If you want to ignite a group of LGBTQ folks, bring up the subject no one wants to talk about. Not Trump — everyone wants to talk about him. Drag out the never-ending discussion on what we should call ourselves. Are we gay people? Are we queer people? Can we say “faggot” yet? Why is “tranny” offensive?
These discussions flare up daily on social media. In every debate, trolls from every side dip into our vast index of offensive slurs. Many ask in frustration, “Who cares? What’s in a name?”
Names matter. Words are important. Language is fluid, confusing, and evolving. It requires mercy and patience, narrative and explanation. Most of all, it requires listening. How many times have words been used to rob us of power? By using them differently, we take power back.
Browse these 21 words we have reclaimed — and some we haven’t.
In America, some say, “queer” was the first term. I can find little evidence of this on the internet, but since gay culture is passed down through hearsay and gossip, I’m including this. Some archivist or queer historian may corroborate or squash this idea, one I heard from a gay elder and pass on to you — that “queer” was actually the word preferred by the first wave of queens, fresh from the closet, sweating in word-of-mouth discotheques that migrated through the city.
According to the internet, “queer” first became an antigay slur during the trials of Oscar Wilde. So many zingers are recorded from those trials that this seems plausible: Sir John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury (seriously), who first called Wilde a sodomite and launched the gay playwright’s epic demise, reportedly called Wilde a “snob queer” during the proceedings. The press recorded it and the slur stuck.
“Queer” got rebranded in the ’90s during the AIDS crisis. “We’re here, we’re queer” became a protest mantra while anarcho-queers rallied around “queercore,” the queer punk music scene, a term some credit to cult filmmaker Bruce LaBruce. A common slogan you can still find on T-shirts and in queer bars across the country is “Not gay as in happy, but queer as in ‘fuck you.’”
With the advent of queer theory and the launch of Queer as Folk, “queer” became used online as a more concise umbrella term than the full LGBT+ acronym (which, depending on who you ask, is LGBTQQIP2SAA).
Today, interpretations of “queer” go a step further, and its acceptance generally splits along generational lines. Many young people — myself included — view “queer” as a term defining all nonstraight, nonbinary identities. “Queer” addresses the fluidity of gender and sexual orientation and defines those who use it as people focused on problems largely ignored by the gay rights movement: racism, wage inequality, women’s rights, transphobia, and so on. Queers both respect our history and push us to be better.
Case For: By resisting an easy definition, “queer” challenges us to talk about identity. People with identities outside “gay, straight, or bi” feel represented by “queer.”
Case Against: Many folks in our community remember “queer” painfully, as a word often used to demean feminine men. Should such a word be reclaimed?
“Homo” is still a slur to many gay men, but just as “queer” became a power term, “homo” has seen a recent surge in popularity. I love “homo” because it sounds clinical and scientific. Regardless of what I call myself, in doctor’s offices across the country I will be recorded as MSM — a man who has sex with men. A homosexual.
Right-wing sites love to call us homosexuals. The word became cemented in antigay lingo with the infamous CBS Reports episode “The Homosexuals,” which aired on March 7, 1967 (I would be born on the same day 25 years later). The episode claimed homosexuality was an illness gay men could treat if they tried.
“Homo” is antagonistic, unpretentious, and sort of funny. It’s the “fuck you” of “queer” without a social justice arm. It pokes fun at itself.
Case For: Who doesn’t love a homo?
Case Against: If you were ever called a “homo” by a homophobe, you might hate it.
“Limp-wristed” is an offensive way to describe gay men, particularly feminine guys. It’s been reclaimed as a “fuck you” to the gardening club and church mothers who called us “limp-wristed” once we were out of earshot.
Case For: Even if your wrists function perfectly and you don’t “girl” and “she” everything in sight, you’re limp-wristed because you’re a queer who isn’t threatened or offended by femininity. You celebrate the gaudy absurdity of our culture. You’ve danced to Whitney Houston under a disco ball with your best mates.
