Taking back power: The fight to reclaim slurs
June 5, 2022
Despite the positive or politically charged energy of queer vocabulary today, some words carry a darker history.
“Especially in the 1970s, queer terminology was full of slurs so a lot of people were ashamed to be queer, which is really valid because of all the hateful words surrounding the queer community. However, during and after the gay liberation movement, more people started to reclaim those words and take back the power behind them,” Valle-Remond said.
The gay liberation movement, a social and political movement that took place from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, was characterized by radical beliefs and actions centered around empowering and fighting for the rights of the queer community. Amidst this, discussions on queer slurs began to take place, and the idea of reclaiming them was popularized.
“There’s been a lot of debate and discourse over who can say slurs and which ones. For example, I’m in strong disagreement with the idea that bisexual women can use the D-slur because that’s a slur that’s used against lesbian and bisexual women are not lesbians,” Valle-Remond said.
Reclaiming slurs is the act of a marginalized community taking a disparaging word formerly used to negatively target their identity and identifying with it, thus negating its derogatory connotation and taking back power from their oppressors.
“If you want to reclaim a slur, it has to be very clear whether or not you can reclaim it; the lines can’t be blurry. You have to be really clear about its history, where it came from, who it’s been used against, and how you identify with it. Slurs aren’t quirky words to reclaim for fun; they have meaning behind them,” Valle-Remond said.
Despite the feelings of empowerment and pride some may feel after using a reclaimed slur, others may feel uncomfortable with its usage due to its derogatory history, while some are indifferent. Across the LGBTQ+ community, attitudes toward reclaiming slurs vastly differ depending on the person, their experiences, and a multitude of other factors.
“As long as people don’t have bad intentions when using a slur, I don’t really care if they use it in a joking or non-harmful way. For me, the intent behind the words is what matters,” Enthoven said.
However, the context and environment in which a slur is used can greatly affect one’s comfort levels. Enthoven recalls an experience she once had online with slurs and the difference the environment in which it occurred in played.
“Had it happened in real life, I would’ve felt physically unsafe and worried for my safety. However, when this sort of stuff happens online, there’s not as much of an immediate threat unless you’ve been doxxed,” Enthoven said.
The extra blanket of security that the internet offers often goes both ways; based on his own experiences, David Diaz, a junior, has noticed that he encounters hate speech more frequently in online communities.
“I feel like slur usage is a lot more common online because people censor themselves less. There’s less accountability for people’s actions because there aren’t any consequences,” Diaz said.
Still, despite the many nuances slurs and their users can carry, the ability to reclaim a slur can be very liberating for some. In many cases, the act of reclaiming a slur has also become a way to make a political statement.
“For a lot of people, queer has taken on more political meaning. Their sexuality isn’t just who they love; it’s who they are. The term queer has been reclaimed to make it very clear that the LGBTQ+ community’s goal isn’t to assimilate into the straight community; it’s to stand out,” Valle-Remond said.
Echoing this sentiment, Valle-Remond remembers a conversation they once had with someone regarding Harvey Milk’s legacy and the impact of his activism. Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, was known for his queer activism, although his approach was considered controversial to some.
“The guy I was talking to was explaining how Harvey Milk and everybody else in the 1970s perpetuated the belief that queer people were exactly the same as straight people but the only difference was who they loved. He strongly disagreed with that attitude and was like, ‘No, that made us feel like we had to act straight to be valid,’” Valle-Remond said.
Despite the long, complex history of queer activism, activists have greatly propelled the queer community and their rights forward.
“I think activism is a very brave way to make change because there’s always been a lot of pushback and violence against change. I think that people who not only protest for their rights but the rights of their entire community are incredibly brave for putting their lives on the line for something that they believe is right and should change. I think that’s very powerful,” Diaz said.