakfast programme, veteran newsreader Peter Williams was asked about equestrian Mark Todd's win at Badminton, and how it was remarkable 31 years after his first win. He said that, "Some of Mark Todd's personal habits frankly don't always lend to being… he's had the odd fag over the years, hasn't he?" Corin Dann asked, “What did you just say?!” Williams immediately responded, “Cigarette, I meant.”
Todd was known for smoking (and “fag” is very common slang for cigarette), but a few years ago an English tabloid alleged that Todd did cocaine with a rentboy (as far as I know, Todd has never expressly denied being gay). So, some jumped to the conclusion that Williams was making an anti-gay slur.
A TVNZ spokesperson, Megan Richards, defended the comment to the New Zealand Herald: "It seems to have been one of those conversations that went slightly off the rails, where the participants realised they were talking in double meanings. Everybody's had the experience of a conversation which has headed off in a direction that they weren't intending."
This explanation seems plausible, especially because immediately after the quip, Williams kept trying to stay on topic, but Dann kept giggling until he regained his composure. This wasn’t helped by the handoff at the end of the segment.
Jay Bennie of GayNZ.com, a site I rely on for gay news in New Zealand, wasn’t buying the explanations—even though he admitted he hadn’t seen the segment.
"I would say bullshit to the fact that he was meant to be referring to a cigarette,” he told the Herald. "My reading of it is that maybe that Peter Williams was not intending to hurt, but it doesn't work that way. Fag is short for faggot—it is used to denigrate, in every connotation.”
No, that’s not true. I’ve heard dozens of people over the years refer to a cigarette as a “fag”, and not once were they using the word to denigrate anyone. He went on:
"When it is used by a straight man the context is very different to when someone gay uses it… it is ill-advised, at least. The difficulty can be that you popularise the word, which just feeds into homophobia."
In a general sort of way, I think he’s right about that: The word “fag” has taken on a negative connotation intended to insult and hurt. I think people should stop using it to mean cigarette.
However, using it in its other sense doesn’t “popularise” the word—it’s already popular. It doesn’t “feed into homophobia” because it’s popular, it does so only when it’s used as a term of offense directed at people. There IS a difference.
Personally, I think anyone who uses the word in an attempt to demean gay men is just plain stupid, worthy more of a dismissive laugh than anything else. The word is hardly the equivalent of “the ‘N-word’”, in my opinion.
Unlike Jay Beanie, I’ve seen the clip (it’s on the NZ Herald site). I completely accept TVNZ’s view on this, and I don’t think that Williams intended to sound like he was saying anything offensive about Mark Todd. Had Corin Dann not giggled like a 13-year-old schoolboy, it probably would’ve passed entirely unnoticed.
So yay for our side, scoring an own goal, and for no good reason. Sometimes, a cigarette really is just a cigarette.