Joel Ryan / Invision / AP
Wednesday, June 4, 2014 | 7:55 p.m.
LOS ANGELES — Jonah Hill is winning points for what appears to be a sincere apology for hurling a gay slur at a paparazzo he says was harassing him.
But the insult the actor hurled last week still raises the question: Why would someone like Hill, for years a vocal supporter of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, use such a word? Even in a moment of anger?
Not that he's the first or likely will be the last prominent person to do so. A national television audience heard Kobe Bryant shout the same slur three years ago at a referee he thought had made a bad call during a basketball game. Isaiah Washington famously said it to his "Grey's Anatomy" co-star T.R. Knight in 2007, setting off a dispute that eventually got Washington fired. Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah yelled it at a Miami Heat basketball fan who had been getting on him during a game.
The word is faggot, and although it's not the only gay pejorative, it seems to be the one people most often fall back on when they're mad at someone. And often it doesn't seem to matter if they think the person is gay or not.
"I think Jonah Hill's comments are indicative of the fact that oftentimes when somebody uses that language, they aren't using it because they are necessarily homophobic," said Hudson Taylor, whose group, Athlete Ally, seeks to end anti-gay bias in sports. "That language is so prevalent in all the communities I work with that whether it's a fourth-grader or a professional athlete, 90 percent have heard the term in the last week."
It is so commonplace that when someone is furious and searching for the most insulting thing they can say, that's the one they pick, says Howard Bragman, a veteran Hollywood crisis publicist and vice president of Reputation.com.
"In anger, the emotional overtakes the rational and you think of the harshest thing you can say, and that certainly sounds harsh," added Bragman, who himself is gay, knows Hill personally and doesn't believe the actor is anti-gay. Hill has been a public supporter of gay rights, including speaking out against Russian laws against "gay propaganda."
Hill, who starred in "The Wolf of Wall Street" and the new "21 Jump Street" film, let fly with the epithet after a photographer tried to get a rise out of him by insulting him and his family. That's an act that's fairly commonplace among Hollywood paparazzi, who often hope to get their money shots by provoking celebrities into doing something stupid.
"In response, I wanted to hurt him back, and I said the most hurtful word that I could think of at that moment," Hill said this week on "The Tonight Show."
Still, he has said in multiple apologies, there was no excuse for what he did.
Like Hill, Bryant and Noah were also quick to apologize, and the National Basketball Association hit them with large fines. Major League Baseball suspended Yunel Escobar, then a shortstop with the Toronto Blue Jays, two seasons ago for stenciling the word, in Spanish, onto his eye black.
Hudson, of Athlete Ally, says that isn't enough. People have to learn the word is intolerable.
The word is derived from a centuries-old term for heretics, said Karen Tonson, a professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California, and only fairly recently has come to be among the worst gay epithets in the language. Thus it hasn't yet developed quite the negative reputation with people as the N-word. But she believes it eventually will.
"I think enlightenment or knowledge of just how hurtful certain terms are does phase them out," Tonson said. "It isn't political correctness that is shutting down the use of that word. It's about understanding that that word has a very violent etymology."