In high school, back in tiny Payette, Idaho, circa 1986, the c word was reserved for very harsh criticism. “Cunt” was a word of utter disdain reserved only for women, way worse than “bitch,” although both, when lobbed right, could really take another girl down. At my high school, these words were almost entirely used by other girls without real awareness of their weight or meaning.
Then in 1998, Inga Muscia wrote Cunt, and it changed my life; well, it changed my vocabulary and ignited my interest in the lexicology of forbidden words. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence (Seal Press) was a great feminist book about breaking down barriers between women, reclaiming — and thus reversing the negative connotations of — pejoratives reserved for women and girls, challenging rape culture, and bringing greater awareness of sexuality and sex-positivity. (Here’s an example quote I love: “What if one out of every three multinational corporation CEOs were raped every year? Don’t you think that would raise a kind of ruckus?”)
After reading it, a generation of women my age began using the word “cunt” to describe and define ourselves; we were the same women reading (or creating) Bitch magazine with a similar bent.
I bring this all up now, because the other day — 17 years after I started proudly calling myself a cunt — I got a letter from a disgruntled reader who was upset that I titled our fairly innocuous Valentine’s Day gift guide “10 Sexy, Unexpected, Totally Queer Valentine's Day Gifts.”
He (and I know this reader is male because a fellow les-bi-an would have complained about my commercialization, my hyping a heterosexist institution, or my inability to include stuff for both femmes and butches, and not the use of the word “queer”) wrote, “Queer ??? Really???? That is SO insulting !! Put that word away along with the N word. Get with the times lady. Would you like it if I used the ‘C’ word???”
Hmm. I had to ponder. Does the writer really think that the n word is equivalent to “queer”? Does the writer know that it’s actually rather misogynist to threaten me with the equivalent of “What if I called you a cunt?” And all that is implicit in that statement (meaning: He thinks I’m a cunt and wants me to know it).
The thing is, I don’t mind being called a cunt. I am. I’m a bitch. I’m powerful. I’m threatening (not on the street — there, I’m a scared 10-year-old, but in the boardroom I think I can be aggressive). And I’m queer.
In 2005, I talked to the late William Safire, the famed journalist and speech writer, about this exact thing for his long-running New York Times column about etymology. He dubbed that column “Homolexicology” and he implored me to explain why gay women preferred the words “lesbian” or “queer” to merely “gay,” and he explained to readers why “homosexual” was not a noun. It felt momentous, that this conservative libertarian got it, but now nearly a decade later, I’m still regularly taking it on the chin for using the word “queer,” while Madonna essentially gets a pass for using the n word in reference to her white son on Instagram (as a show of support, she says).
There's no denying that words matter. I have been around and around with many LGBT leaders about why some words (including “tranny”) should not be used except within those communities. If you are black, if you are transgender, if you are Italian, then I won’t argue with your right to use the n, t, or w word to describe yourself the same way I can use “queer” to describe myself and the way many (or most) of my gay male friends still use the word “fag” to describe themselves. In fact, until I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I had no idea so many people were outlawing the use of the f word, even among themselves.
But in a community that still self-polices the use of words like “fag” or “queer,” why do cisgender LGB folks and their hetero counterparts find it so easy to keep using the word “tranny” without thought to how horrific it sounds to some transgender women and men? I have more than one trans friend who uses the word to describe themselves, but that doesn’t mean nontrans people get to use it. Just like with the n word, that is not your option.
I think we must always allow for self-identification. We should understand the difference between my ability to name myself and your ability to use it as a slur against me. Generally, if I’m OK being called queer or lesbian or cunt or fat or bitch (I could go on), then I don’t mind if you call me that as well. I'm taking the power away from you. The problem is, when it's being hurled at you, used to dehumanize you (as the t word generally is, in reference to trans people), and to separate you from others, then the negative power of it to hurt might be more pressing than your need to use it to illustrate a point about a movie.
For writers, the things we say and do are meant to reflect ourselves, and it's easy to forget other people will identify with (or be repelled by) what we say as well.
And that takes me back to the guy who implied I was a cunt for calling myself queer. I'm not going to stop using that word, but I do have to stop and ask, did I have a right to compile a list of 10 gift ideas and label them sexy, queer gifts? I say yes, but clearly, a bunch of you might disagree.
If that's the case, then who gets the power to label themselves?
DIANE ANDERSON-MINSHALL is the editor in chief of HIV Plus magazine and The Advocate's editor at large.