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Sticks and Stones: Reclaiming Names That Were Used to Hurt Us

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” How many times have you heard that as a child? How many times have you said it? More importantly, how many times have names actually left a more lasting impact on you than any sticks or stones? We know the gravity of being hit with “sticks and stones,” but we also know that names have always carried their own weight and often more.

In the late 60s, the Stonewall Riots put the LGBTQ community on the map. Along with that attention and presence came plenty of homophobic name-calling and hateful discrimination. It was as if the world had erupted with volcanic vicious vernacular. Names like “queer,” “faggot,” and “homo” were used to demean and degrade. Today, LGBTQ folks still face these vile and hurtful terms. However, within the LGBTQ communities, there is an ongoing discussion about reclaiming these names as a way to disempower the hurt. For example, the popular Netflix reboot of “Queer Eye” uses the name Queer in their title, as does the Showtime series from the early 2000s, “Queer as Folk.” The term Queer was and is still used in a pejorative manner, yet Queer Theory and Queer History are empowering students to learn about perspectives and historical facts that take pride in the LGBTQ communities. Even a recent article in The Advocate claims the LGBTQ communities have worked to reclaim some of those names. 1

Nowadays when bullying and discrimination are highly publicized on social media and in the news, we are all affected by it. Name-calling touches every person regardless of race, religion, gender, size, age, abilities or sexual orientation. Name-calling is an act of degradation, disrespect and can lead to despair. Simply put, these names are the language of hurt. They hold the power to cause bad feelings, depression, anxiety, fear, violence, suicide, and even murder. In short, names do carry their own gravity, and sometimes, they may carry more weight than any pile of sticks and stones put together.

Taking back the power of these derogatory names can help play an important role in developing identity and promoting conversation about rights. A 2013 study published in Psychological Science found that people felt more empowered after self-labeling with a demeaning term like “bitch” or “queer.” This sense of enhanced power can also lead to people viewing the term less negatively. 2 In 2003, a team of psychologists in the journal Identity Issues in Groups noted that “instead of passively accepting the negative connotative meaning of the label,…[one] rejects those damaging meanings and through reappropriation imbued the label with positive connotations.” 3

Can we see those names in a different way; make them our own? What if we did? Can we poke fun at how hurtful those names were meant to be and turn them into rainbows? Can we reform them using art and humor? “Sticks & Stones: Reclaiming Names that Were Used to Hurt Us” is an art installation aimed at taking back the power of many of those words, much like we’ve done with the word “queer.” These words are ours to control. Their power can no longer do the harm it once did if we disempower them and repurpose them for our own use!

1 – 21 Words the Queer Community Has Reclaimed (And Some We Haven’t)

by Alexander Cheves, August 2, 2017, The Advocate

2 – The Psychological Power of Reclaiming Oppressive Language by Carolyn Gregoire, February 10, 2017, Huffington Post

3 - The Reappropriation of Stigmatizing Labels: Implications For Social Identity, by Adam D Galinsky, Kurt Hugenberg, Carla Groom, Galen V Bodenhausen, (2003), in Jeffrey Polzer (ed.) Identity Issues in Groups (Research on Managing Groups and Teams, Volume 5), Emerald Group Publishing Limited