“Faggot” and “That’s So Gay”: The Issue of Intent and Impact

People used to always assure me that they didn’t mean to insult queer people. After all, they were raised using “faggot” and “that’s so gay” in a way that was detached from the idea of queer people altogether. They were just harmless words, and didn’t indicate their feelings toward gay people.

This is an argument I used to accept. I used to think to myself: “Well, I guess now that I know they don’t mean anything hurtful by it, it would be silly for me to be offended.” Wrong.

There are two major problems with non-queer people using words and phrases like “faggot” and “that’s so gay.” First, they aren’t their words to use, even when queer people they know use them. Second, the intent really doesn’t matter when the impact is overwhelmingly negative. To learn more about how these words are meant to shame femininity and why that’s a problem, check out my article here.

These words are powerful, and they can be used in a negative or positive manner. Their power comes from the social value attached to them. Throughout history, they have been used with the intent to marginalize, shame, and degrade queer people. While many cisgender, straight people undervalue their power, they have real effects on queer people in society, and are attached to communal and individual trauma.

The feminist movement of the mid- to late-twentieth century encouraged the practice of “reclaiming.” In the LGBTQIA+ movement, reclaiming has been a powerful tool for many people, though not everyone finds it appropriate. Reclaiming is the process of taking back a word, or an idea, that has been used against a certain group. In the LGBTQIA+ community, this has resulted in many people reclaiming the words “faggot,” “dyke,” “queer,” “tranny,” and others. This has been a source of empowerment for many, transforming the feelings associated with the words from fear and pain to strength, healing, and self-confidence.

The defensive excuses used to justify the use of these words could go on forever. For example: What if a new generation completely detaches “faggot” and “that’s so gay” from the very idea of homosexuality? What if these words are being used without the intent to hurt anyone?

However someone tries to spin it, and no matter how much they say they support queer people, these words equate negative stereotypes and slurs to being queer. Maybe the person using them doesn’t equate the two, but those words have been used against us throughout our whole lives, and they can bring up trauma in many people.

When we reclaim them, that is not a permission slip for non-queer people to use them. As I explained above, reclaiming is appropriate only for those of us who were oppressed by those words, should we find power through them.

Understanding how powerful language can be, I will not accept an argument by someone who is not in the LGBTQIA+ community for using such words and phrases. Even if those words didn’t offend me (which they often did), they are still problematic because other people who hear those words could be offended by them.

There are many arguments about how we need to just be tough, or we need to stop taking things so seriously. This is a dismissive microaggression, and it distracts from the point. When someone says they are hurt by something, it is not the offending person’s place to decide if they are telling the truth. That effectively takes invalidates a person’s experience, values the offender’s feelings over the victim’s reality, and intensifies the effects of the words used.

The impact on people is very real. In America, the suicide rate among LGBTQIA+ teens is exponentially higher than other teens, and many feel ostracized because of the homophobic/transphobic language their peers, mentors, and families were using.

visibility infographic update 2015

The Trevor Project states that “LGB youth are 4 times more likely, and questioning youth are 3 times more likely, to attempt suicide as their straight peers.” More devastating is the Los Angeles Times article summarizing a survey on transgender people in the United States. “A whopping 41% of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming have attempted suicide sometime in their lives, nearly nine times the national average.”

While this is a complex issue, it is clear that language is an important part of the problem. HRC reports that “92% of LGBT say they hear negative messages about being LGBT.” Language has an impact on people. The intent behind using these words is irrelevant. They affect people – who are open about their sexual orientation or who hide it – regardless of the intention. We need to focus on the impact that our words are having.

So the next time you hear someone say “faggot” or “that’s so gay,” tell them how it affects LGBTQIA+ people. Tell them to stop. This isn’t a game, and it isn’t an issue to be taken lightly. Changing our words will change the lives of LGBTQIA+ people for the better.

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