Case Against: Some guys don’t want to be seen as feminine or associated with femininity, which is what “limp-wristed” implies. Cue discussion about gay misogyny.
“Dyke” is the most widely known lesbian slur, one many gay women have embraced. The word has vague origins and was originally used to describe masculine, “butch,” tomboyish women. It’s a shortened version of “bulldyke” or “bull dyke,” another slur and one considered more offensive.
In college, I went with a friend to counter-protest the Westboro Baptist Church. A self-identified gay woman, she carried the best sign in the crowd, one that exemplified slur-reclamation: “DYKE: We might not go down in history, but we’ll do down on your sister!”
Case For: Many queer women embrace “dyke.” We give words power.
Case Against: If a homophobe called you a dyke, would you still use it?
“Faggot” is my favorite. I used to think it was an evil word, one we should never reclaim. Then a couple years ago I was getting fucked by a brutal top one night in San Francisco. My hands were tied with a bathrobe tie. He spat on me and called me a faggot. A kinky flip switched.
“Fag” is a term some submissive guys in kink and BDSM call themselves, guys who are into degradation scenes and/or forced feminization and seek sadistic alpha tops.
Outside kink, “faggot” is the ultimate “fuck you” to the hetero establishment — a term used by queer men who celebrate their sex and take a politicized, anti-assimilationist approach to queer identity. We like the protest parts of our history. We’re ready when the right comes for us — because it will.
“Faggot” is also the most offensive antigay slur in history. Gay men have died with that word ringing in their ears. It’s controversial to reclaim a word that feels painful to so many people.
Case For: “Faggot” is a word fueled by anger, AIDS, and the queer scene of the '90s. If reclaiming slurs is a way of fighting oppression, giving power to “faggot” is a battle cry.
Case Against: Some say “faggot” is equivalent to the most offensive racial slurs. If a hetero person called me a faggot, I’d respond with the same fury that we deem appropriate when racial slurs drop on the playing field or celebrities are recorded saying them. Public apologies are issued for racial slurs and public images are smeared; it’s a sign of progress that we’ve come to a time when “faggot” is treated similarly.
The L.A.-based queer clothing brand Lockwood 51 carries “Flamer” hats and T-shirts. The brand reclaims slurs and turns them into fashion (see its “FAG” T-shirts with the “a” written as a symbol for anarchy).
This reclaimed slur has dark roots. The word is taken from the original definition of “faggot,” which originally was a Middle English word for a bundle of sticks used for burning (from the Old French fagot based on the Greek word phakelos, which means "bundle," if you’re interested in etymology). It’s easy to see how “faggot” became a hate word with its implication that gay men should burn.
From that meaning, words like “flamer” and “flaming” formed as derogatory terms for feminine men. Today, “flamer” has become a cheeky self-identifier for queer people who like showing off and wear their identities with pride.
Case For: Baby, you’re a firework. Come on let your colors burn.
Case Against: “Flamer” feels hurtful to folks who spent time in the closet. To be “flaming” — to be exposed as gay — was something we lived in fear of.
“Sod” is a British slang word with many meanings. None of them are very nice. It’s also an antiquated antigay slur, short for “sodomite.” It’s less accurate to say it’s been reclaimed than to say it’s simply gone out of fashion.
Case For: Slurs are often dug up from the past to take on new meanings, but “sod” has more or less been lost to antiquity. Due for a reboot?
Case Against: Is there one?
“Twink” defines a slender, hairless, typically younger gay man. Some say twinks must be feminine to be called that. Anytime someone says what you should do to fit a label, you should be wary of it. That said, some guys wear their twink status with pride.
Many gay men will say “twink” was never a slur. The body terms we describe ourselves with (bears, otters, and cubs, oh my!) formed as weird gay lingo for sex/dating purposes, not pejoratives to demean or oppress. But innocuous words get used cruelly when old habits like body-shaming, fem-shaming, and misogyny rear their heads. I’ve heard “twink” spat as an insult. Not OK.
Case For: Love your body. Use the labels if you want to. Identify as a twink if you want to. Labels are tools, not cages.
