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I watched Ann Coulter last night in the gayest way I could. I was on a stairmaster at a gym, slack-jawed at her proud defense of calling someone a "faggot" on the same stage as presidential candidates and as an icon of today's conservative movement. The way in which Fox News and Sean Hannity and, even more repulsively, Pat Cadell, shilled for her was a new low for Fox, I think - and for what remains of decent conservatism. "We're all friends here," Hannity chuckled at the end. Yes, they were. And no faggots were on the show to defend themselves. That's fair and balanced.

I'm not going to breathe more oxygen into this story except to say a couple of things that need saying. Coulter has an actual argument in self-defense and it's worth addressing. Her argument is that it was a joke and that since it was directed at a straight man, it wasn't homophobic. It was, in her words, a "school-yard taunt," directed at a straight man, meaning a "wuss" and a "sissy". Why would gays care? She is "pro-gay," after all. Apart from backing a party that wants to strip gay couples of all legal rights by amending the federal constitution, kick them out of the military where they are putting their lives on the line, put them into "reparative therapy" to "cure" them, keep it legal to fire them in many states, and refusing to include them in hate crime laws, Coulter is very pro-gay. As evidence of how pro-gay she is, check out all the gay men and women in America now defending her.

Her defense, however, is that she was making a joke, not speaking a slur. Her logic suggests that the two are mutually exclusive. They're not. And when you unpack Coulter's joke, you see she does both. Her joke was that the world is so absurd that someone like Isaiah Washington is forced to go into rehab for calling someone a "faggot." She's absolutely right that this is absurd and funny and an example of p.c. insanity. She could have made a joke about that - a better one, to be sure - but a joke. But she didn't just do that. She added to the joke a slur: "John Edwards is a faggot." That's why people gasped and then laughed and clapped so heartily. I was in the room, so I felt the atmosphere personally. It was an ugly atmosphere, designed to make any gay man or woman in the room feel marginalized and despised. To put it simply, either conservatism is happy to be associated with that atmosphere, or it isn't. I think the response so far suggests that the conservative elites don't want to go there, but the base has already been there for a very long time. (That's why this affair is so revealing, because it is showing which elites want to pander to bigots, and which do not.)

Coulter's defense of the slur is that it was directed at an obviously straight man and so could not be a real slur. The premise of this argument is that the word faggot is only used to describe gay men and is only effective and derogatory when used against a gay man. But it isn't. In fact, in the schoolyard she cites, the primary targets of the f-word are straight boys or teens or men. The word "faggot" is used for two reasons: to identify and demonize a gay man; and to threaten a straight man with being reduced to the social pariah status of a gay man. Coulter chose the latter use of the slur, its most potent and common form. She knew why Edwards qualified. He's pretty, he has flowing locks, he's young-looking. He is exactly the kind of straight guy who is targeted as a "faggot" by his straight peers. This, Ms Coulter, is real social policing by speech. And that's what she was doing: trying to delegitimize and feminize a man by calling him a faggot. It happens every day. It's how insecure or bigoted straight men police their world to keep the homos out.

And for the slur to work, it must logically accept the premise that gay men are weak, effeminate, wusses, sissies, and the rest. A sane gay man has two responses to this, I think. The first is that there is nothing wrong with effeminacy or effeminate gay men - and certainly nothing weak about many of them. In the plague years, I saw countless nelly sissies face HIV and AIDS with as much courage and steel as any warrior on earth. You want to meet someone with balls? Find a drag queen. The courage of many gay men every day in facing down hatred and scorn and derision to live lives of dignity and integrity is not a sign of being a wuss or somehow weak. We have as much and maybe more courage than many - because we have had to acquire it to survive. And that is especially true of gay men whose effeminacy may not make them able to pass as straight - the very people Coulter seeks to demonize. The conflation of effeminacy with weakness, and of gayness with weakness, is what Coulter calculatedly asserted. This was not a joke. It was an attack.

Secondly, gay men are not all effeminate. In the last couple of weeks, we have seen a leading NBA player and a Marine come out to tell their stories. I'd like to hear Coulter tell Amaechi and Alva that they are sissies and wusses. A man in uniform who just lost a leg for his country is a sissy? The first American serviceman to be wounded in Iraq is a wuss? What Coulter did, in her callow, empty way, was to accuse John Edwards of not being a real man. To do so, she asserted that gay men are not real men either. The emasculation of men in minority groups is an ancient trope of the vilest bigotry. Why was it wrong, after all, for white men to call African-American men "boys"? Because it robbed them of the dignity of their masculinity. And that's what Coulter did last Friday to gays. She said - and conservatives applauded - that I and so many others are not men. We are men, Ann.

As members of other minorities have been forced to say in the past: I am not a faggot. I am a man.

(Photo: Former US Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva (R) speaks as Rep. Marty Meehan (L), D-MA, listens 28 February 2007 during a press conference in which Rep. Meehan said he will re-introduce legislation to repeal the US Military "Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. Alva was the first US soldier wounded in Iraq, and has said he is gay. By Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)