Queers take back the word that has traditionally been used as a derogatory slur.


You hear it walking down the street passing a group of young men. They are joking and tossing the word around as if it has no meaning. The guys in the gym locker room are calling each other faggot. Half-naked, a guy jokes that the other is staring at his dick. At the local dive bar, a group of drunk women call a guy faggot because he’s sipping a fruity drink. People within earshot laugh and join the not so silent barrage on the guy’s masculinity. Crowds at major sporting events hear athletes call each other faggot when they drop the ball, miss the pass, or strike out. A same sex couple walking hand-in-hand gets called faggot by a group of dudes who shout at them in hatred and disgust. The couple is scared; the word is powerful and dangerous.

The word, faggot, and the negative use is all too common. However, there is now a movement by those who have been victimized by the slur to reclaim it. It is becoming a term of empowerment that some wear like a badge of honor, proud to be a faggot.

There is a certain type of feeling these fags get when they are called faggot; one of shame and loathing. I’m not trying to insult anyone, although I know this article will, but that is what we are — fags.

Not too long ago, in the 1970s and 80s, the term fag was an identifier of a community on the fringes of society. In the controversial exploration of queer life in the 70s, Faggots, Larry Kramer uses the term to collectively refer to queer men. This is probably one of the earliest attempts at the reclaiming of the word by a self-identifying queer person.

The book, which was banned by Manhattan’s only gay bookstore, is now considered a staple of queer literature. It not only presented an accurate portrayal of gay men during the time, but offered a human face in the form of main character Fred Lemish. In Lemish, readers saw that not all gay men were sex-crazed drug abusers, a popular belief at the time.

We — queer people — were building a place for ourselves at a time when the Anita Bryants of the world were claiming that LGBTQ people were out to recruit children and destroy all that was right in the universe.

Although she was (obviously) wrong that we had our sights set on perverting children, we were trying to teach acceptance of the community. In a sense, this was more of an attempt to destroy all that was perceived to be right in a bigoted world. During that time, some bold pillars of the community like Kramer were using the term faggot to empower and motivate. For a time in the ‘70s it was a success. The word was ours and although it was still used as a slur, it was something to take pride in.

That is until the plague hit: AIDS. This is when it all turned to shit and faggot once again became a term to demean and isolate. In present day however, with the slow decline of AIDS/HIV stigma, young people are once again using the word to empower each other. In the 1990s, writer and gay rights activist Dan Savage had readers of his sex column, Savage Love, address him with “Hey, faggot!”

According to Savage, this began when he started his column in 1991. Savage wrote in 1999, “When I started writing this column in 1991, there was a debate raging in hellish homosexual circles about words like faggot. The idea was that if we used these words ourselves — Queer Nation, Dyke March, ‘Hey, faggot’ — straights couldn’t use them as hate words anymore. I chose ‘Hey, faggot’ as my salutation in joking reference to this lively debate about reclaiming hate words.”

This attempted reclamation is similar in fashion to how some black people have — in a sense — reclaimed the “N” word or how some women are proud to be called a bitch. I understand that for many black people, the “N” word is still taboo in all uses, and for some women, “bitch” is a heavy insult. However, that does not change the fact that some people are trying to take back and change the meaning of the words.

But really, what does this mean for queer people in general who still face a significant amount of discrimination in America?

To understand why reclaiming the word is useful, there needs to be an understanding of the power the word possesses. Some people may roll their eyes and say, “I know it’s a bad word” but that’s where their understanding ends. What does it really mean to be called a faggot, especially to a straight dude?

According to Joey Lopez, the self-proclaimed “straightest dude you’ll ever meet,” being called a faggot is the worst thing imaginable. The 26-year-old auto mechanic, said that for him, nothing is a bigger insult.

“It’s like someone is taking your manhood, your masculinity, and making it worthless,” said Lopez.

For him, being called a faggot means that he is no longer a man. According to Lopez, being a faggot means that, “you take it up the ass, you’re someone’s bitch. Nothing is less manly than that.”

For the majority of his life he was taught to take pride in being a man. He was fed the societal standard that a man needs to be strong, domineering, and without any feminine qualities. Lopez said that this ideal has stuck with him through adulthood, even amongst changing gender rolls and a broader understanding of masculine identity.

“I see my friends getting their eyebrows done and worrying about all this stuff that 10 years ago would have been taboo for them. I know it’s good that the standard has changed and society is more accepting of these kinds of things, but I can’t help but think to myself, ‘I wonder if he’s a fag.’”

“Being gay is one thing, being a fag is far worse though,” said Lopez.

According to him, there is a big distinction between the two. For Lopez, a gay person is just someone who likes the same gender. But a fag is more than that.

“A fag, to me, is some dude who wears high heels, puts on dresses and takes it up the ass. I mean, I know there are dudes who look and act like me; they’re yolked out dudes who play sports and know how to fix cars. They like other dudes, but they’re the ones fucking the fags. They’re not ‘real men,’ but they’re pretty close.”

This perception is important to understand when trying to figure out why queer people are attempting to reclaim the word faggot. Many, like Lopez, see a “faggot” as someone who is a stereotype. They assume that if you bottom — the receiver in anal penetration — you’re automatically less of a man.

Some people would argue that Lopez’s reaction to the word shows a lack of security in his masculinity. Others may argue that he is right to feel this way because the word is not always connected with being gay. In a 2011 interview with MTV’s Matt Loder, rap superstar Eminem defended his use of the word faggot, and what it meant to him.

