“Farewell ‘Tranny’”

Posted by – April 27, 2014

An old friend of mine, sometimes known as Minerva Steele, wrote a piece on Facebook about his own, queer relationship with the demise of the word “tranny” and the surrounding culture of language policing. I wanted to share it because his opinion is, at this point, one that is not often heard from but one that’s still needed. Often, in any social movement, it is the angriest, most militant voices heard from most often, and, as he said in conversation, voices like his often aren’t heard from “because we don’t care enough to be angry; we already see transpeople as our sisters and brothers and just go on our merry way.” I would add not only that, but there are plenty out there who lived at the edges of subcultures where all of these identities mixed and were valued and respected, even if there were differences in language and worldview. I hate the idea of shutting down people whose identities come with some historical and individual complexity only because the new paradigm doesn’t fit their experience very well.

Recently I posted a link to a video by Alaska Thunderfuck, who appeared on the 6th season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It was seemingly created in response to the retirement of the “you’ve got she-mail!” segment announcement on the program, due to increased negative feedback from the trans community. The program has also ceased using the term “tranny” for the same reasons. RuPaul’s producing team was painted to be insensitive to the trans community by using these terms, inasmuch as the context in which they were being used was specifically drag queen oriented. I thought this concession to pressure was a mistake, but I see the logic of not alienating any part of their demographic, however misguided anyone might find their reasons for objection. In any case, I thought Alaska’s video was hilarious, biting and brilliant, typical of that queen and very satisfying for me personally. I posted the following link with my two cents, “I needed this. Can’t say “she-mail”, can’t say “tranny”…what the stinkin’ hell? Used to be this queer community was fun.”

A new friend of mine responded with a polite yet firm opposition,

“Please keep in mind those are slurs that get thrown at trans women on a regular basis, often with threats of violence or rape (or in addition to violent attacks or assault). Sorry to be a wet blanket on a post that might have been made in jest, but as a person who worked with and is close to the trans community, we as Cis people, need to understand those slurs are not ours to throw around for comedy’s sake.”

I sincerely respect where she’s coming from, the topic is hardly unknown to me. One of my closest friends teaches gender theory on a university level and we talk this subject constantly, but my familiarity doesn’t start there: as someone who has spent most of his life with gay, lesbian, bi, queer, drag, and all flavors of pansexual genderfuckery, I hardly come at these hot topic terms as an outsider. For decades I’ve been very comfortable referring to myself among friends and family as a “tranny,” and it’s never been anything but a term I respected and celebrated, and I’ve never thought of “she-male” as a slur…how can I when I’m clearly in that continuum myself? Perhaps I rarely bring the high drag anymore, but I’m still as queer as ever. Why queer? It’s about the best umbrella term I can settle on for anyone who’s deviated enough from the decidedly square and heteronormative model to become interesting; I honestly don’t know what the fuck I am if I really have to break the terminology down, but I stopped trying to figure it out a long time ago and I’m much happier for it…which is a lighthearted way of acknowledging the position that most of us are somewhere on the trans and/or queer spectrum, whether we can see it/recognize it/embrace it/explore it in earnest/reject it outright and deny it exists within us because we’ve been rigidly indoctrinated by exterior forces/condemn and even endanger others who oppose our mindset.

I’ve done nothing but fight against such shame-driven gender/sexual culture norms for most of my life; first within my heart, then my family and friends, socially in debate classes and other forums, and eventually via activism – eg. I attended the first hearings dealing with transgender language being written into New York State hate crime laws’ legalese down at City Hall 14 years ago. Violence involving anyone, trans or otherwise, is unacceptable, period. I’m behind strong measures taken to prevent it. Fear should be banished as well, and I’d like to also throw shame in there for good measure. But I don’t believe it’s the backlash against violence and oppression that causes terms like “tranny” to fall out of favor, it’s the fear of being/being perceived as a group’s oppressor or contributing to oppression. While both the backlash and these companion fears are certainly positive signs of the progressive and enlightened mind, I don’t find that shaming a term is particularly effective in bringing about change.

A word is nothing but a sound a mouth makes and a written construct for communicating a thought. What makes it shitty or not is the charge of the sentiment, and that’s what needs to be addressed. I don’t believe that the denial of the word “nigger” eradicates racial fear and hatred in anyone’s heart if they already exist there; though I wouldn’t equate the word “tranny” with “nigger” (as I never considered “tranny” that kind of slur in the first place), I can’t pretend that its disuse it will change how transnegative-biased people think either. (Tangent: If “tranny,” “she-male,” are really such volitile terms of oppression, why not reclaim them, as we did with “queer,” why not empower them as we did with “bitch?”)

When we stop focusing on so-called correct terminology and start focusing more on context, intention and source, learning to acknowledge and respect each other’s differences as well as likenesses, we’ll have a better social integration of all genders and gender preferences. Similarly, to bring it back to the racial correlation, as soon as our culture stopped the misguided attempt to integrate people of color by tasking them to become culturally white, we finally had the opportunity for a real and meaningful integration.

