So, yesterday, I got into a rather stupid internet argument with someone who was peddling what seemed to me to be a rather insidious narrative about slur-reclamation. Someone in the ensuing notes raised a point which I thought was interesting, and worrying, and probably needed to be addressed in it’s own post. So here we go:
The word ‘queer’ itself seems to be especially touchy for many, so let me begin to address this by way of analogy.
Instead of talking about “queer”, let’s start by talking about “Jew” – a word which I believe is very similar in its usage in some significant ways.
Now, the word “Jew” has been used as a derogatory term for literally hundreds of years. It is used both as a noun (eg. “That guy ripped me off – what a dirty Jew”) and as a verb (eg. “That guy really Jew-ed me”). These usages are deeply, fundamentally, horrifically offensive, and should be used under no circumstances, ever. And yet, I myself have heard both, even as recently as this past year, even in an urban location with plenty of Jews, in a social situation where people should have known better. In short – the word “Jew”, as it is used by certain antisemites, is – quite unambiguously – a slur. Not a dead slur, not a former slur – and active, living slur that most Jews will at some point in their life encounter in a context where the term is being used to denigrate them and their religion.
Now here’s the thing, though: I’m a Jew. I call myself a Jew. I prefer that all non-Jews call me a Jew – so do most Jews I know. “Jew” is the correct term for someone who is part of the religion of Judaism, the same way that “Muslim” is the correct term for someone who is part of the religion of Islam, and “Christian” is the correct term for someone who is part of the religion of Christianity.
In fact, almost all of the terms that non-Jews use to avoid saying “Jew” (eg. “a member of the Jewish persuasion”, “a follower of the Jewish faith”, “coming from a Jewish family”, “identifying as part of the Jewish religion”, etc) are deeply offensive, because these terms imply to us that the speaker sees the term “Jew” (and by extension, what that term stands for) as a dirty word.
“BUT WAIT” – I hear you say – “didn’t you just say that Jew is used as a slur?!?”
Yes. Yes, I did. And also, it is fundamentally offensive not to call us that, because it is our name and our identity.
Let me back up a little bit, and bring you into the world of one of those 2000s PSAs about not using “that’s so gay”. Think of some word that is your identity – something which you consider to be a fundamental and intrinsic part of yourself. It could be “female” or “male”, or “Black” or “white”, “tall” or “short”, “Atheist” or “Mormon” or “Evangelical” – you name it.
Now imagine that people started using that term as a slur.
“What a female thing to do!” they might say. “That teacher doesn’t know anything, he’s so female!”
Or maybe, “Yikes, look at that idiot who’s driving like an atheist. It’s so embarrassing!”
Or perhaps, “Oh gross, that music is so Black, turn it off!”
Now, what would you say if the same groups of people who had been saying those things for years turned around and avoided using those words to describe anything other than an insult?
“Oh, so I see you’re a member of the female persuasion!”
“Is he… a follower of the atheist beliefs? Like does he identify as part of the community of atheist-aligned individuals?”
“So, as a Black-ish identified person yourself – excuse me, as a person who comes from a Black-ish family…”
Here’s the fundamental problem with treating all words that are used as slurs the same, without any regard for how they are used and how they developed – not all slurs are the same.
No one, and I mean no one (except maybe for a small handful of angsty teens who are deliberately making a point of being edgy) self-identifies as a kike. In contrast, essentially all Jews self-identify as Jews. And when non-Jews get weird about that identity on the grounds that “Jew is used as a slur”, despite the fact that it is the name that the Jewish community as a whole resoundingly identifies with, what they are basically saying is that they think that the slur usage is more important than the Jewish community self-identification usage. They are saying, in essence, “we think that your name should be a slur.”
Now, at the top I said that the word “Jew” and the word “queer” had some significant similarities in terms of their usage, and I think that’s pretty apparent if you look at what people in those communities are saying about those terms. When American Jews were being actively threatened by neo-Nazis in the 70s, the slogan of choice was “For every Jew a .22!″. When the American Queer community was marching in the 90s in protest of systemic anti-queer violence, the slogan of choice was “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Clearly, these are terms that are used by the communities themselves, in reference to themselves. Clearly, these terms are more than simply slurs.
But while there are useful similarities between how the terms “Jew” and “Queer” are used by bigots and by their own communities, I’d also like to point out that there is pretty substantial and important difference:
Unlike for “queer”, there is no organized group of Jewish antisemites who are using the catchphrase “Jew is a slur!” in order to selectively silence and disenfranchise Jews who are part of minority groups within Judaism.
This is the real rub with the term queer – no one was campaigning about it being a slur until less than a decade ago. No one was saying that you needed to warn for the word queer when queer people were establishing the academic discipline of queer studies. No one was ‘think of the children”-ing the umbrella term when queer activists were literally marching for their lives. Go back to even 2010 and the term “q slur” would have been basically unparseable – if I saw someone tag something “q slur”, like most queer people I would have wracked my brains trying to figure out what slur even started with q, and if I learned that it was supposed to be “queer”, my default assumption would be that the post was made by a well-meaning but extremely clueless straight person.
I literally remember this shift – and I remember who started it. Exclusionists didn’t like the fact that queer was an umbrella term. Terfs (or radfems as they like to be called now) didn’t like that queer history included trans history; biphobes and aphobes didn’t like that the queer community was also a community to bisexuals and asexuals. And so what could they possibly say, to drive people away from the term that was protecting the sorts of queer people that they wanted to exclude?
Well, naturally, they turned to “queer is a slur.”
And here’s the thing – queer is a slur, just like Jew is a slur, and no one is denying that. And that fact makes “queer is a slur so don’t use it” a very convincing argument on the surface: 1) queer is still often used as a slur, and 2) you shouldn’t ever use slurs without carefully tagging and warning people about them (and better yet, you should never use them at all), and so therefore 3) you need to tag for “the q slur” and you need to warn people not to call the community “the queer community” or it’s members “queer people” or its study “queer studies” – because it’s a slur!
But the crucial step that’s missing here is exactly the same one above, for the word “Jew” – and that step is that not all slurs are the same. When a term is both used as a slur and used as a self-identity term, then favoring the slur meaning instead of the identity meaning is picking the side of the slur-users over the disadvantaged group!
If you say or tag “q slur” you are sending the message, whether you realize it or not, that people who use “queer” as a slur are more right about its meaning than those who use it as their identity. Tagging for “queer” is one thing. People can filter for “queer” if it triggers them, just like people can filter for anything else. Not everyone has to personally use the term queer, or like the term queer. But there is no circumstance where the term “q slur” does not indicate that you think queer is more of a slur than of an accurate description of a community.
If I, as a Jew, ever came across a post where someone had warned for innocent, positive, non-antisemitic content relating to Judaism with the tag “J slur”, I would be incensed. So would any Jew. The act of tagging a post “J slur” is in and of itself antisemitic and offensive.
Queer people are allowed to feel the same about “q slur”. It is not a neutral warning term – it is an attack on our identity.
This is one of the most well written posts about the evolution of “queer” I have ever seen. Please take the time to read this. Yes it is long but it is more than worth the 5 minutes!