Is “Tranny” Always a Slur?

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
May 30 2014 10:26 AM

The “Tranny” Debate and Conservatism in the LGBTQ Movement

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Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine.

It’s an interesting moment, to say the least, for the T in LGBTQ. Laverne Cox, an outspoken transgender woman and star of Netflix’s acclaimed Orange Is the New Black, will command attention at newsstands and grocery store checkouts across America from the cover of the June 9 Time magazine, acting as the entry point to an in-depth article on the improving lot of transgender people and policies across the country. And Cox is not alone—other transgender figures have gained visibility and influence with heartening speed in the last year or so, including Redefining Realness author Janet Mock and outspoken activist/model Carmen Carrera.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

But even as the needs—for basic respect as much as fair legal treatment—of transgender people come to be acknowledged and better understood in the mainstream, a furor is growing within the queer community around the idea that progress means abandoning words and cultural affiliations that a vocal subset of trans people deem offensive. Tranny, the highest-profile of these words, is both a slur and a term of endearment, a brand that can sting and a badge that can be worn with pride. And when some people cherish a word that others despise, who can be said to own it, to possess the authority to declare it fair or foul? It’s a vexing question, but one that we must consider, because the answer will go a long way in determining what the LGBTQ liberation movement—and liberation is the key word—looks like after gay marriage.

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For outsiders, the contours of this debate are surely hazy, so here’s a rough sketch. Tranny and words like it have long been used within the queer world, among many transgender people and especially in the drag subculture, as signs of appreciation or friendship, much in the same way that some African Americans employ the word nigger. While tranny can also certainly be used as a slur (outsiders should not use it for this reason), it is the kind of term that has been claimed by many as a celebration of their own queerness, an indication of their intention to futz with our society’s deeply ingrained gender binary. Other trans people, though, have always found the term derogatory, rejecting it out of hand.

Given the growing prominence of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s perhaps not surprising that the recent controversy was spurred by the show’s playful use of words, as we previously covered in Outward, like she-male. (Another precipitating factor was the renaming-under-duress of the Trannyshack, a famous San Francisco queer performance space.) Under pressure from activists and many fans, Drag Race producers and broadcaster Logo TV apologized for the offending segments back in March, editing out a “Female or She-Male challenge” and removing the long-running “You’ve got she-mail” bit from later episodes. But after the finale earlier in May, RuPaul himself has begun pushing back against what he sees as censorship, responding to a question about tranny on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast that “You know, I can call myself a nigger, faggot, tranny all I want to, because I’ve fucking earned the right to do it. I’ve lived the life …”

RuPaul’s comments have joined impassioned missives from trans artist Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, trans author and artist Kate Bornstein, and drag performer Lady Bunny, all of whom in their own ways echoed RuPaul’s view that “banning” tranny was an example of a conservative minority speaking on behalf of—and doing a certain kind of violence to—those for whom the term is, in the words of Bornstein, a “valid, vibrant, and vital identity.” Bond is particularly blunt on this point:

What [critics of the word] fail to recognize is that by banishing the use of the word TRANNY they will not be getting rid of the transphobia of those who use it in a negative way. What it does do is steal a joyous and hard-won identity from those of us who are and have been perfectly comfortable, if not delighted to BE TRANNIES.

Of course, there are compelling arguments against the word—that using it encourages outsiders to sling it in hate, for example, or that it implies all trans individuals are sex workers—many of which Bornstein thoughtfully considers in her post. It’s hard to see a resolution to all this at present. Spend a few minutes in the comments sections of any of the aforementioned pieces, and you will see self-identified trannies accusing their critics of PC tyranny, while the other side accuses them of internalized transphobia.

As a non-trans gay man, I don’t feel it’s my place to declare either side of this debate “right” or “wrong,” because tranny is not an identity I would claim for myself, I am not a part of the drag community beyond fandom, and I am sensitive to the fact that too many ignorant gay men throw the word around in ways that are not welcome nor totally benign. That said, I think at least one helpful thing to emerge from this uproar is a reminder that it is possible to be physically queer and culturally conservative. Indeed, it does not seem inaccurate to me to interpret some transgender people’s insistence on transitioning seamlessly from one gender to the other—to reinforce the gender binary, in effect, by eschewing the conceptual friction that third-way terms like tranny and even she-male engender—as a conservative impulse. Bond seems to recognize this as conservatism in disguise and has little patience for it:

If you don’t wish to own [tranny] or any other word used to describe you other than “male” or “female” then I hope you are privileged enough to have been born with an appearance that will allow you to disappear into the passing world or that you or your generous, supportive family are able to afford the procedures which will make it possible for you to pass within the gender binary system you are catering your demands to. If you’re capable of doing that then GO ON AND DISAPPEAR INTO THE PASSING WORLD!

While it’s entirely possible that a person could “pass” for their chosen gender and remain queer in their approach to the concept of gender in general, I can’t help but find much of the anti-tranny rhetoric to be supported by a curiously conservative set of assumptions. That does not necessarily invalidate the anti-tranny point of view, of course, but I do think that many taking up the cause might reconsider whether they are standing as close to the cutting edge of queer civil rights as they might have imagined—dismissing the deeply felt identities, histories, and understandings of others as “offensive” somehow doesn’t exactly feel progressive.

And, as Lady Bunny suggests, we might think about whether expending this much energy on semantic infighting is distracting from more important battles elsewhere. I’m personally not sure if it’s a zero-sum game, but I am troubled by how, in our zeal to create a so-called “safe space” for ourselves, safe can so easily become code for ideologically pure. As history has borne out time and again, that’s not a space that’s safe for anyone. 

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