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Tuchuses and Nay-Nays
Posted on Jan 21, 2011
By Mr. Fish
Fast forward to early September 2007: I learned about the F-word incident like everybody else who I talked to the following day, by seeing it as the top story in the entertainment section of Google news, the headlines reading, Gay rights group to Jerry Lewis: Apologize for f-word slur and In 18th hour of telethon, comedian may have let slip ‘fag’ and Jerry Lewis Calls Someone an Illiterate F-word on Telethon. I followed the links to the clip of the flashpoint of the story and watched an 81-year-old Lewis, in a slack-tied tuxedo rumpled enough to give him the appearance of a half-opened Christmas present that had been abandoned by a sudden lack of interest, stumble around in front of his telethon cameras, loopy with exhaustion. “Oh, your family has come to see you,” he says, improvising his trademark goofiness to the television audience. “You remember Bart, your older son,” he says, gesturing in the direction of an off-screen cameraman, “and,” he continues, moving to introduce another, “Jesse, the illiterate faggot, no. … ” He turns abruptly and skulks away, the stench of the joke tethered to his wake like a flatulence that one could only wish to escape by swimming to the bottom of a pool. That was it.
Then, less than 10 hours following the show’s final timpani, came GLAAD (The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) President Neil Giuliano’s insistence that Jerry Lewis apologize. “[His] on-air use of this kind of anti-gay slur is simply unacceptable,” his statement read. “It feeds a climate of hatred and intolerance that contributes to putting our community in harm’s way.”
Then, less than 10 hours following Giuliano’s request, came Jerry Lewis’ apology. “I obviously made a bad choice of words,” the press release began. “Everyone who knows me understands that I hold no prejudices in this regard. … I am sorry.” The whole episode from start to finish resembled a public spanking, the sort that you only half witness in the parking lot of a grocery store—the sort that might embarrass you into having an opinion about domestic abuse if only it lasted longer.
Dissatisfied with the assumed criminality of the slur and unconvinced that justice had been served by Giuliano demanding an apology—as if slaying a windmill has ever made it any less windy outside—I called GLAAD and said that I was a reporter and wanted to do a story on the whole F-word incident. I spoke with Marc McCarthy, senior director of communications, who requested that I submit my questions in writing before an interview would be granted, which I did, fucking bureaucratic nonsense. My questions, such as they were after a night of too much booze, went like this:
When Jerry Lewis, the oldest working clown in show business, says faggot in a teasing way towards an imaginary member of his production staff, and he does so in a way that bears no ill will towards the gay community—he could’ve been Harvey Fierstein for all the anti-gayness he exuded—whom does it hurt? After all, a word is not automatically a slur simply because it has the potential to be used by prejudicial people to convey hatred or stupidity. Specifically, doesn’t hate speech require hatred behind it to qualify it as defamatory; isn’t the intention to be obscene necessary in order to transform a word or notion into something malicious, just as a bullet is not obscene or malicious if it has no deleterious trajectory? Are you battling prejudice when you demand an apology from Jerry Lewis or are you actually corroborating prejudice by suggesting that it is able to exist independent of subjective interpretation, like it’s a fact reflecting the truth rather than a lie perpetuating a myth?
I waited four days for an e-mail response.
In the meantime, I decided to drive into West Hollywood, to a section of town barely 20 minutes away from where the very first gay organization in the country, the Mattachine Society, was started in 1950 by Harry Hay, to find out if GLAAD, like the Democratic Party or the U.S. Marine Corps, was nothing but a morality launderer for lazy idealists unwilling to aim towards the ultimate victory of complete and total obsolescence. I parked outside the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Santa Monica Boulevard at 10 a.m. and, with notebook in hand, asked the first 15, mostly middle-aged, heavily perfumed dog owners I came across the following question: Were you offended by what Jerry Lewis said during his telethon last Monday? Six of the men I asked didn’t know what I was talking about, seven knew what I was talking about and had not been offended, and two said that they had no spare change to give me, although I hadn’t asked.
Not wanting to have my findings skewed by the opinions of a particular demographic, I returned to the same area 12 hours later to ask the same question of a much younger crowd. I leaned over outside tables at Rage and Trunks and loitered outside the Motherlode and A Different Light bookstore and gathered these stats: Four nos, one nope, seven what-the-fuck-are-you-talkin’-abouts, one I thought Jerry Lewis died in the ’80s, one Jerry Lewis Telethon? Don’t ask me—ask my grandmother, and one that’s a pimpin’ jacket you’re wearing, which gave me all the information I needed to know in order to help me make sense of the short reply I received from GLAAD on the one-week anniversary, almost to the hour, of the outing of Jesse the Illiterate Faggot on national television. Here is what they said:
And then the world blew up.
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