Reclaiming Language By The LGBTQIA Community

Queer activists have not only used “queer” as a self-referential label, but have also endeavored to make it part of the national dialog about sexual preference.

Photo by Levi Saunders on Unsplash

While the Stonewall Riots changed the face of LGBTQ+ activism, there was another equally significant change brewing at the time. The day after the Riot, a large group of protesters joined hands and marched through the New York City demanding that their voices be heard. The voices demanded to reclaim the symbols of oppression. The crowd sported the pink triangle, a symbol from the war that had ended two decades ago. It was time; they felt, to reclaim the symbols of oppression and transform them into symbols of triumph so that nothing could stigmatize the community ever again.

Hitler’s Nazi Regime used various symbols to identify and stigmatize prisoners in the concentration camps. All Jews were required to wear the yellow star, red triangles were for the political prisoners, pink triangle were for the homosexual men, and black triangle for the antisocial – a category in which lesbians were also slotted. The lowest caste was the one wearing a yellow star with a pink triangle, that is, the homosexual Jews and according to Eugen Kogon (1950) that was the caste that perished and had no chances of making it out alive of the camp.

The oppression had seeped into the everyday terminology. Terms such as ‘faggot’, ‘dyke’, ‘homo’, ‘queer’ and ‘queen’ were excessively used to increase the marginalization of the community that already found it punishing to live their lives as their true selves. Stonewall riots did advent a change. The shame was not in being queer and the silence would only perpetuate the feeling of ostracization not just from the society but from the personal identities of the LGBTQ people. Like the pink triangle that regained its identity as a symbol of triumph and pride towards the early part of the 1990s, the oppressive terminology also started redefining itself into a meaning full of pride (Galinsky et al. 2003).

However, reappropriation of the labels such as queer, dyke and homo, has not met with the positive response from all members of the LGBTQ community. Several sections within the community wish to do away with the terminology because it serves as a reminder of the harrowing past that several LGBTQ people had to endure. In such a situation, these symbols do nothing except to rile up the past that people do want to forget in order to move on. But this section as it seems is in minority. The essay called The Reappropriation Of Stigmatizing Labels: Implications For Social Identity states that:

Queer activists have not only used “queer” as a self-referential label, but have also endeavored to make it part of the national dialog about sexual preference. In 1990, a new activist group formed by four members of ACT-UP dubbed itself Queer Nation and, with the slogan “We’re here. We’re Queer. Get used to it!” sought to make the label queer not just acceptable, but accepted as a title for – and to bring attention to the plight of – gay men and lesbians (Galinsky et.al 2003).

More and more LGBTQ people and organisations are using this term in an attempt to claim oppressive spaces in writing, literature and mainstream media, and claim what was always denied to them- a sense of pride. The usage of such terms has found its way into the vocabulary of the non LGBTQ people as well, who use such terms in not a derogatory fashion but more as a common slang. Terms and phrases such as ‘yass queen’, ‘werk’, ‘serving looks’ and ‘shade’ etc, have their origins in the terminology that originated from the Drag culture. Such terms now appear in music, articles and common everyday language that people use. The idea was to take the take the oppression out of the space as sacred as writing, one of the major platforms that the community has used to spread their many voices. In a space hugely dominated by the heteronormative language and expression, reclaiming the words like ‘queer’, ‘dyke’ and ‘homo’, has been seen as major step forward.

Interestingly, many people within the community assert that usage of such terms by the non LGBTQ people is an intrusion in their sacred space. Being in the mainstream, and the way these words have found their way into the vocabulary of the mass seems a little unfair (for the lack of the better word) since a large part of the world uses these terms as slang, overlooking that these words have a history and association with oppression.

Further, by reappropriating a label for the in-group only and refusing to approve its use by out-groups, the stigmatized group exerts control over the use of the label in the public sphere, thereby increasing feelings of agency. In fact, increased feelings of agency and control can often lead individuals towards action. Thus, oppressed groups often take collective action only once their situation has begun to improve (Crosby, 1982; Martin, 1986).

To conclude: the terminology of oppression is becoming a terminology of triumph and pride. Reclaiming of language is a positive step towards reclaiming queer spaces. The history of violence against the LGBTQIA+ folk has been bloody and harrowing, but the community continues to stand up, refuses to stand back and take the blows. In a way the community is taking the words from the society and throwing them back, with their fists raised!

About the author

Tanya S

An English Lit student, Tanya S is constantly oscillating between what to eat and what to read. On most days she can be found watering the money plant on her bookshelf.