By Milton Wendland
© 2012 Diversity Rules Magazine and Milton Wendland.  All Rights Reserved.

Wendland PhotoMilton Wendland is a licensed attorney and a professor of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas, where he teaches courses in LGBT cultures, sexuality and law, and queer theory.

Dear Milton – I’m concerned because I hear words like fag, dyke, and queer being used too often, and I don’t mean by bullies and homophobes. I mean by gays and lesbians I know, some of them are even my friends! Why would people use these hurtful, evil words to talk about themselves? Lenore

The old adage – “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – is, for most of us, a big fat lie. Language is powerful, and we can all think of a dozen situations in which words are weapons. Studies have shown that over time, the words that we use to describe others and the words others use to describe us take their toll. We take them in and they become part of our worldview, whether we know it or not, whether we mean them to or not.

In the LGBT community, words like dyke, tranny, fag, queer, nellie, butch, fairy, and he-she cause some of us to recoil in horror, remembering the way these words have been used to tell us that we are different, not good enough, evil, and less-than. And historians of LGBT culture have uncovered the many circumstances in which words like these have kept LGBT people from participating fully in life – in court cases, in police records, in personal histories of being fired from jobs, put into mental institutions, and excluded from families.

For others, though, these words are powerful precisely because they have been used against us. In other words, the words hurt because we allow them to hurt. By being scared of these words, by letting them be epithets and curses hurled against us, we may be giving them more power. So many LGBT people are reclaiming these words and drawing strength from them. In other words, by using these words ourselves, we remember that these words have historically been used against our people but we refuse to continue that legacy. By owning words like these, we are in essence saying, “You think you are harming me but I own the definition of that word; you don’t!” The sting of the term is lessened.

This is not a new phenomenon. Back in the early 1970s activists took the pejorative “gay” and turned it into the battle cry “Gay is Good” and now, a few decades later, it is a rare person who finds the word “gay’ to be an insult or a pejorative. Similarly, Jews, African-Americans, women, disabled people, and other groups have reclaimed words in the same way. There’s a feminist magazine called “Bitch” and the point of the magazine is to say, “Yes, if by ‘bitch’ you mean a strong woman with a mind of her own, then yes!” Similarly, some LGBT people are using these words to make similar sorts of personal and rhetorical claims.

If you personally find some of these words insulting or uncomfortable, I recommend that you visit with your friends about these words. The discussion that ensues would likely be fruitful. And, of course, we all want to remember that even though particular groups may be reclaiming these sorts of words, we would not want to use them freely or without forethought, most especially if we are not members of those groups ourselves and hence do not have the same connection and history with these words. 

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