Being a discerning reader: Explaining why you’re taking a pass is a valid form of criticism
I didn’t think it was my place to write about the Helicopter story, other than to link to a few of what I thought were the more thoughtful pieces about it. The story uses for its title a meme that has been a popular attack from certain kinds of bigots against trans people. It was an attempt by the author to take a painful attack and turn it around. As one of the stories I linked in this week’s Friday Five showed, for some trans readers it succeeded in that goal. For others it didn’t. Art is risky like that, even when you aren’t tackling such fraught topics.
I’m not trans myself, and as such when trans people are talking about problems they face and issues they are struggling with, I believe my first duty is to listen, and when I can, amplify their words. Thus linking to two pieces by trans people in the Friday Five but not commenting myself.
The author has since asked the publisher to pull the story. The editor of the online zine has done so and issued a explanation.
In the aftermath, I’m seeing certain accusations being hurled around about those who didn’t react well to the story. One of the accusations is that every person who explained why they were uncomfortable with using that meme as a title was attacking the author. Similarly, people are characterizing criticism of parts of the story that didn’t work for them as a reader, again, as a personal attack on the author. Others are making the cliched attack that people who admit they didn’t read the story (and then carefully explained why just seeing the title brought up painful memories) have no right to comment.
Here’s why I disagree with all of those accusations:
In the early 90s I made the decision to do what a small fraction of the LGBT community was doing at that time: to take back the word “queer.” It was hardly a popular idea. My own (now deceased) husband was dubious at first. The word had been hurled at me and at him and others like us as an attack throughout our childhoods and beyond. I decided to pick up the those stones and turn them into a shield. But that was my decision.
It’s been 28 years, and I still occasionally get grief whenever I use the word queer to refer to myself or the community. Quite often from old white gay guys just like me.
They don’t like the word because it and the memories it evokes are painful. And it doesn’t matter that I have just as painful memories as they do, I have no right to demand that they deal with the pain the same way I have decided to. It’s true that I have forcefully asserted my right to use the word queer, but that is in the face of a different kind of criticism. Yes, I have also had people tell me not to use the word and that I’m a bad person for doing so.
But mostly, the negative comments I’ve gotten after using the word have been along the lines of: “I can never bring myself to use that word. Please don’t call me that.”
They don’t disagree with the word because they lack the discernment to tell that I mean it in good faith. They don’t refuse to use the word for themselves because they think I’m a Nazi. They aren’t attacking me when they explain why they refuse to use the word for themselves. They aren’t spreading misinformation when they speculate about why people like me are comfortable with the word and they aren’t.
Taking back a slur isn’t an easy thing to do. And it is perfectly reasonable for people to avoid the pain of engaging with the slur. It is perfectly reasonable for people to explain why they don’t want to engage with the slur. Deciding not to engage with the slur isn’t an attack on the author.
The helicopter meme has been used as an attack (mostly) on trans people. Not just the meme, but many variants of it. I’m not trans, but I’ve had angry bigots use the attack on me when I’ve posted certain opinions online. Angry words, harassment, taunting, and badgering hurts. Yes, I block frequently and quickly, but still the initial blow lands and it stings.
When one has suffered through those attacks repeatedly, seeing that attack used as a title of a story in a magazine you may admire, understandably fills you with apprehension at the least. The first time I saw the book Faggots I was caught off guard. I didn’t expect to see that word in large red letters on a book. I didn’t know, at the time, who Larry Kramer (the author) was. I didn’t know he was a gay rights activist. My first response when seeing that title was pain and fear. It didn’t matter that I was in a queer-friendly bookstore at the time. The title caught me by surprise and like a punch in the gut. I learned later that a lot of people in the community who did know who Kramer was and had read the book hated it when it first came out and saw it as an attack on the community—and for many, the wounds still burn decades later.
That’s the power words have. As an author, I am constantly reminding myself that words matter, that words can hurt as well as heal. Editors and publishers are mindful of this, too. Unfortunately, even the best of us with the best of intentions sometimes make mistakes. Readers who are caught off-guard and given no context will react. Some of those reactions will be raw. Some of those reactions will be misinterpreted.
It’s okay to disagree. It’s okay to take risks in art. I think attempting to take the power from slurs is a good and worthy pursuit. I also know that sometimes trying to do that causes discomfort or pain to some of the people that we’re trying to help. It doesn’t mean we stop trying. It just means that we try to do better, next time.
There are other people writing very thoughtfully on the topic: