Ever hear African-American comedians casually use the term nigger? Ask them why they use it, and they will assert that they are “reclaiming” it, or taking it from being slanderous to their community and empowering it with positive social might.
The Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community has attempted to do the same with words like tranny, fag, dyke and queer, with limited success. In fact, queer has become so popular a synonym for LGBT that its supporters will often refer to the LGBT movement as the “queer movement.” This is a repugnant misnomer, because “queer” as an identity is only accepted by a fraction of the LGBT community and rejected by the majority.
Users of the term “queer” claim that they are not only empowering themselves by using the term but also breaking down the walls of categorization. Lesbian and gay are too limiting as qualifiers, and bisexual and transgender are too complicated. LGBT as an acronym is too cumbersome and does not include everyone. Queer is meant to bridge the divide as a pan-sexual, pan-gender term that includes everyone.
The term queer has failed its purpose, however, because it has become one of the most divisive issues in the LGBT community. Many people who are supposed to be included under the queer umbrella do not identify with the word and may even detest it. For instance, I went to a meeting last weekend for leaders of many campus LGBT organizations. We performed an exercise to get to know the people in our group and to get a sense of the diversity of our backgrounds. Everyone stood in a circle while the leaders of the event called out terms describing race, class and sexuality. People who identified with any one term moved to the center of the circle after it was called.
At the end of the exercise, I asked why queer was not listed along with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. The response was that queer was unnecessary, because it encompasses everyone and it is better to list the individual terms. But then queer was asked anyway. Of the 12 present campus leaders of the LGBT community only four identified as queer. So in practice, queer is clearly not all-inclusive if LGBT leaders cannot agree on it.
Queer will always fail as an all-inclusive, empowering term. While people may have been hurt by the term in the past, users of the term have often found environments that are nurturing and inclusive, where they are no longer under great threat of persecution. They have secluded themselves from contexts in which queer is used as an insult, so even if they do “reclaim” it as they say, the word will remain an insult in society at large.
“Reclaiming,” while it may grant temporary boons of empowerment to those who use it, inevitably harms society as a whole. Queer is an inherently disparaging term that, by definition, will always mean odd, suspicious and deviating from the norm no matter how much it is “reclaimed.” Those who hate will always find words to demean the minority.
Slurs like nigger and faggot are firmly embedded in the lexicon of hateful language, and their pejorative nature never will be eradicated even if their targets use it positively. Even though their number is decreasing, as long as there are people who desire to use the words with negative intent, the slurs will remain powerful.
Despite the many people who feel that reclaiming slurs is effective, there are also many people in the minority communities who find using them as terms of endearment to be insulting. Using these terms makes these people feel alienated from their communities and is ultimately divisive. The final goal should be to have a unified community, and if some people’s wishes are not respected, then unity is sabotaged.
I do not care if other people call themselves queer, or if they want to add a “Q” to LGBT. I take offense, however, when I am labeled one or when they push their views onto the entire movement.
Matthew Frederick Streib, Cornell Daily Sun, Cornell University.