So I’m a genderqueer poet and a blogger who covers activist issues. It should go with out saying that I think about language at lot. But I said it anyway. That’s the kind of person I am.
Full disclosure here: my being genderqueer means that I experience a range of genders from day to day (sometimes hour to hour) and sometimes I feel I have no gender at all. I feel the need for a decent variety of terms to describe my identity. This is why I find the prospect of reclaiming language so sexy and useful.
It has a special pull for me. Before I came out as trans* I went through a very involved process of reclaiming “woman”. This was partly to make it so that I might still fit within its definition and ultimately not have to deal with the fluidity of my gender. But it was also partly because I was (and still am) very specific about the kind of woman I was and what “woman” meant to me. Despite all that reclamation work, despite the fact that I wanted to make womanhood bigger, the word “woman” is not (always) for me anymore.
No matter how much work we do to reclaim any word there are always going to be people for whom that term will not be the right identifier. Because humans are complex and we have intricately different identities.
As a trans* masculine person who is attracted to other masculine individuals I occasionally identify myself with the word fag (along with words like “sissy”). I recognize that “fag” has a history of being used violently and oppressively, and is very much so still being used that way by many. But I hope that fag can be reclaimed and used as an accurate identifier of people’s gender/sexual identities.
The problem of hateful epithets is never with the words themselves (just like the physics that make them work are not responsible for the damage caused by nuclear bombs). The problem is the stigma, violence, and hate aimed at the behaviors and identities those words represent. In this case it’s hate for the effeminate identities and behaviors of (purportedly) men.
I take on fag as an effeminate guy who’s attracted to men, but also because, as someone who has the privilege of not being oppressively coerced into (hetero) masculinity (like most cis men are) I can self identify with the word fag without personal consequence. If I’m mindful can use my this privilege to to change the conversation around “fag”, and hopefully to ameliorate some of its negative associations. That is exactly what I am trying to do.
I do this because I am proud of being an effeminate guy who likes other guys and I want to be recognized as such. I also think that the negative view of other effeminate masculinities needs to end. Bottom shaming needs to end. The negative use of the word fag needs to end. For me that starts with behaving as if there is nothing wrong with a word that means “effeminate gay man” and that instead there is something wrong with the people who would use “fag” with distaste, fear, and hate.
In my case, as with all language reclamation, privilege is the primary fuel. I receive support from my community when I name my identity and when I defend it. People will have my back if I decided to shout back at the haters: “You know what? I AM a queer/fag/slut/bitch and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
I recognize and love me. I know that my friends and family recognize and love me. Changing the meaning of words relies on the privilege of recognition, on the fact that at least some people will listen to the speaker, legitimize their words, and offer them leeway on their intentions. Community support and recognition is an essential ingredient to the reclamation of slurs.
Though words like “pervert”, “slut”, and “crip” have gone through significant and largely effective reclamations they aren’t all accurate representations of everyone’s identity. Unfortunately, some overzealous reclaimers attempt to ascribe their reclaimed slur to everyone wholesale. As if the oppression they faced though a particular word is the same and carries the same significance for everyone. This happened most flagrantly with the reclamation of word “slut” and was met with well worded and very warranted resistance:
What becomes an issue is those white women and liberal feminist women of color who argue that “slut” is a universal category of female experience, irrespective of race. –Crunk Feminist Collective
The messy reclamation of “slut” assumed that everyone would be able to find the same power and recognition with the new definition. There’s a lesson to be learned here for those of us making efforts to reclaim slurs.
In order to avoid erasing or minimizing other marginalized individuals we the need to keep our expectations localized to our own lexicons. We need to realize that we can’t magically change people’s hearts, minds, and histories with our shiny new intentions. We can’t expect even some of our political allies to use or accept language in the way we envision. Because, whether we acknowledge it or not, trying to get others to think of words in the way that we do is an arrogant enforcement of erasure.
Some reclamation efforts have been too impatient, demanding that people immediately see a particular word differently than they have their whole lives. We need to respect the problematic nature of the words we choose to reclaim. Impatient language reclamation not only ignores both the lived cultural contexts others may have for a word, it also completely ignores the subtle nature of language itself.
Language and culture affect each other. Both are fluid and change, seemingly imperceptibly from year to year. Language and the cultural consciousness are generally slow to shift. I believe that a conscious, minimal, but consistent resistance to the problematic way in which some words are currently used can have some harm-reducing effect. But I try not to get too specific with my vision of “what this word should mean to you”.
Language reclamation isn’t about changing people’s minds suddenly with a logical argument. It’s not an activist effort you can “win” at. There are no significant victory points to be claimed. Your goal should never be for people to think exactly like you, only that they begin to think differently about the way a particular piece of language is used.
What we can do is ask to be recognized with the words we deem the most appropriate. Doing anything more than this runs the risk of erasing or minimizing other communities’ history and current culture surrounding those words.
I don’t want people who have painful histories and associations with “fag” to give those up. Those histories and associations belong to them. What I do want is to build a future where the word “fag” and the effeminate/nontraditional masculinities it represents are talked about without shame and hatred.