By Zipho Dolamo
We’ve all heard the term “fag hag” – generally defined as a heterosexual woman who primarily associates and maintains friendships with gay men. Bruce Rodgers is one of the authors accredited for coining the concept in his 1972 book The Queen’s Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon. Rodgers(1972, p.78) defines a fag hag as:
…the heterosexual woman extensively in the company of gay men. Fag-hags fall into no single category: some are plain Janes who prefer the honest affection of homoerotic boy friends: others are on a determined crusade so gay boys normal coitus is not to be overlooked. A few are simply women in love with homosexual men; others discover to their chagrin that their male friends are charming but not interested sexually. No matter how you cut it, fag-hag has an ugly ring to it. Syn. Faggot chaser, fruit-fly, queen bee.
Sad, lonely, single women?
A fag hag, then, was believed to predominantly occupying ‘gay places’. It emerged as a derogatory phrase as a nuptial of two terms –“fag” referring to gay men and “hag” referring to an ugly woman. Historical accounts are marred with notions that constitute singlism: images of single women desperate and in dire need of male companionship. The implications of this heteropatriarchal view includes the notion that woman can never have platonic friendships with gay men in the absence of desired romance on the part of the woman. Apparently, such platonic and mutually beneficial relationships characterised by love, respect, equality, mutuality and social support between self-identifying gay men and heterosexual women are viewed as an absurdity, and scorned as a threat to heteropatriarchy. Traditional stereotypes facing fag hag women include being pathologized as romantically inept in the sense that they cannot attract nor maintain a relationship with suitable heterosexual men. This assumed romantical ineptness is theorised to have resulted in them seeking ‘refuge’ in their friendships with gay men, particularly for purposes of seeking validation and esteem from their gay companion (otherwise deprived by a heterosexual companion). Ultimately, fag hags are historically depicted as aesthetically displeasing and simply just sad and lonely. These characteristics are evidenced in the research.
Most of the initial fag hag research drew on Rodgers’s work and followed his conceptual trajectory. Others, however, embedded their wok in the realm of identity and identification politics, and refuted or reimagined the traditional conceptions of a fag hag.
Fag hag, as an area of research,became located in various conceptual contexts such as traditional identity politics, identification politics, environmental and social psychology, and friendship research. Traditional identity politics assumes that what people identify as (e.g. gay, lesbian, Black) is identical to who they will identify with. In contrast, the new kind of identity politics, termed identification politics– as articulated by Deborah Thompson – places equal importance on who one identifies as as much as who one identifies with. In social and environmental psychology, fag hag is often explored by way of studying how human beings interact with one another on a social level, as well as how the place (i.e. the environment) shape and impact the interactions between gay men and heterosexual women. In friendship research, fag hag is represented in friendships that are cross-sex, cross-orientation and cross-category. Kath Weston describes friendship as an arena where heteropatriarchy can be reinforced and/or resisted, characterised by mutual love, respect, social support equality and mutuality. The focal point of fag hag in the context of friendship research is the challenge to heteronormativity where individuals maintain friendships outside of what they identify as. Friendship research regards the importance of understanding the identities of participants in an intersectional manner by way of exploring the manners in which various categories of identity, such as gender, sex, sexuality, and race, intersect and impact on the nature of the friendship interaction.
For this reason, I find friendship research as a conducive arena for the studying the interactions between gay men and heterosexual women or fag hags, as it steps away from the essentialism of traditional identity politics.Cross-category friendship research in particular challenges traditional identity politics which suggest that people form friendships with others who identify most closely to them in terms of age, race, class or any other relevant category of identity. Cross category friendship research factors in relational identity and thus suggests that who one identifies with is not always identical to one’s own identity.
On the contrary, same-category friendship rather upholds the notions of traditional identity politics brings forward discourses the ‘homophily’ where one often makes friends solely based on who they identify as.Furthermore, given the stance of the intersectional nature of identity, friendship research allows scrutiny of the power relations evoked by the occupation of certain privileged and/or suppressed identity categories.The implications of rooting fag hag in friendship research is that it takes a holistic approach which provides more room for considering fag hag as a relational identity. This means that fag hag is accompanied by performances based on the roles occupied by gay men and straight women, as well as the extents to which fag hags will go to define themselves in terms of their relational identity.
South African research
Deborah Thompson’s research has been accredited for providing a radical move away from traditional conception of fag hag research. Thompson argues that traditional identity politics provide a barrier for the inclusive and optimal understanding of fag hags’ lived experiences. This is evidenced in the tendency (in conceptions of traditional identity politics) of focusing on the implausibility of platonic relationships between gay men and heterosexual women. This focus has resulted in the pursuit of causal inferences on why gay men interact with heterosexual women, thus pathologizing fag hags as romantically inept and undesirable to heterosexual men.
To date, in the South African context, the experiences of fag hags in universities have not been documented. To fill in this gap, I conducted face-to-face qualitative interviews and focus group discussion with students who identify as fag hags at the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR). My current researchbuilds on Thompson’s conceptions of identification politics with the aim of addressing the challenges of traditional identity politics.The main purpose of my research was to gain an in-depth understanding of how fag hags reinforce and/or resist heteronormativity in their friendship dyads with gay men. The aim of conducting this research are as follows: a) to uncover the possibility and nature of platonic friendships between gay men and heterosexual women; b), closely consider the politics of relation identity in terms various roles that participants’ fulfil in dyads, c) challenge conventionally stereotypical information about fag hags and their relationships with gay men and; d) to consider the university setting and how that impacts on gay man and fag hag relations.
One of my participants’ Qhawe* has voiced her concerns as follows:
I do not [identify as a fag hag] because in order for one to be a fag you need to be cis, you need to be a cis-het person, I think it’s something that can only be acquired by a cis het woman. I think only a straight woman has the ability to be a fag hag.
Qhawe’s experiences of exclusion from fag hag speaks to traditional identity politics’ tendency to conflate sex-assigned-at-birth with gender,thus negatively excluding trans (heterosexual) women and thus privileging cisgender heterosexual women’s identities.
Rather than exploring the politics of relational identity and identification,present in gay men and heterosexual women’s interactions, traditional identity politics would conclude that gay men and trans women’s interactions are based on their belonging to the larger queer community – which I find problematic. For this reason, I agree with Thompson’s criticism of traditional identity politics for undermining the impact of relational identity and identification in gay men and fag hag relations. This results in the identities of some women being underrepresented or overlooked in traditional identity politics’ conception of fag hag.
Prejudice to pride?
In conclusion, my interaction with Qhawe proved to be incredibly important as it really got me thinking about the future of fag hag research as well as the gaps that I am hoping to fill with my research. For this reason, I recommend that those conducting fag hag research take friendship research as a starting point.This will positively result in the politics of relational identity and identification being taken seriously in gay men and fag hag relations. Thankfully,times are changing, in part due to comedians such as Margaret Cho, and the term fag hag is today worn with some pride.
*pseudonym for a self-identifying transgender woman participating in my data collection
Zipho Dolamo is a current MA candidate. Her research at Rhodes University is titled: Fag Hags: resisting and/or reinforcing heteronormativity in friendship dyads. She has BA Honours (Psychology) from Rhodes University and a BA (Psychology & Criminology) from the University of South Africa (Unisa).