Watch Your Mouth - Part 2: Reappropriation and Co-option
Thursday, January 28, 2010
I find idiomatic speech and shared lexicon endlessly fascinating -- never more so than when I study a sub-culture of which I am a proud member: The Gay.
I can't tell you the number of times I've stumbled on some online conversation where homophobes are moaning about how we nasty Queers have "hijacked" a perfectly nice word that used to mean "happy, merry" (happy, Mary?), and "why can't they just be called what they are -- homosexuals!".
Which is very amusing to me, because the term "homosexual" was coined in the late 1800s, and first used in an English text in 1897 -- at around the same time that queers were reclaiming the word "gay" in reference to themselves ("gay" was originally used idiomatically to indicate anything "immoral", but especially in terms of sexuality and promiscuity -- for example: a "gay house" was a brothel). Gay was used commonly within the community of self-identified homosexuals by the 1920s, and there's evidence that it was used as early as the late 1860s.
So which came first, Teh Homo or Teh Gay?
Doesn't matter, AFAIC -- what matters to me is how people being identified with a word want to be identified. Me? I prefer "queer" as a general term for the community I consider myself a part of, but I've had friends and lovers who hated this term -- they preferred "gay", or "LGBTQ" as a descriptor. My very best friend (my Beloved), doesn't like any of them, and doesn't want her sexuality labeled at all.
*Ahem* I shall henceforth trot myself back over to the focus of this post.
I think it's clear that by now, the word Gay has been reclaimed successfully by the queer community -- so much so, in fact, that it's unlikely that an author writing in English would use it without being aware that various layers of meaning might be read into it.
On the downside, it's been so successfully claimed that it can once again be used as a pejorative by virtue of being associated with queers ("That's so gay.") *sigh*
"Dyke" is another word that's been reclaimed (see Dyke, sub-category Portly), as is "queer", although the re-appropriation of these terms carries a certain level of controversy that is similar to (but, perhaps, milder than) the split in feminist communities over the word "bitch".
I know a number of lesbians who would be absolutely offended if I called them a dyke -- even in private, or in the exclusive company of other lesbians. I also know lesbians who would be offended if I referred to them as "gay women", and gay women who would be put off if I called them lesbians.
So what's a dyke to do?
Well, for one thing, comprehend and respect this fact: It is vitally important that oppressed persons retain the agency to identify themselves.
Labeling a minority, or any oppressed class, is big tool in the oppressor's tool-kit. That's why there is such a vast array of slurs applied to people who are disenfranchised based on their sex, color, race, creed, orientation, disability, national origin, etc..
When a member of a privileged class uses these terms, they are saying, in essence: "I own the culture, and I get to define you." It is an attempt to exercise power, whether conscious or unconscious.
When a member of a non-privileged class re-appropriates the term, they are saying: "No, you do not define me."
Tends to piss them off (the privileged labelers, that is).
Here's a true-story example: I was walking down the street holding hands with my girlfriend, and the guy we'd just passed said (just loud enough for us to hear): "Fucking dykes."
I turned around and said, in my cheeriest voice: "Congratulations, Sir! -- you have correctly identified the dykes -- but I will have to remove points from you for mis-identifying our current activity."
He was absolutely aghast.
I had not only refused to passively accept his right to label me pejoratively -- I had had the audacity to actually confront him for attempting to "power-over" me.
In his mind, the way this was supposed to work was that I would get scared, or drop my girlfriend's hand, or feel ashamed, or Maude knows what -- however he thought it was going to play out, clearly it did not include me engaging him directly and proudly claiming the term he sought to denigrate me with.
So, what does all this have to do with Part 1?
Let's say a person of privilege uses a term or idiom (perhaps with no intent to offend at all) and a member of the non-privileged class says that it is offensive to them, and the privileged speaker responds with something like: "That term has come into common use and isn't offensive anymore".
I believe that they are enforcing their privilege.
I believe that they are reiterating the following message (usually, completely unconsciously):
"I have the power. I own the language. Your experience does not count, and the fact that you are offended is of no consequence, because you have no power."
Which is fine, if you aspire to be a privilege-wielding butt-hole.
Posted byPortlyDyke at 11:37 AM