The events at Glasgow Pride this year raise the crucial issue of our relationship with slurs.
When I was in school, one of my best friends was pushed into a wall and called a faggot.
We were walking alongside each other when it happened, talking about the latest instalment of some cult TV show when, out of nowhere, my friend’s shoulder collided with a dark blue locker. Neither of us needed to look to see who’d done it: it was a popular slur straight from the tongues of popular boys.
It wasn’t unusual or even surprising – in fact, it happened almost every day. But that didn’t stop the humiliation and shock smothering my friend’s face; and it didn’t stop the indignation coursing through my veins, or the bile rising in my throat. When I started to argue, my friend told me it wasn’t worth it. It doesn’t matter, he said.
But it does matter.
The word ‘faggot’ has been used as a pejorative term for decades. It’s been used to belittle, alienate and subjugate members of the LGBT community to a state of ‘otherness’. Countless men in countless films have shuddered at the possibility their peers might consider them gay, a poof, a ‘faggot’. It’s been smeared across the signs of far-right protesters and spat from the mouths of politicians for decades.
But that same day another friend – a lesbian woman - used the same word in the sanctuary of a small house gathering. The sting of the word wasn’t eased by alcohol or a quirky Spotify playlist; instead, the sting didn’t exist at all. The sting didn’t exist because it was used in the context of reclaiming, not oppressing.
That begs the question: ‘If they can say it, why can’t I?’
If there’s one thing that all marginalised people have heard, it’s probably the above. We’ve all heard it, had it said to us or maybe even wondered it ourselves: we’ve asked, indignant and confused, why a minority can use a typically offensive word about themselves but we can’t.
Men might wonder why women can playfully call themselves sluts and bitches but they can’t. Straight people might wonder why LGBT people can call themselves faggots or queers but they can’t. White people often wonder, vexed and perplexed, why black people can call each other the n word but they can’t.
Majority groups might call it political correctness gone mad, but the real reason is far less politically convenient and far simpler: in using these words amongst each other, marginalised groups are resisting terms that were historically used to oppress and belittle. When oppressed groups reclaim hurtful language, it’s about redefining and reappropriating something that has been used to cause harm. In using, mocking and reclaiming these words, minority groups are able to take the power away from their oppressors and into their own hands.
It sounds complicated, pedantic and perhaps even symptomatic of a so-called ‘snowflake generation’, but in reality it’s a simple case of human decency. If you’re part of a majority group and find yourself asking why they can use a certain term but you can’t, ask yourself this instead: why do I want to?
This weekend at Glasgow Pride, peaceful protesters were allegedly arrested for holding signs that read ‘these faggots fight fascists’. The reason as to why the protesters were arrested isn’t yet clear, but the nature of the signs they were holding raise an important question we should all consider: what constitutes as hateful, and what constitutes as reclaiming, reappropriating and satirising?
From all accounts thus far, it seems that the protesters were aiming for the latter. Although conclusions can’t be drawn yet, the events at Glasgow Pride this year raise the crucial issue of our relationship with slurs. Reappropriation should not be penalised, and marginalised groups should not be met with the same punishment as those who would seek to harm them.
I’m a bisexual woman with a depressive disorder and I probably call myself a ‘psycho’ or a ‘head-case’ at least two times a day. I do it because I’m making a joke out of language that, only a few decades ago, would have been used to throw me in an institution and chuck away the key. I’ll call myself these things knowing that every time I do, I’m taking ownership of every psychopath and lesbo ever used to hurt me. When someone else says it, though - whether that be after getting shoved in the halls when I was fifteen or in the form of a flippant, witty remark about bipolar disorder on a TV show - I feel less than human. When I hear someone conjecture that a serial killer on the news must be mentally ill because what sane person would do such a thing, I wonder what they’d make of me if they knew my neurotransmitters didn’t work properly either.
Self-referral is not the same as a slur sneering from the tongue of someone wanting to push marginalised groups into a state of otherness.
Some issues may be black and white, but some aren’t. Regardless of what happened at Glasgow Pride, one thing should be clear to law enforcement and wider society alike: marginalised groups choosing to reclaim harmful language does not place them in the same league as those that will use it to oppress them, and they should not be punished as such. There is no moral equivalency and no grey area here.