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Trans Segment #42: “Tranny”

November 6, 2012

“Tranny.” Let’s get that out of our systems right now.

People use this word in a variety of ways, but it’s almost always a good way to strike a nerve with and hurt lots of people. Rightfully so. Unless you’re talking about a very large and expensive car part, the word is not cute or innately hilarious. It might not offend every trans person, but for those who don’t like it, IT HURTS. For many people, it’s one of the last words they ever hear while they’re alive, or it’s a word that is overloaded with much physical and emotional pain, impossible to hear without wincing or experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s no different from any other number of slurs you hear. If you don’t say those with any regularity, please follow suit with this word.

The problem is that people don’t recognize it as a slur. Much to my befuddlement, lots of cis people don’t think there’s anything wrong with this word. I get the impression some people think it sounds cute, trendy, and casual, like it’s just another alternative to “transgender.” Others think that just because they hear some trans people use it means it’s an okay term for everyone to use. Many people use it very intentionally to refer to trans women in a sexualized or pornographic context, many times violently. Seriously, just do an unfiltered Google search and see how many porn sites come up. Now, how many of those do you think are actually produced and marketed by trans women?

I want to specifically address that first set of people. These folks aren’t normally being consciously malicious. They just seem to think it’s an uproariously funny and benign word. I think this is a byproduct of larger social cissexism, and it is strongly propagated by the media. “Tranny” is used with extreme regularity on TV, in movies, on the radio, the Internet, and whatever other medium you can find. There for a while, it seemed like I couldn’t even turn on my TV—when I still watched a lot of TV—without hearing it used somewhere, and I wasn’t even *looking* for it. I would simply be watching a show or flipping channels and then BAM! There’s a freakin’ “tranny” joke.

The tone of “tranny” in the media is dismissive, belittling, and unflattering. It can be used either harshly and angrily (“I just got tricked by that damn tranny”) or whimsically and casually (“Girl, you are a hot tranny mess!”), but it always has an underlying negative implication that “tranny” is laughable, pathetic, bumbling, failing, and forever a joke. It is about far more than someone’s gender, just as we know that the utterance of phrases like “That’s so gay!” or “He jewed me down!” aren’t really about sexual orientation or religion.

“Tranny” is misogynistic because it is used to demean all women for perceived “failure” at femininity. It is most often used to directly insult trans women as not “real” women, talk about them as objectified things, and mock them for their looks. It is a way of calling someone profoundly ugly. That is why you hear it so often said that someone “looks like a tranny.” That hinges on a socially unacceptable appearance. But the word is also used against cis women who are thought to be “too masculine,” abrasive, sexual, prudish, or assertive. So for any of you who thought you were just oh so cute and clever for calling Ann Coulter, Janet Reno, or Lady Gaga a “tranny”? Think again.

Even the supposedly progressive shows geared toward the “GL…b…………..t” community throw around the word like it’s nothing. If you love your Glee because it’s such a great depiction of young gay kids and my, wasn’t it so awesome that they even did a whole episode about the hurtfulness of the word “faggot,” maybe you should ask how it makes young trans kids, especially young trans women, to hear the word “tranny” used with no hesitation? Then again, who really tries to make Rocky Horror Picture Show lyrics PG?

I don’t need to ramble on about this one. I am only asking that you pay attention to context. Note who is using the word, how, why, and when. All of that makes a huge difference, and power dynamics are key in how we perceive and react to words. As a rule of thumb, if you are cis, you don’t need to be using this word since you are not its main target. I even say if you’re a trans man, you don’t need to be using it since you are not the main target either. Sure, we—cis people and trans men—might be called “trannies” in association, but we are most definitely *not* the dominant image of what a “tranny” is and we are not normally on the receiving end of that word in physically violent contexts. It’s a lot like how straight men might be called “faggots,” but that does not bestow upon them the right to throw around the word “faggot” without an understanding and appreciation of their place and privilege in social hierarchies.

(Disclosure: I have used “tranny” before. I have not used it in self-reference except for a couple of times when I was being tongue in cheek with sarcastic trans friends. What I am not proud of, however, is that I have used it in the title of one presentation I did ages ago. If I could go back in time and slap my own face off, I would. You live and learn. Thanks to many radical trans women friends who schooled me and brought me down some notches. I needed it, and I’m forever grateful to you.)

Yes, you do sometimes hear trans women reclaiming this word and calling themselves and their friends “trannies.” I don’t agree entirely that reclamation politics do exactly what we want them to, but I figure these folks are free to use the word to refer to themselves and to others who they know prefer or don’t mind it. For a lot of people, using words among each other inside our own groups that are traditionally hurtful when used by outsiders can be a powerful thing. It can take the sting out of a word when you harness something that is normally negative and wear it proudly and defiantly.

I don’t say “tranny” anymore. I don’t believe it is appropriate for people who aren’t trans women to use it. I don’t like it when anybody, including trans women, use it to refer to people whose preferences they don’t know. I don’t think it should be used as a title for anything official. And I don’t think it is cute.

For more perspectives on this:

1. “Let’s Talk About ‘Tranny’” by Tobi Hill-Meyer

2. “You Look Like a Tranny” by Antonia D’orsay

3. “13th Hour” by Natalie Reed (talks about the lack of merit in the phrase “looks like a tranny”)

4. “Why I’m Not Saying ‘Tr*nny And I’d Like It If You Guys Didn’t Either, Please” by Stephen Beatty

5. “I Repeat- Quit Using ‘Tranny’ to Insult Cisgender Women” by Monica Roberts

6. Urban Dictionary’s take on the phrase “hot tranny mess”

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