Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reclaiming a Word

I’ve had a lot of conversations about language recently, and how important it is to use language that accurately reflects what you are trying to say.  Using certain language can contribute to a very harmful form of micro-aggression.  Thus, I feel the need to explain why I don’t like the word “Faggot” 

“Faggot” is a pejorative word to refer to gay people, usually gay men.  It is derogatory, and is meant to imply negative stereotypes about gay men.  Homophobic people often use that word as the worst possible insult against gay men (I'm thinking of Westboro Baptist Church's "God hates Fags" signs.)  When a heterosexual man is called “faggot” it is explicitly an insult, meant to emasculate him and make him less of a man, implying that he is secretly gay and that that is the very worst thing he could possibly be.  Obviously, that’s homophobic.  If being gay isn't bad, it shouldn't be an insult to call a non-gay person a word that just means "gay."  

But I think that word can be just as harmful even when it is not intended as an insult.  The other day, a (straight male) acquaintance of mine called another (gay male) mutual acquaintance a “fucking faggot” behind his back.  I spoke up, of course.  But his immediate response was “well, it’s not an insult if it’s true!”  This is a common sentiment among people who don’t think of themselves as homophobic, but there is so much wrong with that statement.  “Gay” is not a synonym with “Fucking Faggot”.  Most importantly, he’s implying that it would still be an insult if it were used to refer to a straight man.  That word is still derogatory in nature and it’s still insulting when used in that context.

So what about when gay men use the word faggot to refer to themselves or to each other?  That’s a little bit more of a gray area for me.  Words can be reclaimed.  My own chosen label “Queer/genderqueer” is a reclaimed word.  (My friend Ryan wrote a great blog entry on that word yesterday, so I’ll just refer you there for further reading on the word queer: )  Has word Faggot be reclaimed?  I think, in order for a word to be reclaimed, we have to assimilate the negative connotations of the word and make the word so much our own that it is no longer potent as an insult.  If “fucking queer” were ever used against me as an insult, it would be meant as “you are not normal, you break social boundaries, you are odd, strange, queer, you exist outside of a narrow and traditional conception of the way gender and sexuality are supposed to work.”  And I could look them in the eye and say “Yes, I am a fucking queer,” and I would mean it in exactly the same way they do.  That word is mine, it has been reclaimed.    

Can the word “faggot” been reclaimed?  I don’t know.  Reclaiming a word has to be a conscious choice, and either an intentional assimilation of negative connotations or at least an explicit defiance against those undertones.  Maybe some people have reclaimed the word faggot.  Maybe some gay men have taken that word and made it a part of their identity.  But I know that when I hear a straight person use that word, whether it is intended as an insult or not, I still flinch.

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