On September 21, 1998 the NBC show “Will & Grace,” created by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, premiered. It was the most successful series with openly gay leading characters, those being Jack and Will. In an episode I watched recently (Season 1 Episode 19), Will is embarrassed of Jack’s flamboyant behavior. Jack later overhears Will call him a “fag”, resulting in Jack dressing and acting more “manly” like wearing sports jerseys and using a deeper voice. I had a lot of questions when watching this. I’ve always known “fag” to be a derogatory term, thus I thought I understood why Jack was so upset by it, but then I questioned why it was okay for Will, also gay, to use it? I didn’t understand fully the different ways and reasons behind these labels to fully grasp the situation, but this week’s reading added a lot to my thoughts. Gay New York gave an immense collection of labels that were used in the male gay community. It also described what each one meant, what types of men used them, and what the exceptions were. So my question is what was the deal between normal/queer men and fairy men?
*Fun fact: “Will & Grace” co-creator David Kohan’s sister, Jenji Kohan also developed a show with LBGTQ characters, “Orange is the New Black.”
Fairies were a symbol for gay life in New York, they weren’t the only type of gay man, but they were the “primary image.” (Chauncey, 47) Because they were so prominent, many men uncertain of their sexuality, or just starting out in the gay community thought that being a fairy was the their option. Many fairies were in their twenties and early thirties. Fairies tended to have womanlike characteristics, feminine mannerisms, and often used women’s names. Using a different name also helped if a man was going between a public and private life. Many fairies were only fairies at night, or in private areas. Men sometimes wore a single piece of clothing during the day that signaled they were fairies, like a red necktie. (Chauncey, 52) They also styles their hair specific ways, as well as use makeup. Overall fairies are depicted in a very flamboyant and stereotypical way. While this lifestyle suited some men fine, it was a major turn off to others. One man stated his reaction to thinking he may be a fairy, “I would cringe at the thought that I was one of them, although there was always some man I desired.” (Chauncey, 104) Lucky for him there were alternative lifestyles.
Being “normal” or queer was another gay lifestyle. It was a much more private way to live, and attracted more middle/upper class than lower class. This option was desired by middle/upper because they could essentially hide their sexuality and still have good jobs and be able to move up in society. Unfortunately if their sexuality did come out “queers suffered far more social hostility from middle-class men than fairies faced from working-class men.” (Chauncey, 107)
To my surprise queers had some really strong feelings towards fairies. One man stated that “queer” was not a bad word, that it was “faggot” and “fairy” that were derogatory, and reserved for gay men “who openly carried themselves in an unmanly way.” (Chauncey 101) Another man who identified himself as queer/homosexual stated that he didn’t mind being known as queer, “but I detest the obvious, blatant, made-up boys…” (Chauncey, 103) He ended by saying fairies give a “negative impression of all homosexuals,” and that being said he couldn’t blame normal/straight people being against homosexuals. Those are some strong comments to process. This part of the book was so eye opening in seeing that there were so many labels and conflicts within the gay community that I never expected.
In the case of Will and Jack, I think that there was, and probably still may be, some conflict between gay men and how they portray themselves differently. Will and Jack made up in the episode and all was well, but I think the writers did actually want to portray a real issue within the gay community. I’m very interested to see how this issue changes or continues in the next few chapters.