I still wince when I hear it: “faggot.” It’s as thick as the tongues of the boys who spit it at my feet, and as weighty as the swinging fists that sometimes follow. It’s as sylphlike as a queen in sequins, and as slippery as a wet cock. It’s what he says when he hates you, or hates himself, or when you ask for it very late one night, after the lights go down. It teases, then barbs, embraces, then wounds. It might come from friends, enemies, lovers, strangers. It might be whispered, it might be yelled. It’s the most fraught word in my vocabulary, the twisted viscera of shame and pride made into a term that possesses no one meaning: It’s a slur, a seduction, a laugh line, a life raft; an acknowledgement, a dismissal, a provocation, a shield.
It’s also the central linguistic motif of the astonishing new season of American Crime Story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace—as forthright as its sense of color, its extravagant appetites, its Catholicism, its camp. On the morning of his 1997 murder, the Italian fashion designer (Edgar Ramirez) strolls through his Miami Beach palace in a flowing, fluorescent robe, the camera retreating skyward as he breakfasts by the pool; the corresponding image of his killer, Andrew Cunanan (the magnetic, frightening Darren Criss), peers in on the con man as he tosses off his matching pink cap and vomits into a toilet, then pauses for a glimpse of the message etched into the bathroom stall: a rough drawing of two dicks, with the caption “Filthy faggots.” From here, the series unspools in reverse, tracing the lives of its two main characters back to their childhoods, and among its constants is that unutterable word, that unforgivable commonplace, that useful descriptor, that reclamation. The “crime” in this season of American Crime Story is the assassination of Gianni Versace, certainly, but it’s also, doubtless, homophobia itself, socialized and self-inflicted, individual and internecine: At the heart of the anthology’s magnificent second act is a potent, political, possibly even dangerous reconsideration of what it means to be called a faggot, and then what it means to become one.
In one flashback in the season premiere, directed by Ryan Murphy and written by Tom Rob Smith (London Spy), Cunanan regales his friend Elizabeth Cote (Annaleigh Ashford) with the embroidered details of an encounter with Versace at a San Francisco nightclub, and the scene cycles through the complications of the term with remarkable alacrity. “I know the score,” Cunanan snipes, puffing himself up. “He’s a lecherous fag on the prowl”:
“Hey, faggot is not a nice word,” Cote scolds.
“Not nice when it’s said by the wrong person,” he counters. “But what are we supposed to call them? Homosexuals? Sounds so scientific. Anyway, I don’t have a problem with it. It doesn’t bother me. At all.”
We hear, see, feel the word “faggot” more in the eight episodes of Versace made available to critics than in all the other TV I’ve watched in my career, but the decision is most notable for the lengths to which the series goes to suggest faggot’s full complement of possibilities; in the space of a minute, in Cote’s pristine kitchen, it’s cast as an aspersion, called out as such, repurposed, weaponized—that insidious “them”—and finally brushed off, though of course the “problem,” for Andrew, the “bother,” is not that Versace’s a faggot. It’s that Cunanan’s a faggot himself.
Or is he? Versace, thrillingly thorny, refuses to settle on a single definition, application, approach to the word; at minimum, it so closely mimics my own tangled feelings about it, and its cultural signifiers, that I was at first hesitant about my high opinion. Cunanan puts on and peels off identities as easily as he does his Farley Granger-esque suit, which, depending on the moment, reads as both a metaphor for the gay experience and proof of his sociopathic delusions: In the almost poetic monologue that caps the second episode, he says — referring at once to his pile of prior lies and the occupations of other men he’s met in his life — “I’m a banker. I’m a stockbroker. I’m a shareholder. I’m a paperback writer. I’m a cop. I’m a naval officer. Sometimes I’m a spy. I build movie sets in Mexico and skyscrapers in Chicago. I sell propane in Minneapolis, import pineapples from the Philippines. You know, I’m the person least likely to be forgotten.” In its attempt to understand Cunanan and his crimes, Versace comes perilously close, in stretches, to mistaking personal for cultural pathologies, though to my mind it’s this willingness to court such slippages that renders it so compelling. It confronts us—scratch that, it confronted me—with a startling implication: That in the suburban upbringing, the shame, the dissembling, the desperate desire not to be a faggot, I might resemble the murderer more than I do the object of his obsession.
