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February 23, 2017

The queer state of reappropriation

Thalia Pena/Collegian

My friend called me a faggot last Saturday night. He took a puff of his cigarette and casually exhaled the word and bundle of smoke into the air. My other friend’s arms crossed tighter in front of his body, whipped his hair in defiance and said, “Don’t say that.” The faggot-caller stopped speaking and simply kept puffing in silence. Then we went back to the dance floor filled with homosexuals and began singing along to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

He didn’t call just me a faggot. He occasionally refers to his other friends as faggots as well. He’s not using the word as an insult, but rather as a term of endearment. Because all three of us are a part of the queer community, he believes that he can use the term in a positive sense.

The issue isn’t our sexual orientations; it is of those who reclaim words like “faggot,” “bitch,” “queer,” “dyke” and ‘tranny.’ Adam D. Galinsky states that this process of reappropriation can occur when a stigmatized group revalues an externally imposed negative label by self-consciously referring to itself in terms of that label. These group members take insults and then use these terms as positive identifiers. The evolution of the word ‘queer’ sheds light on the process. Queer originally meant “to spoil or ruin,” then developed a negative connotation when referring to gays. Now the word acts as a neutral umbrella term that includes all members of the GLBTQ community. Once divided on the use of this term, the queer community now consistently uses the word with its GLBTQ organizations and Queer Alliances across the country.

Compare this development to the reappropriation of “bitch.” The “About Us” section of Bitch Magazine reveals the nature of the reappropriation process.

“When it’s being used as an insult, ‘bitch’ is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment,” it states.

Some individuals are insulted by these self-proclaimed bitches for speaking their minds and defying gender roles. Reappropriation solves the issue: the editors of the magazine acknowledge their personalities and then own their identities. Their stigmatized characteristics are no longer marks of shame, but ones of pride.

The second snippet of Bitch Magazine’s “About Us” reveals the discomfort felt within such a community:

“We know that not everyone’s down with the term. Believe us, we’ve heard all about it. But we stand firm in our belief that if we choose to reappropriate the word, it loses its power to hurt us. And if we can get people thinking about what they’re saying when they use the word, that’s even better.”

Despite the positive effects of reappropriating such terms, owning these former insults comes with costs. Some group members may still be uncomfortable with these terms and will thus refuse to follow the process, as was the case with my friend telling the other to cease using the term “faggot.” A former cohesive in-group may become divided, a division that such fragile groups can scarcely afford.

After some time, these words cool off to non-hostile outsiders who may begin to gently pick these now inoffensive terms up and place them into conversation. I claim few ties to geek culture, but I don’t hesitate to refer to those who attend Comic-Con as either “geeks” or “nerds.” Why? Because these former insults have lost their offensive edge. “Geek” and “nerd” serve as neutral terms now, perhaps even compliments. The same process happened with “queer,” just as it now is with “bitch” and “faggot.”

I was negatively called a faggot in high school, as were many of my gay friends who attend the University of Massachusetts. At the university, fewer people use “faggot” as an insult. Queers who once heard the word as a slur used against them now face three possibilities: they may reclaim the term, stealing power from hostile out-groups; they may ignore the term and hope that it fizzles into obscurity; or they may ignore the term and continue to allow others to oppress them with mere words. The first possibility makes the most sense. The queer community can soon fully reclaim the word and even propel “faggot” to the positive status that “geek” and “nerd” hold.

The Editors of Bitch Magazine are in the right. Reappropriation’s benefits outweigh its costs: the process boosts the self-esteem of group members, weakens the upper hand of malicious out-group members, and prevents the term from being a weapon. The word loses its hurtful power.

The reappropriation fight continues today as new controversial terms sprout with new generations. Accepting these former insults may be uncomfortable. Many in the queer community detest the term. I found myself awkwardly shifting my feet and recalling my high school days after my friend uttered the term. Despite my initial discomfort, I find little point in denying others’ empowering themselves through owning a word. My friend was right when he affectionately uttered the term and flicked his cigarette butt into a puddle. No hesitation needed on my part. I am indeed a faggot.

Brandon Sides is a Collegian contributor. He may be reached at bsides@student.umass.edu.

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