Identity

Is It Ever Okay for Bisexual People to Use Homophobic Slurs?

We asked academics specialising in the reclamation of language to weigh in.
November 16, 2020, 9:15am
bi people homophobic slurs
Photo: Sian Bradley

TW: Homophobia, biphobia, slurs

There are a lot of ways to act like a dickhead online. Being racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, wearing blackface or a cop costume for Halloween; the possibilities are quite simply limitless. The alternative is to not be any of those things because you understand why they’re wrong (i.e. not be a dickhead).

When this doesn’t come naturally to you, or you thought you weren’t a dickhead until someone dug up your n-bomb tweets from 2011, the general guidance is to listen, apologise and move the fuck on.

But what if the internet can’t decide what is woke and what is broke, particularly when it’s those being persecuted who are failing to unite behind the ethically “correct” course of action?

This grey area is precisely where many bisexual people have ended up over an ongoing dispute on whether it’s okay for them to reclaim and use homophobic slurs like “dyke” and the f-word. 

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Over summer, a tweet that simply repeated the words “bisexuals cant say the f or d slur” went viral, with over 11,000 RTs and over 24,000 likes.

The replies were mixed. “The Bisexual Discourse on this website is hellish,” one user wrote, “bi men get called the f word and bi women get called dykes stfu.”

The author of the original tweet was by no means alone in expressing this. New Twitter threads and heated debates over bi people getting cancelled for using these slurs seem to pop up every day. 

If you’re part of a marginalised group, using the derogatory terms levelled against you in an empowered and ironic way leverages a huge amount of power over bigots. Dr Jeffrey Cohen, an instructor in psychology at Columbia University, explains that reclaiming a slur “aims to break the association between the slur and its negative connotation”. 

Daniel Edmondson, a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham, is researching the cognitive processing of reclaimed slurs, with a focus on queer language. “The thing that research into linguistic reclamation tends to agree upon,” he tells VICE UK, “is that reclamation implies reclamation from something, i.e. you have to be coming from the position of a slur being used against you, or against people like you.”

In other words, reclaiming a slur only works if you’re describing yourself or people like you. If you’re cisgender, for instance, you wouldn’t be able to reclaim a transsexual slur because you aren’t trans and have never been attacked for being trans.

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According to that logic, a bisexual man wouldn’t be able to reclaim the f-word as he isn’t gay himself and isn’t part of the marginalised community targeted by the slur. Or, as one Twitter user puts it: “Why do bi people wanna claim slurs not directed towards them so bad?”

The reality is rarely that simple.

Homophobes aren’t gonna chase a bi girl with a fresh undercut and a girlfriend down the street to check what percentage homosexual she is before calling her a dyke. A bisexual man walking down the street with a male-presenting partner, showing any public signs of affection like kissing or hand-holding, is just as at risk of a homophobic slur as a gay man doing the same thing.

“One way we can think about this is the question: are bisexual people verbally abused at all, and if yes, how?” says Dr Bianca Cepollaro, a language philosopher whose research focuses on slurs and reclamation. “The answer is, yes, and with homophobic slurs. This is an argument for allowing bisexuals to reclaim slurs.”

Edmondson agrees: “I would argue it is very misplaced to suggest that bisexual people are not made the target of homophobic slurs. I also think it would be misplaced to believe that this hasn't happened for as long as these words have been used in this way; it is the general awareness of bisexual identity that has changed, not the targeting of people for experiencing same-gender attraction.”

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According to the 2013 Pew Research LGBT Survey, 84 percent of bisexual people end up in straight relationships. Dr Cepollaro acknowledges this as “one of the aspects that might trigger negative attitudes towards bisexuals is the idea that they’re enjoying all these straight privileges whenever they want”.

She continues: “I face discrimination if I come out as bisexual, but that notwithstanding, if I end up in a relationship with a man, I have certain civil rights that I would not enjoy if I instead married a woman, in most countries.

“So what underlies this idea that bi people are not ‘allowed’ to reclaim a slur, is that the way they navigate the world is different to that of gay people, and by allowing them to use homophobic slurs, one is discarding the discrimination that gay people meet in their life.”

But, Dr Cepollaro adds, letting bisexual people reclaim these insults might actually fight the long-established erasure of their sexuality.

“Despite being the largest community within the LGBTQ community,” she explains, “[bisexual people] suffer from massive elimination from everyone's landscape. Because reclamation also serves to strengthen dissent of a community – including bisexuals within this community – it’s a way to fight the kind of anti-bisexual attitude that can still be present within the LGBTQ community.”

Edmondson, on his part, feels similarly: “I therefore think it is not the right approach to try and exclude bisexual people from reclamation projects concerning homophobic slurs, if doing so is even possible at all.”

So tl;dr. Don’t let biphobic gatekeepers hold you back from reclaiming the slurs that homophobes have used against you. If you’re a self-identifying queer woman who wants to call yourself a dyke, go ahead – you don’t need to be a gold star lesbian to find stealing language from bigots empowering.

Some quotes edited for length and clarity.

@iamhelenthomas