Case Against: Many guys feel these labels are reductive. They corral us into body categories that set expectations on how we should look, who we should fuck, and how we should behave. Should they be scrapped?
“Lesbo” is a rather historic pejorative for a lesbian woman. Like the word “lesbian,” “lesbo” comes from the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, who lived on the island of Lesbos and wrote poems about love and women.
Most of her work did not survive, and very little is recorded about her life, but she has been mythologized into the most famous lesbian in history.
Case For: Like “dyke,” “lesbo” has all but lost its pejorative sting.
Case Against: Like “dyke,” it’d be offensive if said pejoratively.
“Tranny,” a derogatory term for a trans person, is offensive and hasn’t been reclaimed. Even so, there are trans folks who use it to describe themselves. Everyone is free to call themselves what they want, but you can’t call someone else whatever you want — especially not a slur.
In porn — a world I’m fairly familiar with — transphobia abounds. “Tranny” and “tranny porn” are common terms, sometimes even used by trans models who make money from people searching for their work via search terms and keywords that aren’t politically correct or even very kind.
Case For: Words are given power by how we use them. In the same way that “faggot” and “queer” have been rebranded, should “tranny” become the “fuck you!” of trans liberation?
Case Against: We’re in an epidemic of anti-trans violence. Now is not the time to reclaim a transphobic slur.
“Fairy” — an old-school antigay dig — has been stripped of its power by the Radical Faerie movement and new-era queers. Last time I went to Provincetown, I sat with four strangers on the ferry ride there. We immediately clicked and called ourselves “fae friends.”
On the way back, we sat together again. My buddy said he was going to have to shave his electric-blue hair when he got home.
“Girl,” he said, “there aren’t any fairies back there.”
There may have been gay people in his city, but the faerie community is a smaller subgroup within the larger community that celebrates diversity, self-expression, gender fluidity, spiritualism, and sexual openness. The faerie movement was started by Harry Hay, one of the most influential queer activists in history. “Fairy” may have been a slur, but today it’s a badge of pride.
Case For: A slur has turned into a powerful community of brothers, sisters, and sister-brothers.
Case Against: Good luck, girl.
Also written “pouf” or “poofter.” This is a common English gay slur — one that, according to some friends in London, is the equivalent of “faggot” across the pond.
Case For: I’ll have to ask them if “poof” is making a resurgence as a power term.
Case Against: It’s offensive to our neighbors in the U.K.
Grammarphobia.com does the best job uncovering where “light in the loafers” comes from, and it doesn’t turn up much: “Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2d ed.) has only a brief entry, describing the expression as 50s American slang and adding that ‘the image is the stereotyped effeminate male, tripping along.’”
It’s another term used to demean feminine gay men. I can’t say it’s been reclaimed, but it’s dated.
Case For: This is another term like “limp-wristed” — a slur based on perceived femininity and its conflation with sexual orientation.
Case Against: This term was presumably in vogue at the same time men’s loafers were. *shudder*
“Queen” is the poster child of slur reclamation. Does anyone remember when “queen” was a pejorative? Does anyone care? Werk it, mama.
There are a million different “queens” in old-school gay lexicon: drag queens, gym queens, leather queens, size queens (ahem). Some of these would be offensive if they were still popularly used. A “rice queen,” for example, is a gay man seeking Asian men. A “chocolate queen” is a man who prefers black men.
“Queen” on its own is the most widely known power term in our community, one that has made a significant social leap into mainstream pop culture.
Case For: “Queen” is here to stay.
Case Against: Sashay away.
Another variation: “stool pusher.” This one is so childish that it’s hardly worth mentioning, but according to the internet it’s still a term homophobes use. Humanity has always been slow to grow up. Since it’s a clear commentary on gay sex (meant to attack parts of our intimacy that countless gay men have insecurities about), let me just say that I’m absolutely a fudge packer — or whatever you call the receptive end of that term. The packed fudge? The chocolate éclair? I’m the filled doughnut. I’m the cream puff (or poof).
