Words: Jamie Tabberer; picture: Matt Damon on The Tonight Show (NBC)
How can a straight man who's worked in showbiz for 33 years, and played gay in hit movies to great acclaim, not have known how offensive the word "f*g" is to most gay people?
That's the question that recasts Matt Damon's recent admission about his use of the gay slur - he "retired" it only "months ago" after his daughter told him off - from a story of #girldad cuteness to... something else.
(Spare a thought for the impressive teen in question, today conceivably upset by the considerable online backlash her dad's insensitivity has caused.)
"Come on, that’s a joke! I say it in the movie Stuck on You!"
Speaking in an interview with The Times, Damon said: “The word that my daughter calls the ‘f-slur for a homosexual’ was commonly used when I was a kid, with a different application. I made a joke, months ago, and got a treatise from my daughter. She left the table. I said, ‘Come on, that’s a joke! I say it in the movie Stuck on You!’ She went to her room and wrote a very long, beautiful treatise on how that word is dangerous. I said, ‘I retire the f-slur!’ I understood.”
That it's taken Damon 50 years to understand the f-word is dangerous is disappointing enough. But factor in his work - he starred in 1999's intensely homoerotic The Talented Mr. Ripley and 2013's camp classic Behind the Candleabra - and it's frankly extraordinary.
Extraordinary enough, in fact, to defy common sense. Because whatever his "application" of the term as a child, Damon has evidently understood its homophobic undertones for years.
He told GQ in 2007, for example: "Ben [Affleck] and I, we both always wanted a Jeep Grand Cherokee for some reason. That was the car. We always talked about it but never could afford one. So when we suddenly had the money, we each instantly started trying to convince each other to get a different car. We'd say, 'Hey, have you seen the Explorer The Ford Explorer is really cool.' Because we knew it would just be so gay to get the same car. And our friends were making fun of us. Like, 'You f*gs, what are you doing, you're gonna drive around in the same car. Are they gonna say His and His on them.'"
So, is the one-time Will & Grace guest a homophobe? I don't think so, but for many his 2015 Guardian interview - for which he later apologised on The Ellen DeGeneres Show - is evidence enough.
“I think it must be really hard for actors to be out publicly, but in terms of actors, I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period," he told the outlet at the time. "And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.”
(He added of Rupert Everett: "[He] was openly gay and this guy – more handsome than anybody, a classically trained actor – it’s tough to make the argument that he didn’t take a hit for being out." Everett, for his part, said he was "very touched that Matt Damon even noticed.")
Despite his history of ignorant, tone-deaf comments, lumping Damon in with other straight male public figures who just don't get it - DaBaby being a recent example - would be wrong. Look at Formula 1 icon Lewis Hamilton, who sparked outrage in 2017 for telling his infant nephew that "boys don't wear princess dresses" and this week called out Hungary's recent introduction of an anti-LGBTQ law.
Like Hamilton, Damon appears to be trying.
But that doesn't mean he deserves a medal. His behaviour reminds me of a boy in my class at school, who upon my coming out said: "It's OK that you're gay, but it doesn't mean you have to start walking and talking like a girl." I remember feeling grateful for his conditional acceptance, such a departure was it from the anti-gay abuse that I'd experienced before.
Words like "f*g", of course, remind many of us of our school days, and trigger painful memories. The word doesn't bother me personally, but one of its synonyms - a word I can't even say out loud - takes me straight back.
Conversely, I remember being comforted by the representation in The Talented Mr. Ripley while at school - and by the sight of straight stars like Damon on the cover of Attitude back in 2000.
I'm truly grateful to him for this. But progress doesn't move in a straight line, and that it's now Damon's daughter educating him about LGBTQ rights and not the other way around - indeed, that a supposed ally is using anti-gay slurs in front of his kids at all - is very, very concerning.