I resent having to draw such hard distinctions between who is what, as people do these days. What’s interesting is that when I was growing up, we vehemently resisted being defined by anyone’s predispositions, we hated labels, but one generation later, identification and personal definition is the rule of the land; you *must* use a label, and god help you if you use the wrong one in the wrong company. Perhaps it seems idealistic, maybe too simplistic to make sense, but I can’t wait for when all this gender/sexual preference conflict is dismissed and we as social animals simply see it all as the fluid dynamic it is, without judgement or bias. Meantime, I really just wish people would stop being so precious about it all, tip-toeing through their terminology, terrified of offending someone’s delicate sensibilities. That shit belittles everyone involved and we’re better than that. It’s ultimately just a matter of time anyway, and I’m hardly alone in seeing the current political correctness, which curtails far too many words and behaviours, as a lamentable effect of a fearmongering, restrictive, and ultimately repressive social climate. Our culture has fostered this for decades, and while it’s gotten real traction within the last quarter century, it’s really ramped up in the last five years, in ways I never anticipated. It’s most noticeable among the very set of younger people who my generation helped raise to accept all people’s preferences and identities in the first place. As we stood on the shoulders of the Stonewall generation who first introduced the gay and lesbian rights issues to a national dialogue, so is this generation of teens and twenties standing on ours; they’re enjoying a societal support and respect that we helped create. It’s beautiful to see young children be raised to be whoever they want to be, to explore all flavors of gender expression regardless of assignment. It’s natural, and it’s about damned time, but without a road paved in the of blood and tears of ancestors who fought for their culture to accept fluid gender and sexual mores (and still do), young folks wouldn’t have seen this emergent norm. The world may still be largely defined by girls in pink and boys in blue, but that’s already a dying paradigm, entropy has already set its teeth to it, and while it may remain to some extent the majority norm, I like to think that it’s no longer the hard rule and will become even less so as we move forward.

I’m not denying that language mores change, and I realize I’m on the losing end of this issue. A term I celebrate for good reasons has clearly become taboo in the greater community, particularly within the succeeding generation, and I can’t deny that the ideology behind that shift is generally positive and in keeping with my own agenda. We all want the same basic things – equal standing in all respects, and respect itself – if in differing expressions. So, dinosaur that I suppose I am, I’m going to miss trannies and she-males and all that sort of terminology, (though I’m surely still going to employ all of them within my own life until the kids shut me up once and for all). I’m sure there’ll always be drag, but I won’t be surprised if someone decides that’s a slur too, and perhaps someone will come up with a nice, inoffensive word for the same damn thing so nobody feels oppressed by it somewhere down the road. Language is funny like that, it won’t stay put.

But here’s some more obsolete disposition: I miss “gay” being subversive. Gay stuff used to be tinged with danger and shrouded in mystery, at least within the straight world. Gay used to have its own cloaked culture with its own language and code to operate below most folks’ radar. I miss that world. I miss gay bars that play really good songs instead of the same endless DJ beats you also find in awful brah bars – seriously, blindfold yourself, have someone take you to one of each, and see if you can tell the difference. And on that note, I’m already really missing honest-to-god faggots – suddenly a dwindling subspecies of queer – because with legitimacy, the homosexual majority is looking, talking, and behaving more and more like the straight majority from which was demanded a social equality, queers are blending in at the color temperature of beige. It’s boring and makes me sad. While it’s great that you don’t have to be a butch or femme stereotype to love whomever you want to love, it feels like those lifestyle options are viewed with mounting scorn within their own demographic. From where I sit, the LBGT community has become acceptable at the expense of its gayness. Perhaps that was the price to be paid to get straight folks to respect them as people, I don’t know. Perhaps we’re meant to be a hive society, forsaking individuality for the greater good…how ultimately socialist in practice yet so right wing in execution. Maybe it’ll swing back one day, maybe in some distant future we’ll see a whip-smart sissy queen elected to the executive office, who wears lips, lashes, and heels, and the nomenclature will be to call her Madame President, or even better, an old school dyke with full sleeve tattoos, who can fix the budget and a busted crankcase.

1 Comment on “Farewell ‘Tranny’”

  1. NancyWilliams says:

    I think this rips the *actual* criticism on most people’s lips (OK, mine on my lips) out of context and tries to take it to a different plane. RuPaul was *not* using these words in a way so as to ‘reclaim’ them, or to ‘empower’ them, and he was not doing it in a way that celebrated trans identity. Female or Shemale was crass and played on the notion of trans people as “hiding the big secret”, which is not too distantly related to the ‘trans panic’ defense.

    RuPaul has also been asked to be more sensitive on trans issues many times over the last few years, and he’s pretty much responded that he doesn’t have to listen because some of his best friends are trannies. This isn’t the response of someone who is a real ally, but someone who doesn’t really care all that much about the request.

    The debate is not whether *anyone* should *ever* try to use these words. The debate is about whether RuPaul should be a mensch and stop using *those words* in *those ways* when approached by significant numbers in the community, or whether he should respond to those who asking him to knock it off by telling them to lighten up, get a sense of humor, and to compare them to the Orwellian State. When people do that to cis women who complain that something is sexist, we recognize how inappropriate that response is. It’s not as if the fact that some people use ‘bitch’ in an empowered way doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize people who describe Hilary Clinton that way every time she shows strength.

    Apropos of no part of the rest of my argument: ‘comedy’ that involves shooting people in the head is pretty much always questionable at best.

    As the author states, context matters, and in this context, RuPaul should have simply listened, perhaps talked to some people, and apologized. I think there are contexts in which this language might well be defended. This wasn’t one of them.

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