Language Toolbox for a Kinder World: Reclaiming Slurs

I was in the library.  It was my first month at Sarah Lawrence. I slipped a new friend of mine a note asking some mundane question.  This friend is the kind of SLC queer who I can trust to dress a little like Ke$ha and talk a little like bell hooks–in short, my favorite kind of SLC queer.  His response to my note answered my question, but appended to the answer, in my friend’s trademark swooshy handwriting, was “God hates fags.”  And a smiley face.

I didn’t know yet what to expect from SLC queers.  I didn’t know how cis gay men at SLC would react to me–as a fellow gay man, or a creepy trans interloper?  I was nervous and still hurting from the dehumanizing ways I’d been treated as a queer in the world I’d grown up in, one where queer allies were few and queers unwilling to be frightened into silence were even fewer.  So you can imagine my reaction to this:

It was the most empowering gesture anyone had yet made toward me at Sarah Lawrence. By calling me a faggot, my friend–a cis gay man–acknowledged my presence in the specific region of queerness we occupied together.  He takes a word that has been used against us and wields it as an emblem of the friendship we have as a coalition against the heterosexist world.  He reminds me that no matter what the world calls me, he knows I am a man, because after all only men are faggots.

To reclaim a slur is to say that the people who put that slur on you are not your masters.  No matter what they do to you, you are able to turn it into something magnificent.

Some reclaimed words become identities of their own, like dyke, with attendant politics and complicated dialogue attached to them.  We can own these words, make them ours, and make something entirely new out of them.

Now, we can’t just have a party.  There have to be rules or someone will get the streamers wet and they will dissolve into streamer gunk.  Fortunately with reclamation, there is only one rule that matters.

1) To reclaim a slur, you’ve got to be a member of the group the slur is used against.  So, if you aren’t a queer man, faggot is not your word.  Don’t use it, not even if queer men you know do.

Now, you don’t have to have a word yelled in your face for it to be used against you.  I knew I was a faggot long before anyone ever called me one, because I knew I was a man who loved men, and I knew men who loved men were faggots.  I already knew that what I was was loathsome enough that one of the words for it was a word that came with derision at no extra charge.

Of all the possible reclaimed words, queer is the most magnificent.  The ultimate reclaimed word, one we’ve taken from slur to all-inclusive, non-compartmentalizing, small, bright word.  I’ll never abandon this word.  I will never let go of it.  I’ve never had it shouted at me, but that shout–“Queer!” at the 1953 high school student, at the public bathroom gay bashing in 1974, at the vandalizing  of the home of HIV patients in the 80s–that shout ties me to my history.

Queers haven’t been allowed to have much in the way of culture or connection, but the heterosexist cissupremacist fuckers at the top never figured on us grabbing for the word they screamed at us.  Reclamation is a way to find that traumatized, closeted, high school kid queer, cradle them, and tell them it will be okay.  Reclamation is a way to remember our history, to remind the straights and ourselves that we are a people with a culture, with something to contribute.

I think this is a good note on which to end my three columns on language–by remembering again language’s power to expose us as powerful, to lay bare our magnificence.

Stephen Ira is a queer activist whose poetry and fiction have been published in 365 Tomorrows and Spot Literary Magazine. He co-chairs Sarah Lawrence's trans identity group, Trans Action, and keeps a blog as the Super-Mattachine, queer anti-oppression avenger, at As David Foster Wallace would say, he does things like get into a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it!" He believes there is nothing more radical than kindness.


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