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Reclaiming Slurs: An Act of Strength?

Reclaiming slurs is more and more common in several communities, including the LGBTIQ+ community. Some feel comfortable using them, some don't. In a survey, I asked people how they felt about reclaiming such words.

Language is fascinating in the way it can be used to express love and affection, but also in the way it can be used as a weapon against someone. We use words to define everything in the world, whether it is tangible or not, we choose specific words to tell people who we are, and that includes our gender and sexual identities.

However, once in a while, someone would show up and use words to attack our identity in an attempt to make us feel bad about who we are. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes we can heal the wounds they created and sometimes we can't. One way that people have found to take the sting away is by using slurs for themselves in a positive way. Not necessarily turning slurs into compliments, but at least taking away the insulting aspect of the word by making it a neutral word which states basic information on one's sexual and/or gender identity.

To get opinions on the topic, I shared a survey online where people answered several questions, mainly if they reclaimed slurs and their reason(s) for doing so - or not doing so - their opinion on the increasing use of the word "queer" by the community, and if they viewed reclaiming slurs as an act of strength. Many people replied, some agreed with one another, and some didn't; our community is diverse in many aspects.

According to the survey, 64,3% of the respondents feel comfortable reclaiming slurs. The reasons for this are various; one that comes up the most is the feeling of strength and power it gives them. When people use those words against us, they feel like they have some sort of power over us. By using them, some LGBTQ+ individuals feel like there is a switch of power, as if they were depriving the bigots of their weapons; they can no longer hurt us because they're not insults anymore when we use them ourselves.

“It takes power from people hanging it over your head like a guillotine“ - K

When people reclaim slurs, they feel like they are changing the meaning of the word, they are taking away the pejorative meaning to make it more neutral, if not positive sometimes. They turn them into something as beautiful as their sexual and/or gender identity that helps them grow and accept themselves. By using slurs, it feels like taking the oppressive meaning away from it, being the one who is in control over its meaning means that you can have power over its impact on yourself. This is how reclaiming slurs become an act of strength: through the switch of power that makes you, the oppressed, being in control.

Some, however, feel like these slurs are insults that should be kept out of the LGBTQ+ community. An anonymous respondent pointed out that the use of slurs in our communities might make people outside of our community think that it's okay for them to use them. "Using them propagates their use in society and could harm young LGBTQ individuals," they say. And there is some truth in it; non-LGBTQ+ individuals sometimes do use these words after hearing us use them to talk about ourselves, thinking that if we use them it means we are okay with everyone else using them. And this brings an important point in the discussion on slurs: one needs a certain legitimacy when reclaiming slurs. Using slurs that have not been aimed at your identity is harmful, not powerful.

"Slurs can only be reclaimed by the people that have been oppressed by them."

"Queer": a new umbrella term for the LGBTQ+ community?

The slur "queer" was originally used to point the fact that LGBTQ+ individuals did not fit into a cis-heteronormative society. It existed way before it became a slur to refer to things that were strange or unusual. But, over the past years, it has become more and more common for LGBTQ+ people to refer to themselves as queer; it has even become a sort of label for the people who couldn't recognise themselves in other sexualities and/or gender identities, or for those who struggle to define their identities, "it allows for more fluidity," a respondent of the survey says.

For some people, "queer" has become a word that has created a sort of equality within the community. Rather than giving importance to certain letters, using "queer" would represent all the identities of the community. For others, this word has allowed them to claim their affiliation to our community without having to completely disclose their identity and/or sexual orientation to people they don't feel comfortable with. The word "queer" has become a quick and efficient way to refer to the community and its individuals without excluding anyone.

There are still people who do not feel comfortable being referred to as "queer" because for them it draws a line between what is "normal" (i.e. being a cisgender heterosexual) and what is "strange" (anything that isn't being a cishet). And the truth is that neither of these is more normal than the other. For them, the word "queer" continues to segregate the LGBTQ+ community from people who are not part of our community. And that is a fair and respectable argument, such a word can hurt you, and if it does then people should be respectful of the fact that you do not want to be referred to with such a word - a statement which came out quite often in people's replies to the survey: people's comfort should always come first.

Reclaiming slurs can be a powerful move, but, someone pointed out that the issue doesn't lie in the fact that people use these specific words. Reclaiming slurs might eventually make people stop using them as insults, but "people will find a replacement". This person pointed out the fact that "gay" has been used as an insult by teens; they might not use the f word anymore, but they'll find something else. "It's the attitudes that need changing, not the meaning or connotation of words," one of the respondents says.

“I want nothing more than for the next generations of queer kids to not have to feel hurt or attacked by any of these words, but to feel loved and seen instead.” - Ian

Ultimately, reclaiming slurs is a very personal experience. What must be kept in mind is that not everyone is comfortable with having their sexual orientation and/or gender identity referred to by a slur by someone of the LGBTQ+ community. Firstly because one must have a certain legitimacy when it comes to using slurs. Someone who doesn't identify as lesbian using slurs that refer to lesbians specifically appears lesbophobic versus a lesbian using these slurs for themselves: the effect is very different. Secondly, even if someone identifies the same way as you, it does not mean they are comfortable reclaiming slurs. For some, these slurs are still insults regardless of who's using them; making sure they feel comfortable in their community/surrounded by people of their community will always be more important than reclaiming slurs.

A/N: Thank you to all the people who took their time to reply to the survey, your help and opinions were very much appreciated.

Disclaimer: This is an opinion article and should not be construed as the official position of Allied Rainbow Communities. If you need professional support, please contact Rainbow Support Services at or +356 7943 0006.

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