Why We Call Ourselves Queers, Dykes, Fags, & Homos

I was 10 years old the first time I heard the word “dyke.” It was just a few weeks after my family moved to California to be closer to my grandparents, and I was sitting in the backseat of my grandfather’s car as he drove us to “the best Mexican place in town” for dinner. As the car rolled up to a red light, I could see two women — who both presented masculine — holding hands and walking on the sidewalk.

My grandfather leaned across my mom’s lap to get his face as close as possible to the passenger-side window. Then he shouted, “Fucking dykes!”

I don’t remember what the women did — if they ignored him and just kept walking, or if his words registered as pain and anger on their faces. But I remember being confused. What exactly was a dyke? It had to be something bad for him to spit the word at them with such venom.

When I asked my mom later that night, she told me that it was a word for women who love other women. Okay then, I thought. It must be bad for two women to love each other, if the word used to label them was something my grandfather could say so hatefully. A decade later, I could barely utter the word “gay” as I told family and friends that I’m attracted to women. “Lesbian” was even harder to say, and “dyke” was absolutely impossible.

People often say there’s power in taking back the words used against us, and I understand where they're coming from. If we call ourselves "queer" or "homo" or "dyke" as a term of endearment, then it feels like that word can’t hurt us anymore. It's about shifting the power.

"When you reclaim a slur, you take the power away from the person using it against you and carry the power for yourself," says Nicky Zamoida, a lesbian woman and writer from Austin, TX, who feels comfortable calling herself "queer" or a "lesbo."

But a community doesn't reclaim slurs like these overnight, and some of us might never get past the painful memories associated with words like "dyke," "fag," or "homo." Sally McConnell Ginet, a professor of linguistics at Cornell University who's known for her work with gender and sexuality, says that sometimes successfully reclaiming a word requires distance from the word itself. She uses "queer" as an example.

For younger generations of LGBTQ-folk, it's sometimes hard to remember that queer was once a slur. The word has been absorbed into academia — my minor in college was actually called Queer Studies — and is now so ubiquitous that it doesn't even sound harsh when straight people use it to describe their gay or gender non-conforming friends. Yet, some older people still find queer to be an offensive word, because it was slung at them on playgrounds and sidewalks as a way to keep them in their place.

"There’s an interesting statement from one of the people who helped popularize reclaiming 'queer.' He said later that he wondered if he really should have done it, because it upset older activists," McConnell Ginet says. "With the experience they had with the word, they couldn't join in shouts of, 'We're here, we're queer.' It was just too tied to personal stuff that they had put up with."

Yet, slurs aren't only reclaimed once a generation is distant enough from the pain they've caused. There are some people who can take a word used directly against them and still turn it into something powerful. McConnell Ginet says that, for these people, the reclaiming is often like a verbal middle finger to those who use the word in hate. "It says, 'Look, you can’t hurt me with this word,'" she says. "It’s a defiant kind of move."

So, yes, there is power in taking back the words that have historically been used to tell us that what we feel and who we are is unnatural or disgusting or wrong — even though it can take a lot of work and courage to get there. I'm not ready yet, but maybe someday I'll be able to say, "Hi, I'm Kassie and I'm a dyke."

Read on to see how 12 other LGBTQ people really feel about reclaiming slurs.

Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community — because gender should be defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.

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"I reclaim words like 'homo' and 'queer' because these are all positive things. Our community is a positive thing, our love is a positive thing, and the more we use it that way, the less it can be used against us." -Carol, 23

"I call myself a 'homo' because I'd rather have the power to allow words to hurt or not, and the power to identify myself before anyone else can." -Lauren, 23
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"There is serious lesbian culture and community around the word 'dyke' that we didn’t create by tip-toeing around the parts of ourselves that men and straight women thought were ugly/gross/fat/etc. The generations of lesbians before me built something beautiful with the word 'dyke,' and I'm lucky to have such an ancestry and a word to go with it. It’s like, 'You think this is ugly? We’ll show you ugly.'" -Farrell, 22

"Of course, people still use LGBTQ slurs against us in an effort to cut us down, but the terms are at least undermined because we use them amongst ourselves. For me and my friends, what really comes through when someone calls you a 'dyke' or a 'fag' out of hate is the hate, the aggression, but the word itself doesn't have the same sting. I'm still proud to identify as a dykey, queer homo." -Radhika, 21
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"I would never reclaim the word 'fag.' It's beyond offensive." -Justin, 25

"Throughout high school, I was battered with the terms 'fag' and 'queer,' so there is always something internal that I struggle with when I hear people use these today. I will forever empower and support others in the reclaiming of these terms — even if they reclaim the two I cannot. I will never reclaim 'fag' or 'queer' for myself, but instead wear them as an internal tattoo that has scarred itself to my skin and use it as a constant reminder of both my struggle and success. Any time I hear these terms used, I flashback to every single time they were used against me and reflect on the pain they caused me. It was in pain where I found solace in my identity. I use it every day to keep pushing forward." -Cliff, 25

"If LGBT people want to reclaim it, go for it. But don't insist all LGBT people do the same; be respectful of others' experiences, most of us have our own baggage with oppressive language." -Reddit user, hotmonotremeaction
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"I think for some queer people even the term 'lesbian' sounds like a dirty word. Reclaiming this language with a community of people who love and accept you gives power to the language and makes me proud to be a queer. It also takes the power away from those people in societal positions of power, so they cannot use it against us." -Liz, 26

"Queer feels like a more adept label for me, while also being a slap back to assigned shame." -Aily, 26

"I don't take credit for reclaiming 'queer' — the generation before me did the work so that my generation could comfortably claim these identities, and I'm so grateful for that. I use 'queer' because it's a fluid term that can encompass many different identities in the LGBTQIA community. From day to day, my gender expression and sexual orientation are constantly re-calibrating, and 'queer' is a solid word with a long history that I can use to describe that constant state of change." -Corinne, 26
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"For my entire life, I've tried to achieve appreciation as a female. When someone says 'tranny,' that takes the female out of it. I'm not a tranny, I'm a trans woman. Even if it isn't offensive to some people, just eliminate the risk and don't fuckin' say it." -Reddit user, JulianMorrison

"I honestly don't care, unless someone is calling me that in a mean way. I know of folks who use that word to describe themselves, and who am I to say they shouldn't? I don't really use it myself, and I probably wouldn't say it to another trans person, just because it's so loaded." -Reddit user, whateversusan