Language is a powerful tool. It can be used to impress, to inspire, and to insult, however language also can have a symbolic and political purposes. The approach of a group of people toward language is an interesting area of enquiry because the language used by a group of people about another group of people is revealing. There is now a growing trend among LGBT people of reclaiming typically homophobic language in order to remove its venom, which clearly puts the LGBT rights movement in a long tradition of marginalised groups acting in this way.
Insults and pejorative language can be some of the most creative forms of humour and satire, but many times they are crafted to insert sadness into people’s lives. Indeed insults about things that people cannot control such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity etc. can often make the recipient of such insults feel like their very humanity is being chipped away at. As a consequence of this feeling groups throughout history have had different approaches but one of the most common has been appropriating these insults in order to take the power out of these words. Insults only have power if the desired results stems from their usage, but if no such result occurs they stop being insults, and simply become words.
A famous example is in the case of black people in the United States of America. For decades n****r had been used as a verbal stick by slave owners and white supremacists to beat African-Americans into submission and this was because of the hatred that underlined the word. It was a word that was so drenched in hatred that it struck fear and dread into the hearts of black people all over the country. Although there is a debate within the African-American community about whether this word should be used or not, a large number of activists and artists have appropriated the term. Indeed as a result of this appropriation the power of the word is transferred from the user of the insult to its recipient. And that is what makes language appropriation such a powerful tool.
In relation to the LGBT community, appropriation has already taken place. ‘Queer’ used to be a pejorative term to refer to homosexuals however now it is a badge that is worn proudly by people all over the world. The power of the homophobes has been taken as strength by members of the LGBT community. However there are growing numbers of LGBT people who are saying that it is time for another round of linguistic appropriation. Among many words being considered are ‘sodomy’, ‘sodomite’, and ‘buggery’ for a few different reasons. The first two of this list are most often used by religious fundamentalists because of their use in religious texts. The third of the list has an aggressive undertone that implies that the act in question (homosexual sex) is oppressive or sinister. By reclaiming these words the LGBT community can undermine the societal homophobia that still plagues many liberally-minded nations and symbolically show the rest of that society that these terms give the LGBT community strength.
Appropriating language has long been a tactic of oppressed minorities and the LGBT community is beginning to catch on. Some like ‘queer’ have been transformed from inciting violence and shame into words that preach acceptance and love, and many LGBT activists are calling on this civil rights movement to take the next step. In this reporter’s view such a move would be positive as it would be a symbolic show of solidarity and defiance as well as being a way of limiting the linguistic tools of homophobes.