[If you are easily triggered by racist, ableist, or homophobic slurs you may want to skip this one.]
I was recently trying to write something on tumblr about this one radfem I know and love. It started out as an explanation of how oppression creates a false scarcity, pitting oppressed people against each other instead of the system by which they are marginalized. But it did, at some point, become necessary to mention that the radfem in question believed all sex between men and women to be rape. That is, I joked, absolutely batshit insane.
And then I stopped. As a person with PTSD, as a person with an anxiety disorder, with depression, as a person who used to be legitimately agoraphobic, I am arguably the most insane person I’ve met. So why is it that I attached a word commonly used to describe my own condition to someone’s fucking ridiculous theory? I am certainly not making any un-nuanced generalizations about male-female intercourse. In fact, I’m being a lot more cogent on this subject than she was, so why is it that I insult her by comparing her own theory to myself?
That’s just how slurs work. They can be applied to almost anyone, but they always reference a specific group of marginalized people.
This presents a weird sort of disconnect by which people (read: bigots) sometimes try to justify their usage of words like fag or n—. “But he wasn’t gay!” they protest, “and White people can be n–s too!” That right there is some steaming bullshit. Because the truth is that if slurs were really as disconnected from their original meanings as the people who use them would have you believe, they would look very different.
Non-oppressive insults that have etymological origins in a slur are not immediately recognizable as such. If I told you that you were “bad,” you would most likely have to reach for a dictionary before making any connection between the word “bad” and being intersex. So while “bad” did evolve from the Old English word for “hermaphrodite,” bæddel, it certainly doesn’t have that association now. The ordinary English speaker would not make any connection between the word “bad” itself and people with ambiguous genitals. Tell me that Black people are separated from the n-word to a similar extent. Just fucking try.
The other way you can tell that a slur is still a slur, and not a generally acceptable insult, is that the slur will denote specific stereotypes associated with the people it’s based off of. You can call a straight girl a dyke, sure, but the function of that isn’t to shame her for an inherent quality, it’s to compare her to a queer woman (and thereby make her ashamed). This is because “dyke” invokes all sorts of qualities our culture associates with female queerness: gender-nonconformity, “non-normal” sexuality, aggression, lack of “befitting” sexual interest in men, etc. For a straight woman, being called a dyke is offensive because she *is* attracted to men, and because of systematic homophobia she knows that our culture values her heterosexuality. So she feels devalued when someone calls her a dyke after she’s turned him down sexually, for example. This doesn’t do her nearly the same amount of damage that it does an actual queer woman, who is devalued do to an unchangeable facet of her personhood whenever she is called a dyke.
And that, I think, is why it’s so important to reserve the reclamation of a slur for the group of people that specific slur (in and of itself) refers to, regardless of who has been called what. Because it’s actually a shorter order. Instead of applying the word randomly, we can just focus on robbing it of its negative connotation, while keeping the functional definition (“dyke = queer woman,” for example) intact.