When I came out in graduate school, I remember a professor came up to me and said, “Congratulations, I hear you’re a fruit.” I was horrified, and it was incredibly inappropriate. I do not think he meant it as a derogatory comment, but I was still offended. It’s a bit ironic, because this professor was Canadian, and he abhorred being called a Canuck. I’m not sure if Canuck was or is seen as offensive by Canadians, but he certainly was sensitive about it. Why he wasn’t sensitive about a slur like “fruit” I’ll never know. He was a bit of an insensitive jerk, and we did not miss him when he failed to file for an extension of his green card and was sent back to Canada to straighten it out. He never did come back.
Much like the words queen and queer, “fruit” is a slur that has been hurled against gay men for decades. Over time, gay men have begun to reclaim the “fruit” in the same way that “queen” and “queer” have become an innocuous part of our lexicon, and today use it as a term of endearment rather than a derogatory comment on one’s effeminacy and attraction towards other men. This goes to the question of how did “fruit” become a slur for a gay man? What does “fruity” mean for the LGBTQ+ community? What does it mean to be “fruity?” And where did this comparison come from in the first place? Interestingly, the term may have originated from the gay community itself.
Language experts believe that the insult “fruit” has roots in the British cant, or secret language, Polari as a slang word. The slang was born out of the West and East Ends of London in the 19th century (but could date back as far as the 16th century) and was used by social outcasts and outsiders. Polari (from Italian parlare ‘to talk’) was used by some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, sex workers, and the gay subculture. This group also included costermongers, street vendors who sold fruit and vegetables in British towns. Costermongers were looked down upon for their brash behavior, love of gambling, and unusual slang. Like many secret languages, Polari emerged as a way for these outsiders to “protect their identities or actions.” Pretty soon, Britain’s gay community adopted this code, transforming it into a “vehicle for campery, bitchiness, filthy jokes, and innuendo.” The word “fruit” was just one of many slang words gay men would throw at each other to poke fun at their effeminacy. The evolution of this slang was perhaps not unlike that of the American gay lingo that can be traced back to the drag and ballroom culture of the 1980s, where “reading” was, as RuPaul says, fundamental.
But why fruit? The common assumption goes that, like women, fruits are soft and tender. Mayukh Sen, a writer who began writing about food “by accident” when he began working at the blog Food52. His first piece to get significant attention was about fruitcake, titled “How—and Why—Did Fruitcake Become a Slur?”. He wrote that, “As someone who’s queer and Bengal, I grew up eating fruitcake and really treasuring it. I sit in between these two meanings of the word and explored that whole idea in detail, where I metabolized all of that personal writing very early on in my food writing career.” As Sen explains, “A fruit, susceptible to the whims of nature, tends to grow tender and soft. For a man to embody these very traits, a sensitivity to the elements that is typically coded female, goes against the imaginings of masculinity our culture worships.”
Sen goes on to say that, when the slur made its way to the US in the 20th century, it became tied to fruitcake – the sticky and much-maligned treat. The phrase “nutty as a fruitcake” was reserved for people who had lost their marbles, had gone off their rocker, or, simply put, were crazy. At the time, homosexuality was considered deviant – a mental illness to be corrected through lobotomies, electroshock treatment, and chemical castration. Thus, fruits became fruitcakes, and the psychiatric institutions where these horrific procedures occurred were called “fruitcake factories.” Over time, the words “fruit” and “fruitcake” became less of an inside joke in the gay community and more of a weapon that straight people could use to remind gay people of their otherness. For some older gay men who lived through this era, the term “fruit” is as hurtful and offensive as the term “faggot.” Perhaps even worse.
Can we reclaim a slur such as “fruit” like many have for “queer” and “queen?” According to linguistics professor Sally McConnell Ginet, sometimes distance is essential to reclaiming a slur. The young activists in the 1980s who shouted “we’re here, we’re queer” in AIDS rallies were distant enough from the word that, perhaps, they barely had any experiences with it. The same goes for the word “fruity” today. Navigating the world as a gay person is leaps and bounds different than it was all those decades ago. And while homophobia and transphobia most definitely still exist around the world – and even in our own backyards – there are people, places, and moments that serve as solid reminders that LGBTQ+ people do deserve and have a place in this world.
So, when someone calls you “fruity,” what does it mean? It’s like most things, all about context. If they’re a friend, then perhaps it’s a light jab, perhaps a celebration of gayness, perhaps a little bit of both. If they’re not an ally, then it’s a word that they think should hurt you, but at the end of the day, all it does is say, “you’re sensitive, you’re effeminate.” And really, what’s so wrong with that? We should embrace who we are, not what others expect us to be, which is a lesson it took me a long time to realize and one that I sometimes still struggle with.