We are free to name ourselves anyway we want. Absolutely!
Since I am pale peach and my husband is deep pecan, we have a full range of hateful terms from which to choose. And after all, some have said, since they’re terms that have been used against us, surely we have the right to use them ourselves. Maybe we can even take out some of their sting? Maybe they can empower us?
I remember an evening maybe 3 or 4 months after my husband and I united. It was after the honeymoon. We had argued about something minor, and when I wasn’t getting my way, I shifted into a teasing register. When he held fast. I teased slightly harder, “Oh baby, you don’t want to be a bitch!”
He stopped speaking to me.
Now, in my family we never used the Silent Treatment. I knew that I shouldn’t have called him that name, so I apologized. Still he kept silent.
The next day he prepared a feast even though it was my night to cook. On the next, he did the house cleaning even when it was my turn. When I talked, he listened. I kept looking for sarcasm, but couldn’t find any evidence. He’s playing “Heap coals of fire,” I thought. I began to feel very sorry for myself in this isolation. It seemed terribly unfair, over just one word, that after all, I had meant only half seriously….
Four days later I was reading when he broke the silence.
“I love you as I have never loved anyone else in my whole life; and I know that you love me. But I must love myself. If you ever speak to me like that again, I will have no choice but to leave you. Baby, please don’t make me go.”
As a linguist, I can assure you that words are not private property, however much we all try to privatize them. Perhaps the biggest lie our parents ever told us is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s the other way round. Broken bones will mend faster than broken identities.
I realize that hateful words which others use about us bond us when we use the words for ourselves. But, dear hearts, they bond us even better when we let just our enemies use them.
If you have a preoccupation or fondness for these words, wouldn’t you make a better use of your masochism by putting your life on the line for our community, not just for your private personal pleasure? If you become the best professional person you can become and then re-invest all that Respectability fighting for our issues, I assure you that you will hear your fill of the f- and n- words. In that context, you will redeem them; they will become holy.
Maya Angelou, whose work I must sample at least once a month, once did a performance with Richard Pryor (before his burns) in which they were lovers or spouses. She narrates as he takes several steps towards his own oblivion, and one of those is the first day he describes himself with the n-word. When he uses it, he finds an initial rush from it, and little suspects the license that he has just given himself to think of himself less highly than he ought to think.
On my study door at home I have a sign which says, “The Good Fairy.” A rather sweet man who came to repair my air conditioner, asked, “What does that mean?”
“I’m the one who puts a bright dime under your pillow when you lose a tooth,” I replied.
“Oh.” He muttered and went to work on my air conditioner. When done, the repairman winked as he left.
I never called my husband a derogatory term again, even in jest, and in August 2013 a town clerk made legal what God made holy when my husband and I married forty years earlier.
The words we use to name ourselves can build us up or they can degrade us little by little. Save that bright dime, and spend it for something special.
photo credit: “Words Hurt,” NIST2018 via Flickr, cc
LOUIE CLAY (né Louie Crew), 77, is an Alabama native and an emeritus professor at Rutgers. He lives in East Orange, NJ, with Ernest Clay, his husband of 40 years.
During the first year of their marriage, the two of them founded Integrity: An international ministry of LGBTQ Episcopalians. In addition to his Ph.D., he holds honorary doctorates from three Episcopal seminaries.
Editors have published 2,361 of Louie Clay’s poems and essays. He has written four poetry volumes: Sunspots (Lotus Press, Detroit, 1976), Midnight Lessons (Samizdat, 1987), Lutibelle’s Pew (Dragon Disks, 1990), and Queers! for Christ’s Sake! (Dragon Disks, 2003). Louie Clay wrote the first openly gay materials ever published in numerous religious and education journals. A detailed history of his publications can be found at http://rci.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/pubs.html. See his bio on Wikipedia. You may also contact Clay via email.