The words “queer,” “fag,” “faggot,” “fag hag,” and “dyke” have a history of being used as slurs. But they also have been — by some people — reclaimed to be seen as positive terms when used by LGBTQ+ people. But people have argued these slurs are just as bad as other slurs associated with other forms of bigotry. Namely, the slur that gets mentioned in this category is the “N word.”
Tell me more.
In 2013, ABC News reported that John Kichi filed a complaint with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office because Kichi saw the term “queer” on a job application for a position at Colorado College. To Kichi, a white man, this was as egregious as using the “N was “like if they put down for race: ‘white,’ ‘Latino,’ ‘black’ and then the ‘N’ word… Every one of my gay friends is appalled by this. This is something I had never seen before.”
Wow. Is that a common view?
Among some, though that is contested, too. NewNowNext reported that Shawn Lockhart — a gay porn star who also goes by the name Brent Corrigan — was criticized in 2016 for comparing the two terms:
Y’know, comparisons between the struggles of African-Americans and LGBT people never end well. “Those aren’t the same things at all,” responded one woman to Lockhart’s tweet. “And also: don’t use the n-word even to make a point. Period.”
There are other reasons people don’t see “queer” being reclaimed. According to The Guardian, rapper Mykki Blanco doesn’t use “queer,” but for a different reason than Kichi’s: “I never use the word queer. To me, that word is for academics – sheltered brainy gays. Faggots in the street don’t use the word queer.”
So who should use “queer”?
That will be a personal choice, and for those who use it, they might feel the need to explain. Outright Vermont, an organization aimed at helping and empowering LGBTQ+ youth, made it a point to explain on the organization’s website why the Outright Vermont uses “queer.” The explanation, while addressing the sensitive and fraught history with the word, made it a point to call out comparisons between “queer” and the “N word”:
Yes, both ‘queer’ and the ‘N-word’ are strategically used by members of the communities which these words were originally intended to harm, as a means to take that power back. However, there are significant differences between the histories of these words in relation to the communities that they were once and still are used against. People of color communities continue to explore and internally discuss how the N-word is used by individuals and their community as a whole. The history of the N-word has not panned out the same way that the history of ‘queer’ has in its use, therefore it is irresponsible to make an apples-to-apples comparison when trying to explain the appropriate use of re-empowered terms. We hope that everyone understands that this piece of the conversation is much more complex than we can address in a post on our website and that simply put, the N-word is never appropriate for a white person to use, in any context.
OK, so it’s frowned upon to compare “queer” and the “N word.” Is there this same tension when comparing the “N word” with other anti-LGBTQ+ slurs?
In 2011, black sports columnist Mike Freeman wrote a column for CBS Sportsline where he called out black athletes like Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah for using “faggot” as a slur:
That word is the same as the N-word. Yes, it is. Don’t look at me like that. Yes. It. Is. This won’t be a popular stance among some of my African-American football acquaintances, but it’s a truthful one and it’s a conversation that needs to be had. When black men degrade gays, we are hypocrites. We cheapen our own history and struggles. It remains stunning to me why more African-American athletes (not all by any stretch but enough) don’t understand this. When a slur is aimed at us, we feel the impact. So why wouldn’t gays?
In that column, Freeman quoted Jim Buzinski, who runs LGBTQ+ sports site, Outsports.com. Buzinski said that the historical difference between the two words should not erase the fact that “hateful” words have an intent and impact of hate:
I find it sad and ironic that athletes from a group long oppressed by language and the power of certain slurs would easily toss them around about another group… There will be people who will argue there are historical differences, and while true, does not somehow make one slur ‘more acceptable’ than another. Hateful words are hateful words, period.
Is there a way that the “N word” could be reclaimed the way that “queer” has?
That will vary from individual to individual. Writing for The Washington Post, Dave Sheinin and Krissah Thompson explained why it’s hard to use “queer” to gauge whether the “N word” could be reclaimed:
Other oppressed communities have similarly reappropriated slurs, seen perhaps most vividly in the gay community’s adoption of terms such as “dyke” and “queer.” But the comparisons between those words and the n-word are imprecise; “dyke” and “queer” have never moved outside the gay community to become universal. Perhaps more than any other word, the n-word is dependent upon context. Other words may be influenced by context, but this one is totally inseparable from it. It scarcely exists outside of context. Its meaning is never fixed. Was it said by a black man to other black men? By a white person in a multi-racial group? Were they in a locker room? At a rap concert? A change in setting alters the entire dynamic.
John Ridley — the black screenwriter, film director, novelist, and showrunner known for “12 Years A Slave” — wrote a post for Huffington Post about how that LGBTQ+ activists “got it right” when they reclaimed the word “queer”:
…instead of trying to force people into using convoluted phrases such as “the Q-word,” they embraced the word queer. Gays stole it from their enemies, waved it like a captured war flag which they then strung from the standards of pop culture: “Queer as Folk.” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” By flogging it endlessly they took away its intended sting. So, then, go on and call a gay queer. At worst they will laugh and shake their heads. At the least they may say: “yes, thanks.” Acceptance of the word does not end homophobia. It does not stop the hate mongers from trying to inject bigotry into the Constitution. However, unlike some in the black community, upon mention of the once dreaded word gays will not drop into a fit of histrionics.
So, is this to say that people should use none of the aforementioned terms?
Everyone will have a different opinion, but while some might suggest the “N word” has been or can be reclaimed — like the Guardian article that quotes Blanco — many people will push back on that idea. There are black people who oppose other black people using that term, let alone people who are not black using that term. In a piece for Pride.com called “All of the Weird Things White Queer People Say About Race,” Rachel Charlene Lewis made it a point to let white LGBTQ+ people that even if “my black friend says I can use the N-word,” it’s not a good idea, ever:
Ah, the mysterious, ever-present-but-somehow-invisible Black Friend. While everyone seems to have one, they only seem to come up in conversation when it’s time for a white person to excuse a racist behavior. Here’s the thing: no matter what your one black friend says about you getting to say the n-word, or various other slurs directed toward black people and people of color, you should probably go ahead and not do that. Contrary to popular belief, one POC doesn’t speak for all, and the majority has long since spoken. Keep slurs out of your mouth unless they pertain to your particular identity group. Period.
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