Were this the whole of it, Versace might be written off as salacious, exploitative, even objectionable. But in its treatment of Versace—in particular, his relationship with his longtime partner, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), and his frequent battles with his businesslike sister, Donatella (Penelope Cruz)—and his historical context—most prominently, the longue durée of the AIDS crisis and the early days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—the series finds ballast, frequent, poignant reminders that the self-policing we perform to evade that label, “faggot,” is the product of a society that polices us if we don’t. Literally, in the case of Versace: It’s fitting that the series, based on Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, should focus such sustained attention on the last part of her subtitle, with homophobic or at least ignorant officers and FBI agents allowing Cunanan to slip through their grasp. In the aftermath of the murder, for instance, the detective questioning D’Amico—still dressed in his blood-stained tennis whites—leers at the notion that he and Versace had sex, alone and together, with other men, almost willfully misunderstanding another term: “partner.”
“These other men, did they consider themselves to be Versace’s ‘partner,’ too?” the investigator asks.
“No,” D’Amico says, frustrated and wounded.
“You see why I’m confused? What’s the difference?”
“Fifteen years. I lived with Gianni for 15 years. That is the difference.”
Mispronouncing the designer’s name, writing him off as “the jeans guy,” or mixing him up with Liberace; refusing to scour gay bars, failing to circulate flyers, or, with regard to another murder, misapprehending rather run-of-the-mill porn and sex toys as “extreme stuff,” the authorities’ prejudices, tacit and explicit, constitute a crime of their own: Were those tasked with capturing Cunanan not so afraid of us faggots, Versace suggests, the designer might not have been murdered that long-ago morning, snuffed out in his artistic prime.
In this, I might add, Versace ultimately, brilliantly cleaves open the difference among the uses of “faggot,” which is the courage Cunanan yearned to possess, and so fatally lacked. There’s so much to be said about the insidious “them” in his earlier statement, but its jet-black core is its contrast with Versace’s candy-colored couture, or indeed the quieter heroics of two of Cunanan’s lesser-known victims, David Madson (Cody Fern) and Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), coming out or criticizing DADT at a moment in which such acts were potent, and political, and even possibly dangerous. As it happens, Versace also underscores the crimes we don’t see, the lives lost, or led less than fully, because part of the violence of being called a faggot is that it keeps us—scratch that, kept me—from becoming one.
I must confess that I remain hesitant to use it, that it’s easier to write than to speak aloud, but in learning to love American Crime Story’s second season, I remembered that I’ve spent the better part of the last decade learning to love that part of myself—that I continue to come out, day after day, as I prepare to enter my 31st year, and that much of this work is embracing the appreciation for cultural signifiers I’d been taught to tamp down, ignore, denigrate, resist. Versace isn’t the perfect rendering of this subject, but it doesn’t need to be. It is, rather, a bold, ambitious, riveting wrestling match between cultural shame and communal pride, in which glittering wedding gowns and glossy magazines, club hits and tank tops, are emblems for which we choose the meaning, just as we might choose to adopt as our own that unutterable word, that unforgivable commonplace, that useful descriptor—that reclamation. As the designer says of the “Versace bride,” preparing for a fashion show, “She won’t be dainty. She won’t be timid. She will be proud and strong.” I realize now, upon finishing what may be Murphy’s riskiest and most radiant gambit to date, that as I grow older, and more comfortable in my own skin, I’m not only able to hear the sentiment, but also to identify with it. I am not dainty, nor timid, but proud and strong: I am a faggot, through and through.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story premieres Wednesday, Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. on FX.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.