Sticks, Stones and Slurs:<br />
Does 'Reclaiming' Words Work?

From the b-word to the n-word (and everything in between), the debate around words, what they mean, and who can or cannot use them is not a new one. Whether about race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, the hot-button topic has been tackled by everyone from cultural critics to activists to rappers. There has been a recent discussion that specifically examines whether or not members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community should use anti-gay and anti-transgender slurs. While we’re each entitled to self-naming and reclaiming words that ring true to us, when we don’t acknowledge, respect or honor how the words we use harm, hurt, and put other people’s lives at risk, we are being bullies, or at the very least, reckless.

Recently, Huffington Post ‘Gay Voices’ ran a point/counterpoint column where the National Center of Transgender Equality (NCTE) executive director, Mara Keisling, challenged the use of those epithets. “Words like ‘tranny,’ ‘faggot,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘retard,’ and ‘lame’ are often used to stereotype and marginalize people,” she explained. “Some people who are the targets feel that they are hateful, cruel words. That's enough for me [not to use them].”

The reality is that LGBT people are targeted for who they are and whom they love. This is especially true for LGBT people of color who are our siblings, our children, our parents, our co-workers, our friends – who are us. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that violence against LGBT people is up 23 percent, with people of color and transgender women as the most likely targets. Of the hate crime victims murdered in 2010, 70 percent were people of color and 44 percent were transgender women.

Anti-gay and anti-trans slurs – no matter who they may be directly aimed at – can fuel an underlying hostility, which can then lead to harassment and violence. When we use derogatory language, we give license to those around us to also use them (whether or not we feel they are entitled to). This harmful rhetoric makes its way from the airwaves, social media and conversations with our friends to our kids’ playgrounds.

According to research from the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 85 percent of Black LGBT students say they hear anti-gay slurs daily in the hallways. Another 47 percent of these students also heard racist insults during an average school day. These students often choose to miss school to escape the harassment and violence they face. In fact, about a quarter of black LGBT students have missed at least one full day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, compared to 6.3 percent of all Black youth and 3.5 percent of all white young people.

How can we "reclaim" something that was never ours to begin with?

Opponents argue that by embracing anti-gay and anti-trans slurs, we can both embrace the hurtful histories behind them and allow these words to “empower” our daily existence. But why is our healing as historically marginalized groups (women, people of color, LGBT folks, etc.) intrinsically linked to reclaiming words that have historically served to dehumanize us and tear us down? And even more baffling, how can we "reclaim" something that was never ours to begin with? Interestingly enough we don’t see white or straight people “reclaiming” pejorative words like “cracker” or “breeder” because as dominant groups, they don’t need the false sense of power “reclaiming” demeaning language like “b*tch” and “faggot” provide. Even the word "queer," which for some serves as an umbrella term in addition to an oppositional political identity to racism and heteronormativity, needs to be navigated with care.

Other naysayers suggest that by somehow demanding that everyday people and public figures respect others, the “politically correct word police” are somehow inconveniencing bigots, racists, homophobes and wealthy, able-bodied, white, male, straight, non-transgender, educated folks that are in denial of their privilege. If protecting innocent people and children makes me part of the “word police,” then where can I sign up? Insensitive slurs perpetuate an intolerant culture. And I would gladly stand on the side of political correctness if it means saving a young life, making it safer for someone to walk home at night or stay in school.

After Roland Martin’s controversial tweets on Super Bowl Sunday implicitly inciting violence against men who liked an underwear ad featuring David Beckham, New York Times columnist Charles Blow said it best: “Words have power. And power recklessly exerted has consequences. It’s not about being politically correct. It’s about being sensitive to the plight of those being singled out. We can’t ask the people taking the punches to also take the jokes.” The same applies to slurs. They’re irresponsible and they ask those that the slurs were created to hurt to ignore how these words are tied to their trials and struggles.

Mara Keisling,