Alexander Marshall argues that we are seeking to hide away the past by censoring the homophobic slur in this celebrated Christmas song; instead, we should be focusing on the progress achieved and still to be realised.
Despite being one of the best Christmas songs of all time, ‘Fairytale of New York’ is not without controversy, and so again, the debate rages about whether we should censor its most infamous line. As a member of the LGBT community, I understand the sensitivity surrounding the word, but I believe it would be wrong for us to simply erase it.
‘Fairytale of New York’ has been covered multiple times; however, no recording is as famous as the original 1987 tune by The Pogues – and deservedly so. It is an amazing song, despite the occasionally problematic lyric. The BBC has tried to censor the word “faggot” from the song before – a ban which lasted for an entire day in 2007 before being reversed after numerous complaints. Whilst I can’t comment on the motives of those who complained, I tend to agree with the stance in general.
For many LGBT people, the word is mired in painful memories of homophobic abuse. If you look up the origins of the actual insult, you discover the disturbing fact that it probably refers to a bundle of sticks for burning – often alongside heretics. However, the reality is that many people find all sorts of things painful and triggering: the person who grew up with a drunk may find it distressing to be around drinkers, the child of divorce might find it hard to hear about happy family holidays. The world is full of bad associations for different people, but we shouldn’t always run from that because it’s in that uncomfortable zone that we grow. Don’t get me wrong, if the song were released today then I would stand and call for it to be boycotted, but it wasn’t, and as with all things, context is key.
The song was released 30 years ago – and what a 30 years it has been. Schools are finally allowed to address LGBT issues, same-sex marriage has been legalised in a large number of countries, same-sex couples can adopt, and huge swathes of anti-discrimination legislation have been enacted. The world is not the same as it was 30 years ago so we shouldn’t place our current expectations upon an old song which was written before most of the student body was even born.
Over the past couple of years, there have been numerous attempts to sterilise our history and culture. Our country has deep, unavoidable veins of homophobia and racism, and in near enough any place you look you will find revered figures who would be deemed terrible people by modern standards, or disturbing phrases tucked away in songs and popular culture. If you watch just about any comedy before the year 2000, there is almost certain to be a casually homophobic joke leaving you feeling slightly uncomfortable because the punchline is inevitably some variation on “ha ha, men who like penis”. But the idea that we can go back and remove these things, or that we should, is misguided.
Not all things age well, but that doesn’t mean we should go back and correct them. These bitter aspects of our culture and history are monuments to the progress we’ve made and a perfect tool to talk about real issues that communities still face. We need to accept that songs or films were made by real people, with real flaws, that do not stand the test of time, and are just a brief snapshot of the world at that particular moment. The 1980s saw the AIDS crisis, where politicians ignored the deaths of millions; Section 28, which banned LGBT issues from being mentioned in schools, never mind dealt with appropriately and compassionately; we didn’t even have an equal age of consent. Our progress since the song’s release is a badge of honour we should be proud to wear, but instead we try to bury the darker parts of our history as if it was never there because it’s painful.
Words are just that – words. A jumble of letters that without context, without intention, are no more powerful than we allow them to be, but a useful tool we can harness. The LGBT community has real issues and threats to face in our future: bi-erasure, transphobia, the disproportionate number of homeless youths, depression, suicide. It is time we stop trying to correct offensive things from the past in some misguided attempt to recoil from the truth of what our society used to be and focus on the bigger issues. So, when ‘Fairytale of New York’ is played this Christmas, sing “faggot” proudly and use it to discuss how far we’ve come, and how much we have left to do, instead of hiding it as if we’re ashamed of our struggle.