Should the LGBT Community Reclaim Words Like “Faggot” and “Tranny?” Yes, Call Me a Faggot

by: Randall Jenson

Note: This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post as part of a debate on reclaiming language and was reposted with permission by the author. You can check out the original here

The terms “faggot,” “dyke,” and “tranny” are just as important to identifying our queer communities as “gay,” “lesbian,” and “transgender.” It’s convenient to just dismiss these words as hate terms. We’ve been preconditioned to anticipate abusive blows and expect hateful shouts from homophobic people, but we also have a choice in the words that we use to understand ourselves. And mostly, we think, we don’t want to hear these words, even from someone we know. But, we are these people.

We are faggots. We are dykes. We are trannies. One of the most important things we can do is stop thinking of these as disgraceful and start thinking about how these words can encompass queer identities that orientation labels like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “transgender” can’t cover.

Yes, we must extend empathy and compassion to those still hurt by these words, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also embrace these terms as a process of healing for others. Don’t shake your head and tell me I’m just rehearsing “the N-word argument,” where reclaiming a hurtful word leads to empowerment and resistance. I embrace words like “faggot,” “dyke,” or “tranny” because they are not just slurs; they are descriptors. They illustrate ways of moving through the world. They portray real people, beautiful people.

LGBT people are really good at shaping vocabularies and visual representations of our communities. For instance, certain trans folks embrace their self-representation as a “tranny” while cringing at the label “cross-dresser.” A lot of lesbians think the term “lesbian” is embarrassing; they just want to be dykes. A “gay man” is a pretty broad term, reflecting everything from leather daddies to bears to twinks. Whatever words we use to describe ourselves, our individual self-representation should be respected as integral to our identity.

Just speaking to a “gay,” “lesbian,” or “transgender” experience denies the converging moments and impact gender and sexuality have on our lives. Men get called a “faggot” when they are perceived as effeminate, regardless of their actual sexual orientation. It is not just about effeminacy, of course, as even the butchest guy gets called this when he doesn’t act like his straight peers or when others challenge his masculinity.

Some people use these words to keep us in check, reminding us that there are consequences when we step outside the box. But when I’m called a faggot, it usually means I’m doing something right; I feel rewarded. It’s not enough for me to operate with an identity that states, “I like men.” I need an identity that also states, “I like me.” That’s why being perceived as a faggot is personal.

Some LGBT people want to refute these labels to separate us from the pain. We are used to being perceived as societal victims and are scared of who we might become. Of course we don’t want straight people using these words, but not because we don’t use them or even consider them “wrong.” I want to challenge the idea that only certain members of a certain community can use these words. It’s too easy an argument. If someone is called a faggot by their straight relatives or despised as one by a gay person, the intention to hurt and silence is still the same.

I hope it’s clear by now that I’m addressing a primarily queer audience: those who identify and connect with LGBT communities. As important as these conversations are, we don’t have enough conversations with each other about LGBT representation and accountability in public spaces and forums. I won’t agree that we should placate our youth with self-soothing messages of “It Gets Better,” while people in our communities with wisdom, financial capabilities, and social power complain to students that they now “have it better” in schools, or yell at street kids in their gayborhoods to “make it better” for themselves.

I’m concerned with the way we embrace our communal responsibility and personal accountability. The facts are going to stay the same, but I’m proposing that we reverse the way we remember these words in our lives. Obviously we can’t forget the pain these words have caused us, but, as queer people, I think we have a lot to gain by embracing our resiliency as survivors.

There are real moments of sadness, hate, and violence attached to these words. I choose to both embrace these histories and allow these words to empower my daily existence. I don’t need my identities and labels to only reflect a desaturated vibrancy of all I’ve lived through and who I really am. I refuse to accept that just because a word should hurt, that it can hurt.

You can visit the 50 Faggots website here.

Afterword: This piece was published on IOW to highlight the variety of opinions in the LGBT community and continue the discussion on reclaiming hate speech and, like all pieces, does not necessarily represent the opinions of our editors. For another opinion on reclaiming the word “tranny,” please check out Tobi Hill-Meyer’s previous article: “Community and Consequences: Understanding the Costs of Reclaiming ‘Tranny.'”


Randall Jenson is the Executive Director of SocialScope Productions, a Chicago-based non-profit production company creating LGBTQ and gender-related documentaries. SocialScope’s primary project is  the 50Faggots online series, which began in 2005 as Jensen’s first documentary. The series debuted in May 2010 and has already traveled to over 14 U.S. cities, including headlining the 2011 MBLGTACC Conference. Since seventeen years old, Jenson has received national awards for leadership and his work with young LGBTQ people, homeless and at-risk youth, addressing the juvenile legal system and media’s impact on queer lives. He was featured as a speaker at the National ACLU Membership Conference in Washington D.C. in 2003, on The Oprah Show’s “Growing Up Gay” episode in 2006, and awarded the “Youth Impact Award” by the National Youth Advocacy Coalition in 2007. His research creating 50Faggots was recognized by the Association for Queer Anthropology as “outstanding anthropological work.”

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2 responses to “Should the LGBT Community Reclaim Words Like “Faggot” and “Tranny?” Yes, Call Me a Faggot

  1. I survived a vicious beating by schoolmates in 2000, I understand your viewpoint but strongly disagree. These “men” screamed these epithets while beating me, and those words were violent, not just the punches. Gay men don’t just use the word to reclaim it, but also use it derogatory toward one another to degrade effeminate gays. I appreciate the dialogue, I just heartily disagree based on my own experiences I guess.

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