Slurring your speech

When I try to define what a slur is, I usually recall two stories: One is about my grandfather, a brown-skinned Nicaraguan mestizo, and how my mostly Portuguese grandmother chose to marry him. The idea was not warmly received by all members of the family; my grandfather was fairly broke, and was known to enjoy the occasional leftist idea. After a year of anguished love letters, however, the family realized that at this point my grandmother had more or less made up her own mind, and so they step aside and allowed them to get married. But my great-grandfather was still concerned about the union; shortly after the ceremony, he pulled his daughter aside, asking, half-jokingly, that they took precautions not to produce any “n-word children”.

He did not have the decency to bleep out his words, of course. Those scruples are my own. But in the twisted racial politics of Brazil, there is a happy ending to this tale: my grandmother had four daughters, all of which are tremendously proud of their heritage, and my grandfather got enough money that he could afford to leave leftism aside. We still gather sometimes in the family house, a good, loud Brazilian-Nicaraguan mix.

The second story does not have such a great ending; it does not have an ending at all, actually. I was walking down the street, dressed in my baggy, sort of male clothes, with my messy hair and strangely serious squared up shoulders, when a drunk man spotted me and called me a dyke. He would have done it anyway, because it was the wrongness of my frame — neither woman nor man enough for him — that bothered him, but in any case, he had hit a bigotry jackpot. I was, in fact, a gay woman. He grabbed his crotch and said some vulgar things about how he could fix me. I ran home and cried. Nobody did anything about it. No comeuppance, no resolution. That’s life for you.

I am not sure if either my great-grandfather or the drunk who screamed at me were aware of what they were doing in the moment they used those words, but they drew from a shared history: a reminder that men like them used to be on top, and that other people’s bodies were their properties. The qualification on his unborn grandchildren was not just a mocking way to say there were problems with this marriage. The goal was to remind his daughter that their family had once owned people like those children; that those children were intrinsically less than.

Likewise, the man who called me a dyke was telling me that today, as in other times, the lives of gay women are worth very little. That drunk was not a mastermind of bigotry; just a bothersome idiot. Looking back, it’s probably likely that he would not have done anything to me. He was an unpleasant person, more worth of pity than anything else. The truth is that I have more power than him, generally speaking because if nothing else, I am not ill to the point I need to get horribly drunk at Wednesday afternoon. But at that moment our situations were reversed; like Billy Batson calling Shazam, he gained the historical upper-hand. I am the member of the group that gets raped; he has the law and authority at his side.

I’ve been called other names as well; I’ve had internet pile-ons and just generally horrible experiences. I am quite aware people can be endlessly cruel, using very innocuous terms to hurt their opponents mental health. This is common whether you are debating fandoms or politics. Repeated use of one word by many people hurts because it’s overwhelming. Back when the word slug was a thing as a swear, it used to feel quite aggressive and terrible to see it being thrown around. Crucially, however, the word slug is not something that comes just before a hate crime or mumbled under the breath of an interviewer who just refused you. Log out of twitter, spend some time with your friends: that word isn’t going to follow. I can’t do the same for dyke; my grandfather couldn’t even get his wedding day off.

Similarly with the word “gammon”. There is probably an argument to be made of classist undertones to it, and that’s a fair point. Maybe the more important part of this conversation about how the lines between immature mockery and actual debate have become so blurred at this point that an actual dumbing down of conversations has taken place online (hands up — I am a part of the problem), that makes dialogue impossible. But playground bullying is not the same as slurs, and trying to conflate the two of them is dishonest; it diminishes what being called a slur means.

A slur is not the same as being cruel. We can be cruel with an endless variety of words. A slur, however, has a very specific power over a group. It shrinks you, it humiliates you. To those who haven’t experienced it, take it from an expert: There is no great honor in being called one. It’s not a shield or a special card to be used when you are losing an argument. There is no great victory here, only trauma.