A few months ago I self-identified as queer in front of my family. My aunt and grandma immediately questioned my use of the word. “Isn’t that offensive?” “Can we say queer?” “Does everyone use this term?” “Why would you want to call yourself that?”
I couldn’t answer their questions in any sort of articulate way, but I felt strongly that “queer” is and was a good term.
When I started writing this blog I was 100% certain that “queer” was the all-encompassing term that defied my resistance to word reclamation. I am now less sure. However, I think I will continue to use the word because I believe it allows for the inclusion of all genders and sexualities.
Queer is different from other, more etymologically offensive words. The dictionary definition is, "differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal." In our normative culture, some might contend that this definition is in and of itself, offensive. But maybe there is something empowering about using identifying words to embrace our differences. Perhaps this is why queer has had the rare opportunity to become reclaimed. People who identify as queer are embracing their “differentness.”
It’s a term that both expresses that the identifying individual is different, while at the same time, is inclusive within the queer community. Queer is inclusive. It recognizes all genders and sexualities. However, despite its inclusivity, some commentators have argued that “queer,” is a privileged term used mostly by white, educated, upper middle class folks. I don’t yet know if I agree with this. And if it is a term limited to those with privilege, I don't know how this impacts the discussion over word reclamation.To me, it seems like the power of queer as an insult has dissipated as the usage of the word has become more widespread.
I’m having trouble identifying any other words that have had similar renaissances. Some have argued that “slut” has been reclaimed, at least partially, through recent sex-positive movements like SlutWalk movement. In 2011, a Toronto police officer commented that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” In response, a group of activists protested at the first ever “SlutWalk.” Since then, SlutWalks have occurred across the world drawing thousands of women marching in solidarity to sex-positivize messages. SlutWalks attempt to “reclaim the word ‘slut,’” and “to redefine what it means to be called one.”
This post has also challenged me to think about whether a word can be partially reclaimed. Words like “slut,” “bitch,” “fag,” and “dyke” are still used to perpetuate oppression. Can this oppressive usage be disconnected from a self-liberating usage? I would argue that they can’t. That using them in a positive way doesn’t strip them of their oppressive power.
There is a discernable difference between the literal definitions of queer versus the definitions of the many of the other insulting terms people have attempted to reclaim. No matter how hard individuals and communities attempt reclaim “bitch,” the underlying meaning remains derogatory. Whereas queer, the meaning itself of being different from what is normal, could potentially be embraced.
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center of Transgender Equality, has voiced opposition to word reclamation in any capacity. “Words like ‘tranny,’ ‘faggot,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘retard,’ and ‘lame’ are often used to stereotype and marginalize people,” she explained. “Some people who are the targets feel that they are hateful, cruel words. That's enough for me [not to use them].” I think I agree with Mara Keisling. Words that are still used to stereotype, marginalize and disparage should be avoided at all costs.
But maybe queer is different. Queer has evolved to embrace its very definition, and for me, that might be enough to use it.