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Mara Keisling And Randall Jenson Debate If LGBT Community Should Use Words Like 'Faggot' And 'Tranny'

First Posted: 03/ 6/2012 8:31 am   Updated: 03/ 6/2012 10:57 am

Using words like "faggot," "dyke," and "tranny" to define oneself and other members of the LGBT community has long been a contentious topic.

While some maintain that the words should be avoided at all costs because of how stigmatizing and demoralizing they can be, others believe that the words lose their negative associations and become empowering when they are reclaimed by LGBT people.

In the first installment of our Change My Mind debate series, we challenge two members of the LGBT community to defend their views on the controversial issue.

Speaking against the use of words like "faggot," "dyke," and "tranny," is Mara Keisling, the founding Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Keisling has received numerous awards from PFLAG, the Equality Forum, GayLaw, the Transgender Law Center, the Harvard Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance and Out for Work, among others, and is a frequent speaker at events, colleges, and government agencies.

Speaking in favor of using the words is Randall Jenson, the Executive Director of SocialScope Productions, a Chicago non-profit focused on LGBTQ and gender documentaries. Jenson created the "50Faggots" series, which documents the lives of self-identified effeminate gay men in the U.S. and has been a featured speaker at the National ACLU Membership Conference in Washington D.C., on The Oprah Show, and awarded the "Youth Impact Award" by the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.

Join the debate below and see if Mara or Randall changed your mind.

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Pre-debate poll:

Tell us your opinion before the debate starts to set the starting line

Words like "tranny," "faggot," and "dyke" should be used by the LGBT community.

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Who makes the better argument?

Randall Jenson Executive Director, SocialScope Productions; creator, 50Faggots

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.

WATCH: three young, gay DePaul University students talk about the word "faggot":


Mara Keisling Founding Executive Director, National Center for Transgender Equality

I was taught early on to be a critical thinker. In my family, without that (and a strong wit) you couldn't keep up with your parents and six siblings. You had to think through all sides of what you were discussing and never be caught using pedestrian slogans you had heard at school or from friends. With so many other sharp people always in the conversation, if you took sides, you had to know why and how to defend your position.

Another thing that I learned from my family is that you should never be intentionally cruel to anyone. Primarily as a young kid, the rule applied mostly to making fun of people's personal appearance and race, which, though tied to personal appearance, was societally a much bigger issue. You did not disrespect people's appearance or race. It was cruel and wrong.

As much as critical thinking was valued, though, I still don't think it trumped the no-cruelty rule. There was no obvious underlying theory, nor deep analysis behind. It was simply a threshold position, mandatory if you were to be a decent person.

We were taught explicitly to not be racist -- which, as understood in the '60s and '70s, meant eschewing the n-word and being nice to the occasional black people we interacted with. Even though we lived in a very segregated white neighborhood in a largely segregated northern city and were exposed to overt racism constantly, we were taught with deep conviction that everyone was equal and deserved our respect. I wasn't that analytical about it; it just made sense. Black people (that's who my family and my city were talking about then) would feel bad if you disrespected them. That would be cruelty. We didn't talk about the derivation of certain words or whether they should be reclaimed from the oppressors. Some words weren't nice, and they hurt people.

Most people in America now know how it hurts for a white person to use the n-word. But now we have lots of words that some group or another has told us we shouldn't use: "lame," "illegal" "immigrant," "retarded," "faggot," "dyke," "tranny." Some people complain that we have too many such words and that it's "political correctness run amok." Some people use these proscribed words as merit badges, emblematic of independence or rebellion.

To be honest, I don't come to this debate very critically. I bring only the don't-be-cruel rule.

Certainly, many people, in every marginalized community, use these words and have every right to do so, but many others are really hurt by them. When you use these words -- whether you are a member of the community or not -- some people are hurt. Some people will see you as being cruel regardless of whether you think you have a good theoretical or political reason for doing so.

We know that "tranny" is often used to degrade trans people and is frequently spit out as hate during anti-trans violence. And we know that continuing stereotypes of trans people as "not real" women or men do real damage to society and to real people. Most importantly, though, when you use it and other words like this, some people will feel intense hurt, fairly to you or not.

It can be understandably hard for people who are not within a particular community to understand which words are OK and in which contexts. Language changes faster than ever now, especially in marginalized communities that are just developing politically. Not everyone can be expected to keep up. And it is certainly true that the offended community's reaction to celebrities using these words can seem out of proportion to the offense. For instance, I know and regret that the U.S. trans community, of which I am a part, can absolutely be inappropriately aggressive and unforgiving. But I hope that these difficulties show you how important it is to trans people and others that you try.

Words like "tranny," "faggot," "dyke," "illegal," "retard," and "lame" are often used to stereotype and marginalize people. Some people who are the targets feel that they are hateful, cruel words. That's enough for me.

These are words I have used at some point in my life. I know now that they hurt a lot of people who are already hurt too often. To me, it isn't worth analyzing it much more than that.

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Words like "tranny," "faggot," and "dyke" should be used by the LGBT community.

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Filed by Noah Michelson  |