Monday, April 4, 2016

Word Reclamation Part II: Are Any Words Okay to Reclaim?

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.

4 comments:

RC said...

I have been struggling for a while with whether or not "queer" was an acceptable term to use within the community. Some consider it to function sufficiently as an "umbrella term" to be more inclusive, some people still take offense to the word, and some emphasize reclaiming the word to shake off the negative connotation. I am fascinated by the point you bring up, that "“queer,” is a privileged term used mostly by white, educated, upper middle class folks" and I would be interested in further exploring that because this is the first time that I'm hearing about that.

You bring up an interesting point, as far as "queer" being reclaimed more easily than other disparaging terms. Success with (and desirability) of reclamation does seem to happen on a spectrum (for example, "queer" has been reclaimed more than "slut," which seems to have been somewhat more reclaimed compared to "dyke" or "fag"). I wonder if this process is being thoroughly examined by what I think is called queer/lavender linguistics?

Liz said...

I am surprised to hear that some people consider the word "queer" as a privileged term "used mostly by white, educated upper class folks." Perhaps, I can see that point of view, but then that would force me to ignore the countless other people I have come to know to identify with the term despite being a person of color and not coming from an upper middle class background. Maybe this view comes about because of the media's portrayal of who is queer? Sometimes that can paint a picture of what people have come to known.

I know there have been a lot of movements like the Dreamers( United We Dream) who now make it a point to support queer undocumented youth with Queer Dream Summer, and Black Lives Matter movement was ignited by queer black women. There are plenty of other intersections of movements highlighting queer identity ...maybe this notion of queerness as whiteness is limited by the lack of literature we've been exposed to so far. The mainstream literature continues to paint queerness white. Additionally,it really comes to no surprise that the intersection of people and color and queerness are being overshadowed or perhaps invisiblized by white people. The plight for marriage equality is a perfect example of this in action. Many of those spearheading marriage equality were predominately white, rich, couples. However, LBGTQ youth homelessness( especially in Black, Latino and Native communities continues to be an issue), we still have multiple accounts of hate crimes and murders enacted on trans women of color ( #SayHerName campaign).I do have faith that actress like Laverne Cox is shedding light and some color ( pun intended) that queer, trans, people of color are fighting back and making a presence.

India Powell said...

I am curious if the term "queer" has ever really been negatively appropriated to the same level as other quite offensive terms. Could it be true that it feels better to say "queer" nowadays just because it was never really as "bad" as "fag" or "dyke"? I really don't know the answer to that question, but it seems worth asking. If word reclamation is happening on a spectrum of sorts, then maybe the ground that the word has to make up before it feels okay to use it again is relative to how offensive the word has become.

Ari Asher said...

India, I definitely agree with that -- a lot of what I have read has placed "queer" in the same category as other words that I think are less okay to reclaim.

And Liz, yes, I also agree with what you are saying. Like I said in the post, I'm wasn't sure that I agreed with the notion that "queer" has been limited to white conversations, but that notion is what is highlighted in the mainstream media. I do know that more recently the word has gained traction in many communities. This sentence has stuck with me for the last few weeks: "it really comes to no surprise that the intersection of people and color and queerness are being overshadowed or perhaps invisiblized by white people."

All in all, I believe that reclaiming queer is different than other words because of its inclusivity and relative "less-historical-badness" than other words. Thanks for your comments, they were insightful and made me think critically about my post.