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This is why so many gay men say ‘sissy’ is a hurtful slur

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BYU fans and others quickly attacked us for saying ‘sissy’ is a gay slur. Except, it is. This is why.

Slurs like ‘sissy’ drive gay men to feelings of isolation in sports.
Craig Jones/Getty Images

Last week I wrote a piece about the use of the word “sissy” on a BYU fan’s sign during a football game. Over the course of the next 48 hours I got streams of messages — some nasty, some reasonable — from people firmly entrenched in the “sissy isn’t homophobic” camp.

My biggest takeaway through the exchanges and ensuing Twitter war is that so many people have absolutely no idea the power the word “sissy” has with so many gay men. Over and over there was a complete disconnection between the powerful association with the word many of my friends, colleagues and I have, and the complete lack of powerful association so many straight people have with it.

To be clear, I wasn’t calling any individual homophobic. I was careful to not do that. While a word or a sign could be homophobic or sexist, the person carrying the sign may have no deep understanding of that. That very well could be the case here.

That was used as a means of justifying the word. “She didn’t mean it to be against gay people.” And I get that. But, just like Kobe Bryant using another gay slur directed at an NBA referee, whether they “meant it that way” or not, that’s what it is.

The word’s very roots are homophobia and sexism (which, ultimately, come from essentially the same place). Just like saying “that’s so gay” or calling someone “queer” — when used in a derogatory manner — the word sissy is used to demean someone by linking them to femininity.

In our culture, the definition of “feminine” is “has sex with men”: Straight women and gay men are considered feminine. The definition of “masculinity” is “has sex with women”: Straight men and lesbians are considered masculine.

Sissy is an extension of all of this.

Don’t take just my word for it. To educate people on the meaning of “sissy,” I reached out to a number of people for their thoughts.

I started with sports writer and commentator Dave Zirin, who is straight but covers issues of social justice in sports (and knows a lot more about all of this stuff than any of the rest of us). He shared powerful insight with me about the deep roots of the word:

“The word sissy was popularized by Teddy Roosevelt as a way to describe young men who did not play tackle football — at a time when deaths on the football field took place with shocking regularity. It was a toxic slur then and it's a toxic slur now.

“Then it was the archetype of what it meant to be a gay man in popular culture: The sissy was someone to laugh at, to mock, and off screen, to brutalize without fear of reprisals. I can understand if fans are not aware of this history, but they should learn it, accept it, and listen to people telling them that it's absolutely out of bounds.”

Zirin’s last piece, about learning the roots of the word, is the key. Too often we sit on our perches and tell other people how they should and should not feel about words and actions. I have over the years pushed words like “bitch” and “tranny” out of my lexicon because I realize they mean so much more to women and trans people than they do to me. I cannot tell them how they must feel about those words.

To get a better understanding of what “sissy” means to gay men in particular, I reached out to a bunch of them. The gay men who responded to my request for their experiences with the word almost universally felt it was a gay slur.

Neal Broverman, exec. editor of The Advocate site:

'Sissy' may not be a direct gay slur, but it's certainly an underhanded insult to gay and bisexual men. 'Sissy' is likely the first antigay word children hear; a pre-cursor to 'queer' and 'fag.' It's not only harmful for young LGBT kids to hear this word, but all girls, since its message is that being feminine equals being weak.

Howard Bragman, publicist:

“It's a form of homophobia called emasculation; implying that sissies are less than real men. It's also misogynistic at the same time its homophobic---with the implication that women are less than men. It's very similar to the University of Iowa painting their visitors' locker room pink. This resulted in protests and claims that it wasn't homophobic or misogynistic. It is.

“It's important to note that there are different types of discrimination--I.e. Calling someone a fag or a cocksucker is obvious; sissies and pink lockers less obvious but particularly insidious and cannot and should not be tolerated.”

Anthony Nicodemo, High school basketball coach:

“We often associate not being masculine with being gay. I do not allow my players to use words like pussy in practice for that reason. I do not want any player feeling less than, which ‘sissy’ is doing.”

Jim Key, Los Angeles LGBT Center:

“As a young kid, I was frequently taunted and humiliated with that word. To me, it was always just a substitute for the word "fag," used by kids--and sometimes adults--who wanted to vary their choice of slurs or who thought it wasn't quite as offensive as the 'f' word. It was.”

Spenser Clark, former athlete and MLB bat boy and intern:

“Sissy is not only disrespectful, it is an attack on us as LGBT people. Sissy implies weak and less than others. As a gay man being called a sissy is confirming all of the insecurities that we have in our sexuality. The word says that we are less than a straight guy and less masculine. There is a lot of power in the word because it attacks everything that we’re afraid of being labeled.”

Aaron Hicklin, editor, Out magazine:

“I have a very powerful memory of being alienated at school from playing any sports because of this kind of language.”

Wade Davis wrote a smart column for Outsports yesterday that gave a strong glimpse at the sexism and homophobia behind the word “sissy.”

Conner Mertens, the former high school and college football player, followed that up with a perspective that focused more on the sexism aspect of the word’s power.

“When I saw the sign, I saw it initially as sexist rather than homophobic. Granted, there is an immense overlap between the two throughout history and our society. I don't see anything that specifically targets the LGBTQ community rather than garden-variety sexism.

“I understand that word has been used in the past to attack LGBT people. I have been fortunate to avoid that sting. It's a similar concept with the word ‘queer.’ I've noticed a different generational divide between that word. ‘Queer’ is arguably reclaimed and more politically correct now; I don't have the same violently oppressive association with the word.”

I get that straight men may not understand this. Just like Kobe Bryant calling somebody a gay slur (and not “really meaning it”), they don’t quite understand the history and power of the word.

Now they do.