When I was in class 8, I had two male friends (a rare occurrence considering my predilection to surround myself with girls, being the Casanova that I am) who despised each other thoroughly and left no opportunity to attack each other. On one such occasion I got caught in the middle of it as one of them turned to me and said “He’s so gay…why do you even talk to him”. He called my other friend gay as an insult and kept doing so repeatedly even in front of him. My friend had to retaliate and resorted to doing what any Indian teenager would do: complain to the teacher. He somehow convinced me to snitch to our class teacher about it and me, being the beacon of justice that I am, complied. I was called upon by my teacher and asked to recount what happened. The moment I uttered the word, ‘gay’ my teacher shrank back in utter shock and disgust. “Gay! You mean the English word?” she whispered. I wasn’t (and still am not) aware of the word having a different meaning in any other language, so I said yes. Immediately her hands flung to cover her ears from the assault of the word, as she exclaimed “tauba tauba” with the dramatic flair of a 70’s movie actress.
Cut to college when I was talking to a couple of friends about racial and homophobic slurs, one of my friends brought up the word ‘faggot’. While I believed that slurs can be reclaimed and used as devices of power to combat oppression, my friend did not agree. I cited the example of the word ‘queer’ and how it originated as a pejorative term but has now shed most of its negative connotations and is actively being used in academia as an umbrella term for all sexual minorities. To me, the word queer was empowering because it had been reclaimed by the community. My British friend, on the other hand, was unsure. She didn’t consider queer to be empowering, rather she felt that it was degrading. She was also very uncertain of the word ‘faggot’ and didn’t believe that it could ever be reclaimed. Meanwhile I was optimistic that it could indeed be reclaimed.
Thinking about it, I realised that whenever I came out to a new acquaintance, I would never say “I’m gay” instead I said “I like men”. This was because of my experience with the word. My teachers and peers considered gay to be a dirty word and used it as an insult. It was also the primary word that was used by bullies in school (among other colloquial slurs). Therefore identifying as gay made me uncomfortable because it brought back memories of being bullied in school. Similarly my British friend was uncomfortable with words like queer and faggot because she had experiences of being bullied with those words.
An episode from the show Black-ish comes to mind where a similar conversation about the n-word was had. It distinguished between the three generations of black people and their attitude towards the word. The grandfather boycotted the word because it reminded him of the times the word was used against him by white men. The father found it to be empowering because it reminded him of black men and women using it in music and political slogans trying to reclaim it by taking it away from the white man. Meanwhile, the daughter was completely indifferent to the word because she had no negative experience with it and therefore didn’t mind, even when her white friends used it. Since the attitude to a word is hugely influenced by experience, I realised, that it varies not only generationally but also culturally.
This realisation made me revisit my opinions about the question of reclaiming a word and about issues regarding self identification. For me it’s easy to identify as queer because the boys in class 8 didn’t even know what the word meant, let alone use it against me. I see it as empowering and as a word that has been reclaimed, but when it comes to using the word gay, I feel uncomfortable. Similarly my Western counterparts are comfortable with certain words but shy away from others. But that does not mean that a word once sullied can never be reclaimed. Like with the N-word in Black-ish, words, over time, can be reclaimed. As more and more queer people use slurs in positive contexts (without disregarding the feelings of those who might be sensitive to that particular word), the word gets normalised and starts losing its power, allowing a younger generation to exist, who do not have any negative experience with that slur. Thereby, having successfully reclaimed the word.