Matt Damon’s casual admittance in a Sunday Times interview that he’s only recently “retired” his use of the derogatory “f-slur” about gay men, thanks to being called out by his daughter, has naturally brought out a slew of criticism and incredulity on social media — as well as, on Monday, a statement from Damon in response.
"I have never called anyone 'f****t' in my personal life and this conversation with my daughter was not a personal awakening. I do not use slurs of any kind," he said, in part, through a statement to Yahoo Entertainment.
Social media, though, had already been flooded with disapproval.
“The conversations that have arisen after Matt Damon’s original interview and subsequent remarks today are an important reminder that this word, or any word that aims to disparage and disrespect LGBTQ people, has no place in mainstream media, social media, classrooms, workplaces and beyond," Anthony Allen Ramos, GLAAD's head of talent, said in a statement on Monday evening. "There needs to be accountability at a time when anti-LGBTQ slurs remain rampant today and can fuel discrimination and stereotypes, especially when used by those outside of the community to defame or describe LGBTQ people.”
In Sunday's story, Damon had noted, “The word that my daughter calls the ‘f-slur for a homosexual’ was commonly used when I was a kid, with a different application,” Damon told the U.K. newspaper. “I made a joke, months ago, and got a treatise from my daughter. She left the table. I said, ‘Come on, that’s a joke! I say it in the movie Stuck on You!’ She went to her room and wrote a very long, beautiful treatise on how that word is dangerous. I said, ‘I retire the f-slur!’ I understood.”
Despite Damon's latest statement, it can't hurt to review the meaning of the slur at the center of the story.
So how did “fa***ot” become an anti-gay slur?
According to GLAAD’s media guide, the word — along with other slurs, including “d*ke” and “homo” — falls under the category of “defamatory language,” and, it advises, “The criteria for using these derogatory terms should be the same as those applied to vulgar epithets used to target other groups: they should not be used except in a direct quote that reveals the bias of the person quoted. So that such words are not given credibility in the media, it is preferred that reporters say, ‘The person used a derogatory word for a lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer person.’”
While the original meaning of the word “faggot” was “a bundle of sticks,” and has been part of the English language since the 1300s, most people are likely unaware of how it became an anti-gay slur. Here’s how it’s explained in a student guide from both the Anti-Defamation League and the ThinkB4YouSpeak campaign, a joint effort of GLSEN, the ADL and StoryCorps:
“During the European Inquisitions, ‘faggot’ referred to the sticks used to set fires for burning heretics, or people who opposed the teachings of the Catholic Church. Heretics were required to gather bundles of sticks (‘faggots’) and carry them to the fire that was being built for them. Heretics who changed their beliefs to avoid being killed were forced to wear a ‘faggot’ design embroidered on their sleeve, to show everyone that they had opposed the Church. Since it was hard to live with such a bad reputation, people began to use the word…to refer to anything that was considered to be a burden or difficult to bear. Unfortunately, the term quickly became a sexist insult, as people used it to disrespect women in the same way the term ‘ball and chain’ is used today.”
In the early 20th century, the explainer continues, the word made its way to the United States, where it became a way to refer to men who were seen as less masculine than they “should” have been.
Then, throughout that century, the F-word “became the slur most commonly used to abuse gay men and men perceived to be gay. In fact, it continues, “'faggot' has become a general insult that is often used to humiliate any man. Since many people are biased against LGBT people, being called [this name] is a big fear of many heterosexual men, and thus the easiest way to hurt them. Considering the long and violent history of the word, it’s important for people to understand its meaning before they use it so carelessly.”
Damon is far from the first celebrity to get in trouble for using the term, by the way: Brett Ratner, Nash Grier, 50 Cent, Isaiah Washington, Alec Baldwin, Jonah Hill, Azealia Banks and Amanda Bynes are among those who have tossed around the slur, according to an Advocate roundup — as has Eminem, not to mention the late Kobe Bryant, who, back in 2011, was fined $100,000 by the NBA for slinging the slur at a referee.
Are there any exceptions when it comes to using the F-word?
Yes, and that’s strictly among LGBTQ people, many of whom have playfully reclaimed the slur — along with “d*ke” (even through actual legal channels), “queer,” “homo” and other terms on the general population’s do-not-use list. Way back in 1978, in fact, the late writer and activist Larry Kramer named his first novel Faggots, in an endearing sort of way. Similarly, writer Michael Thomas Ford called his 1999 collection of essays on gay life That’s Mr. Faggot to You, a phrase also used as part of the title in his 2015 follow-up.
The current usage was food for thought in a 2020 essay for The Guardian.
“It became clear to me that something larger was happening in cosmopolitan LGBTQ+ communities: queer men were reclaiming faggot,” noted André Wheeler, tracing the reclamation and looking at the way that the term is now embraced, cheekily, both through speech and in memes. “Saying fag often makes straight people uncomfortable, allowing queer people to take up space that was previously denied them,” he wrote. “It also serves as a reminder that queer people are still a persecuted minority – a fact that gets lost amid a growing commodification of queer culture…”
And that reminder, notes Rich Ferraro, GLAAD's Chief Communications Officer, cannot be overstated.
“Although some gay men have reclaimed the term for their own use, it is still largely considered a harmful word, especially when used by people outside of the community to defame or describe gay people,” Ferraro tells Yahoo Life in a statement prompted by Damon’s disclosure. “Anti-LGBTQ language with intent to harm still remains rampant in today’s culture, especially on social media where LGBTQ people are disproportionately impacted by hate and harassment.”