Words and the Power They Have: On Reclaiming Slurs

I mentioned way back at the start of this blog how there have been issues in the past with trans men using the word tranny and this upsetting trans women. Well, this issue came up again locally with a trans man casually throwing the word around and began a bit of conflict within one of the local trans groups of some members saying not to use the word and others arguing for the use of the word. Since this is an issue that continues to be fought amongst not just the trans community, but most minority communities, I felt like talking about it today.

There is a lot of argument in favor of using or reclaiming slurs, with about 3 or so major arguments. The major one is the reclamation argument of “we can use it so we can take back the hurt of that word” approach. This leads to “word privileges” such as trans women being allowed to say tranny, black people to say n*gger, gay males to use f*ggot, and no one outside those groups to use those words. This is the primary source of argument over the use of the word tranny in the trans community, because some view it as a word that all trans people can use, and others view it as a word only available to trans women, as the traditional targets of this word.

This leads to the second argument that goes hand-in-hand with the first. This argument is the “well, I’ve had that word used against me, so I have word privileges with it” approach. The problem with this approach, especially for the trans community, is that we often have words used against us that are traditionally directed at groups we are not members of. For example, I’ve had people shout “f*ggot” at me while throwing objects from cars, so by the logic of this argument, I have word privileges with that word, despite not being a gay male. The reason these two arguments tie together is because it argues who exactly has those privileges. I responded with the example above and a response that the individual (a bi male) uses the term “because that’s a slur that’s been used against all queers.”

Which leads into the third argument of words being just words, not having power beyond that which we give them. While this argument is a noble sentiment, it neglects the fact that words are tools, and the vast majority of slurs are created with the specific use of hate and oppression. I like the analogy of a knife. A knife is a tool that can be used to further life, either by helping us excise diseased flesh, cutting plants and food for eating, or spreading butter on a slice of bread. But it can also be used to hurt and kill.

Normal words follow this pattern, able to harm or help. Think of most words being like a butter knife, primarily used to help, but when used in a certain way, can hurt a little bit, needing repeated use in that pattern to do truly lasting damage. This is the daily misgendering we trans people go through, every time a singular sawing motion with that dull knife, and eventually it gets deeper and deeper. Slurs, however, are more like a combat knife, created specifically to harm and kill. Theoretically, they can be used for other uses, which is what reclaimers try to do, but they are still primarily there to harm.

The only slur that is remotely close to being truly reclaimed is the word queer. The reason it’s so close is because it was not created to harm, but instead was an existing word that as a slur kept the original meaning, and has been reclaimed with that same meaning. In older times, people would use the word queer the way we use the words different or weird today. Literally, it would be “well, that was queer” like we’d use “well, that was different.” The only shift to a slur was that different become bad, and to reclaim it was that different ceased to be something negative. This was a societal level shift that brought these changes about, not people reclaiming the word.

Other slurs, simply put, cannot be reclaimed. There is nothing good at their root. They exist solely to harm and oppress a community. Whether we want to acknowledge the power they have or not, they do have it. And we can see that these hateful only words cannot truly be reclaimed. A good example is the use of the word n*gger. The black community has tried to reclaim it for decades, if not over a century, and we still see it used as a hateful slur, and so much so that someone not of that community using it draws the ire of the black community. We’ve seen this through the arguments even over the variations of the spelling of the word. They’ve been working on reclaiming that word longer than any other minority group has been working to reclaim their own slurs. If they haven’t succeeded after all this time, isn’t it arrogant to think that we can do better?

Simply put, hateful terms exist only for hate and cannot be turned to good. If you want a unifying term of identity, make one up specifically for that. Much as we’ve taken trans* as a truly umbrella term, the asterisk to signify all the different types of trans, other communities can create words to signify themselves. Likewise, we can make a term specifically for including transsexual men and women without including other types of trans* identified individuals if we want to unify the two different sides of just the transsexual community (as trans men and trans women have very different experiences). We should not try to use a slur to create that bridge, as it only perpetuates the hate, and will make others in the community who have been victimized by those words feel that they aren’t safe there.

What about you readers? What thoughts do you have on the argument of reclamation of slurs?

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One response to “Words and the Power They Have: On Reclaiming Slurs

  1. Pingback: Words and the Power They Have: On Reclaiming Slurs | Jamielee's Crystal Connection

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