Emma Collins (she/they)
It seems like slurs are being reclaimed all over the place! From my cishet professors calling LGBTQIA+ people the all encompassing term “queer,” to folks self labeling as “dykes” and friends calling each other “fags,” the LGBTQIA+ community seems to be reclaiming words that were once seen as harmful. The thing is, though, these words are still seen as harmful by some. For me, as someone who self identifies as queer, hearing my cishet friends call me queer still makes me cringe. I am just one person and I do not speak for the entire LGBTQIA+ community, so I had 106 LGBTQIA+ identifying University of Michigan students fill out a survey regarding which reclaiming slurs they use, which ones they do not, and their thoughts around these reclaimed slurs.
When self reporting gender and sexuality, attractionality, and romanticality, folks ranged from identifying as queer, bisexual, pansexual, lesbian, gay, “gay as fuck,” demisexual, straight, attracted to men, attracted to women, asexual, biromantic, homoromantic, nonbinary, agender, cis, trans, woman, man, “very confused,” polyamorous, and lithromantic. The slur most commonly reported as being used was “queer”, with 70.8% of folks reporting that they use it. Next was “homo” at 34.8%, followed by “dyke” at 30.2%. 92.5% of people reporting they do not like, or feel uncomfortable by, their cishet friends calling them a reclaimed slur, and 99.2% of people reported that they do not like or feel uncomfortable by cishet people who are not their friends calling them a reclaimed slur.
People reported lots of different feelings around slurs. One person said when other lesbians call her a dyke, she feels it is, “like a badge of honor”. Someone reported that they are uncomfortable with folks in the community self identifying as a slur other than queer, while another person said that they felt queer was still offensive and never should be used. Many people replied that cishets are now using queer too frequently. Personally, I believe that reclaiming slurs can have a sense of power. Like, “Yeah, I’m a queer, what are you going to do about it?” I say this, and then I also got some messages replying to my survey where people called a “cunt sucking dyke,” an “ugly fag,” and just the classic “faggot,” among other things. So, yes, I personally believe these words can give power back; however, I also recognize that increasing their usage can allow for more cishet, homophobic, assholes to have a platform and more reason to use these words.
Nearly everyone reported that using a slur to describe oneself is fine, and that someone can only use a slur if the slur is about an identity that someone holds. For example, a lesbian using “dyke” is okay, while a cis person using “tranny” is not. This concept is something I found super interesting, especially when looking at the results. The slur “fag” is historically, specifically regarding gay men, and no one who did not identify as a man reported that they used this word. On the other hand, “dyke” and “lesbo” are historically, specifically about gay women, but people of all genders reported using this. It seems like there is an element of sexism among reclaimed slurs, with masculine identifying folks feeling entitled to using all slurs, while feminine identifying folks only felt entitled to use slurs regarding them. Moreover, not a single person reported identifying as intersex, yet 18% of folks responded that they use the term “hermaphrodite.” I personally support the idea that people can only reclaim slurs that belong to them. However, those who claim to believe this often contradict themselves, using slurs which target identities to which they do not belong (such as folks using the term “hermaphrodite”).
Seeing as these words are so emotionally loaded, I do not feel like we should use them in the day to day, especially in academia. All feelings around the intent and emotions associated with these words are valid. I believe that we need to ask folks what they are comfortable with saying and using. This strategy will allow us to do the most good and the least harm, make everyone feel welcome in a space, and build a community where LGBTQIA+ folks are valued. Over time, we can potentially work towards a community where these words lose their hateful meaning and can be used, while remembering their history. I feel like using “queer,” even in an academic setting, is still inappropriate-- it is not that much harder to say LGBTQIA+. Cishets should never be using these words, unless the person they are talking to explicitly said they could, and even then, tread lightly. LGBTQIA+ folks should also ask what their friends want to be called, but if they want to self identify as “queer” or a “dyke” or a “homo,” go for it. Just know that some people might not be comfortable calling you that, and that is okay too-- we all get to decide what our boundaries are.
Whatever words you chose to use or not, so long as you are not cishet, are valid, and your feelings around these words are also valid. Whatever you choose, know that you are not alone, and that you are in good company.