Case For: We might as well reclaim “fudge packer” since we’ve reclaimed everything else. Let’s make T-shirts.
Case Against: “Fudge packer” is a stupid indulgence in the pettiness of our enemies, but so is “limp-wristed.”
Or “nancy boy.” Here’s a history lesson courtesy of the History News Network:
The ‘nance,’ or Nancy Boy, was a gay burlesque character from the 1930s who brought guffaws and belly laughs as he pranced about the stage, creating campy scenes and sketches of gay life. He put on an outrageous show and audiences loved him. In the late 1930s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, fearful of how the lurid burlesque shows would make his city look in the upcoming World’s Fair of 1939, cracked down on the houses.
Part of LaGuardia’s anger was aimed at the Nance, whom critics said created audiences of lusty gay men having sex in the dark balconies of the burlesque emporiums. It was an outrage, the Mayor said, and police began swooping down on burlesque shows, closing many and forcing others to drop the nance act or greatly curb it.
I’ve seen T-shirts and fanny packs and gym tanks in Etsy shops across the internet with “Nancy Boy” in sequined (or zebra or electric pink) lettering splashed across the chests. If I had the cash, I’d buy them all.
Case For: In 2017, we’re in the business of taking back antigay words.
Case Against: Some guys don’t want to be “nancy boys” because internalized homophobia exists.
You guessed it — another slur for fem gays. There are no articles describing how this word came about as a slur, in fact several folks online are seeking one. Etymologists, here you go! I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt with “pansy” printed across the front some weeks ago at a gay bar. It gave me life.
Case For: “Pansy” is hella cute.
Case Against: May confuse a botanist.
Almost as tawdry as “fudge packer,” a muff is an offensive word for a vagina. “Muff diver” is a derogatory term commonly used in reference to lesbians, but technically it applies to anyone who performs cunnilingus. Funnily enough, this is the term I’ve seen most reclaimed by queer women in my life. I’ve seen those sort of Pinterest-y, inspirational wooden quote signs with “muff diver” on them in friends’ kitchens.
Case For: Regardless if you think the term is funny or ridiculous, be glad that we’re owning terms that celebrate our sex.
Case Against: Some folks aren’t into cunnilingus.
As best as I can dig, term for a gay bottom originates from a '70s scandal involving British politician Jeremy Thorpe, who was accused of attempting to murder his male lover, Norman Scott, in 1974.
It’s all very confusing, and the origins of the term itself seem bogus. During the trials, Scott allegedly explained his unwillingness to bottom with some colorful storytelling: "I just bit the pillow, I tried not to scream because I was frightened of waking Mrs. Thorpe."
Case For: Bottoms need to reclaim a slur specifically aimed at what we do. We already get enough shame in our community. T-shirts!
Case Against: Tops will feel left out.
“Sodomite” is the ultimate gay slur. Our brother Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for sodomy. This is a slur of biblical proportions. To reclaim “sodomite” is to do battle with the scriptures — the same book so many antigay crusaders have clutched in their fists, red-faced, through sermons about why we shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children or be legally married.
It’s hard to note the merits of the Bible when it’s been the battering ram of antigay politicians, pundits, and hate leaders for decades.
Genesis 19:4-7, Genesis 19:12-13, Judges 19:22, 2 Peter 2:6-10, 1 Kings 14:24, 1 Kings 15:12, and Jude 1:7 all talk about God’s condemnation of sodomy as an unnatural act — one which the city of Sodom (from which the word “sodomy” was derived) was destroyed over. We get it, God doesn’t like anal.
Believers in my life have been quick to point out that these verses only condemn sex. So as long as I steer clear of pleasure and intimacy, I’m in the clear. Unfortunately, there are a few other verses that get explicit regarding homosexuality: Leviticus 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9, Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:25-27. God vs. Gay.
For everyone on this side of the culture war, Lockwood 51 also makes fabulous “sodomite” T-shirts. Long live sodomy. We’re here, we’re queer.
Case For: Celebrating your sodomy makes the right people uncomfortable.
Case Against: Hell.