Who Gets to Choose Whether Faggot or Queer Are Offensive Words?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Nov. 11 2013 5:07 PM

Can We Really Choose Which Words Offend Us?

166471043
Tyler the Creator says that being offended by words like "faggot" is a choice.

Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella

The politics of derogatory language reclamation have become tedious. Reasonable people could continue to debate endlessly, for example, the acceptability of in-group usage of words like nigger or faggot, or whether even a comparatively low-voltage phrase like the gays can be innocently employed by a straight writer. As with antiquing, vintage-slur recuperating is a pastime that excites some with its promise of newly polished and repurposed words but that many others will always find offensively retrograde.

That said, a pair of news items fluttering about today broaches the issue in a way interesting enough to consider, at least briefly. In the first, rapper and designer Tyler the Creator spoke last week on The Arsenio Hall Show about his controversial use of the word faggot. “That’s just a word,” Tyler opined. “You can take the power out of that word. The way that I see things, you chose to be offended if you care more about stuff like that.”

Advertisement

The 22-year-old artist then went on to point out that his friend Frank Ocean has chosen not to mind—which, for me, is irrelevant. But the “choice” claim is an intriguing one: Are we really so free to choose what offends us? Do all people share this freedom equally?

That question bears on the second story, about the shock 66-year-old gay Pennsylvanian John Kichi experienced during his recent job search with Colorado College. As the Denver Post reports, Kichi found that the school allows applicants a range of choices with regard to an optional gender-identity query, including the term queer. "I couldn't believe it,” Kichi told the Post. “I thought I was going to have a stroke. It's totally from the Dark Ages." Though the school explained the reclamation of the word—especially in academic contexts—Kichi maintains that it should be “against the law” and has sent a complaint to Colorado’s attorney general.

Though the portrait of Kichi is admittedly vague (i.e. he could be trolling), one gets the sense that he is not a bitter scold, but, rather, an older gay man who truly cannot understand “queer” in any context other than in the way it had been used to denigrate him in the past. (He told the Post that he had “lost jobs and homes” because of his sexual orientation.) This means, of course, that he has somehow avoided all the progressive activism and “queer theory” developments of the last few decades that have done much to complicate the meaning of the term, but stranger things have happened. Given Kichi’s specific history, is it really fair to say that he should (or even could) simply “choose” not to be offended by queer?

I’m not suggesting that Kichi’s or any specific person’s situation should determine larger policy. But as we weight word usage and the limits of reclamation in the public sphere, it is worth considering whether a cavalier attitude like Tyler’s is as egalitarian as it might first appear.  

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  Life
Quora
Oct. 1 2014 9:13 AM What Is It Like to Be an Egyptologist?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 8:46 AM The Vintage eBay Find I Wore to My Sentencing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.