“The lowest degrading thing you can say to a man when you’re battling him is to call him a faggot and try to take away his manhood. Call him a sissy, call him a punk. ‘Faggot’ to me doesn’t necessarily mean gay people. ‘Faggot’ to me just means taking away your manhood,” said Eminem.

The rapper is not known for being particularly accepting of queer people, however it is important to note that in James Franco and Seth Rogen’s film, The Interview, Eminem jokingly came out as gay explaining that his lyrics were a way of letting people know he was queer.

“I’ve called people ‘fag’ or ‘faggot’ countless times, but it wasn’t always because I thought they were gay. It’s just a word I used to insult them or you know to just call them out,” said Lopez.

Because of this, Lopez said that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish when someone is trying to be insulting or just tossing the word around.

“It’s hard to know when someone’s dissing you or just talking to you. It gets tossed around so easily that I think it’s lost its meaning,” Lopez said. “That’s why I don’t understand how [gay people] get insulted. Like, black people use ‘nigga’ and it’s chill, why can’t [gay people] be the same?”

But being a fag and owning the word is more than just a joke in some shitty movie or a casual flick of the tongue. It’s about rejecting the years of hate and accepting that yes, we are different but that isn’t bad. For some people, that hasn’t always been the case

Marcus Suarez, 23, a gay man, said that his opinion of the word changed as he grew older. “My feelings on the word faggot have changed as I’ve grown as a queer individual. When I was young and wild I did not really think much of it. It wasn’t until I got called a faggot by my stepfather that I really understood its power.”

For a long time Suarez, who has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and queer studies from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, said he felt the gay male community should abolish the word. For Suarez, it was something that should not exist in the English lexicon. After his change of heart, Suarez said he now believes the queer community should reclaim and keep it to “do what we want with it.”

“Currently I want faggot to be like ‘bitch’ or ‘nigga’ in the sense that it’s almost a term of empowerment. Queer rap artists — Mykki Blanco being one that comes to mind right now — use it in such a way. It’s really cool honestly. I don’t want people name dropping faggot left and right for no reason. I think there should be rules…it should be used within a more artist context.”

Still, there are some in the queer community who would rather abandon the word all together. Queer writer and poet Nick Payne, 28, said that the term is beyond disgusting.

“Faggot. Faggotry. Fag. What an abrasive term just by the way it touches the ear. I myself cringe at the very utterance of its use, whether it be my friend screaming at his TV screen to an online player not up to his par of excellence or a character in a piece of television or cinema. I haven’t been called a fag as much as other homosexuals, I’m sure, but the word does not harm me any less.”

He added that when anyone uses the word, they are ignoring all the negative connotations go along with it. “When someone says fag or faggot they are ignoring the blood in that word. Should we reclaim it? No. It is ugliness incarnate. There is no beauty in it in the context of gay men. The word ‘queer’ on the other hand, to discuss a word worthy of reclamation, does in its essence have a sort of beauty to be found. Strange, and as we all know strange can be wonderful.”

Payne is not alone in this sentiment. Maggie Rose Price, 25, queer writer and feminist, said that she does not like the word but understands that people will want to take it back.

“I personally don’t like it. I grew up in Catholic school where it was constantly used as an insult with no correction from teachers.I recognize everyone’s right to reclaim it — I use ‘dyke’ myself — but it makes me cringe all the same.”

The self-identifier “dyke” is another word that has been reclaimed, albeit in a less controversial way. Price said that unlike faggot, for her there really is no real separation between the two terms.

“Logically, [there is] probably nothing [that separates the two words]. All of my opinions are really rooted in emotion and not really anything rational. I’ve been called a dyke before and just laughed. But friends of mine have been called faggots and I lose my mind. I actually identify as queer, which is kind of funny given the reclaiming conversation. I use gay and queer interchangeably.”

When it comes to dyke, Suarez does not see it as equal to the word faggot, but he does understand that it carries its own weight.

“Although dyke is degrading in its own way, its still a term that makes that individual appear more masculine, and we obviously live in a world where masculinity is favored. Faggot is the opposite.”

He attributes this back to the AIDS epidemic and the distance people set between themselves and the gay community.

“I’m sure since the invention of the word people have used it as a term of empowerment to some degree. I think the fear of the word might have to do with the AIDS pandemic/Epidemic in the 80s. It was the ‘gay’ cancer after all.”

So if the word is being reclaimed, does that mean that queers can use it as an insult? There is a general consensus in the queer community that referring to one anther as a faggot negatively is wrong.

“For me, that’s a pretty big no-no. I can’t think of any context where I would find [calling a queer person faggot] is acceptable,” said Price.

Suarez had a similar sentiment. “Faggot is just too demeaning to call other [queer people]. Right now I think faggot is in this gray space where some of us want it gone and others are using it as a term of empowerment and expression. I think music and art will play a huge role with how its treated within our community for sure.”

And as for straight people, do they get a pass if they try and reclaim the word? Although Suarez is accepting of the word now, he does not believe straight people should use it. “Honestly, I don’t want straights using any queer term.”

Despite the years of trying to reclaim the word, there will always be a stigma associated with it. There are factions of queer and straight people alike who believe that the word should stay taboo and not be used in a positive manner.

Lopez sums up the use of the word faggot in a homophobic, heteronormative way.

“In the end, I don’t think reclaiming the word is smart because then you’re just asking to be a victim. I’m pretty sure all hate crimes [against gays] could have been prevented if they weren’t acting so gay. Why would someone attack you if you weren’t hitting on them or being a flamer?”

Photo illustration by Albert Serna Jr

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.