The Nightmares Beyond the F-Slur: The Deeper Homophobia of "Fairytale of New York"

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” could be about a woman back in the day taking agency of her sexuality, feeling brazen after imbibing a little bit, not wanting to seem “easy,” but wanting to get laid. On the other hand, in 2018, it could be about a man literally slipping something into a woman’s drink and telling her it’s snowing, so she ought to stay the night, even though she’s saying “no no no.” Either way, it’s polarizing; is it a feminist anthem or an ode to rape culture? I see both arguments.

Christmas songs have fucked-up lyrics! Grandma’s getting run over by a reindeer, Mommy’s kissing Santa Claus and the kids are pleading for Daddy not to get drunk at Christmas. Bono howling “thank God it’s them instead of yooooouuuu” in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is steeped in self-parody.

Christmas movies aren’t an exception, with A Christmas Story’s cringey Chinese restaurant caricatures, White Christmas glorifying the days of minstrel shows and the countless garbage men of Love, Actually. But in light of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” being pulled from Canadian radio this holiday season, I want to focus on another song that really has no place in 2018 - The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.”

“Fairytale of New York” is a wildly popular Christmas standard in the UK. Over the past few years, there’s been debate about its lyrical inappropriateness, with censorings and un-censorings over the past few years.

In its original context, “Fairytale of New York” is a punky Celtic pop ditty about a guy in the drunk tank, reminiscing about an old love turned sour over the course of various Christmases.

But listening to it today? All I hear is a hetero couple going from gleefully partying in the streets with NYC cops to drunkenly yelling slurs at each other. Infamously, Kirsty MacColl calls Shane MacGowan the f-slur.

“Fairytale of New York” was released on November 23, 1987, and stayed at number one for five weeks. But ever the underdogs, The Pogues failed to get the coveted UK #1 Christmas spot -- Pet Shop Boys’ “You Were Always On My Mind” snatched it. Shane MacGowan allegedly complained, “We were beaten by two queens and a drum machine.”

Charming.

The pedantic “well, actually”ing of the f-slur being “old Irish slang for a lazy person,” thus removing it of any homophobia, is nonsense. The meanings of words change. And the f-slur is loaded.

It’s not just about the word, though; it’s about the context.

The New York City that MacGowan romanticized in 1987 was hardly a fairytale for its LGBTQ+ community. In that decade, NYC was America’s most-affected city of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Homophobia extended further to doctors who refused to treat patients and politicians who ignored pleas to help. We lost countless people to this then-deadly disease. We shouldn’t have.

New York’s LGBTQ+ community still has rightful grievances with the NYPD. And it’s no better in my home city of Toronto. In fact, it’s much worse than some of us knew.

Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community has a long and fraught history with cops, stemming from the Operation Soap bathhouse raids in 1981. In 2016, Black Lives Matter demanded that uniformed cops not participate in future pride parades. Pride Toronto abided by this, acknowledging they needed to prioritize making Pride a space more inclusive of people of color, and that police presence creates an unwelcoming atmosphere towards the groups of folks it targets the most. There was no police presence in the Toronto Pride Parade in 2017 and 2018.

In a shocking move, Pride Toronto’s Executive Director, Olivia Nuamah, is welcoming Toronto police to apply to march in 2019 after a nightmarishly horrible 2018 for Toronto’s gay community.

2018 was the year that, after years of denying that there was a serial killer in Toronto’s gay village, Bruce McArthur was charged in the murders of at least eight different men. At least six of the eight men identified were men of color. LGBTQ+ people, particularly those of color, continue to be oppressed by authoritative figures. Nuamah inviting police participation in the Pride Parade next year in light of the murders is beyond sickening.

It doesn’t matter what the f-slur meant at one point in history. Its evolution as a violent epithet towards LGBTQ+ folks is what matters. MacGowan recently released a statement, justifying its use in only the way an old, out-of-touch cis hetero man could, saying it’s a character using the slur, “but she is not intended to offend!” At the end of his statement, he brushes the controversy off, saying “I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word but I don’t want to get into an argument.” Which… that’s your privilege, Shane MacGowan.

In the year 2018, the f-slur has no place in popular music, so let’s give it a rest with “Fairytale of New York.” We’ve got “Last Christmas.” We’ve got “Christmas Wrapping.” We’ve got all of the classics, especially “All I Want for Christmas is You”! And even better? None of these faves have cloying, overly-jaunty penny whistles, let alone anti-gay slurs!