Friday, January 30, 2009

The only moral use of an epithet is my own...

To the Life+Style Editor of a gay newspaper petulantly defending his right to call people "trannies"

Dear Faggot:

Now I know you won't be offended by me -- a hetero crossdresser who also does drag -- calling you that, since after all we're all about reclaiming terms, right? Just like you getting RuPaul to "rule" that it's OK to call trans people "trannies." The thing is, as far as I know, RuPaul identifies as a gay man, so asking his/her opinion on this issue is a bit like asking a white person whether it's OK for other white people call black people... well you know the term I mean.

The thing is, reclaiming an epithet is something that only gets to be done by the people who've been targeted by it. There's a big difference between members of a stigmatized group reclaiming a term as a way of saying "yeah I am a [insert derogatory term here], wanna make something of it" -- and quite another when someone outside that group decides to fling that term around carelessly. And no, we're not "already there" in reclaiming tranny as a cuddly term of endearment -- Christian Siriano's catchphrase "hot tranny mess" was clearly meant as a putdown in exactly the same way as clueless straight kids use "that's so gay."

As far as using "drag queen," I've got no problem with using that term to describe people who are actually drag queens -- i.e. people who are crossdressing for performance. Some of whom may also be trans. But using it to describe trans people off the stage is implying their gender identity is just for show, akin to straight people who tell you that you're not really gay, you just haven't found the right woman yet. Think I'm kidding? I've seen gay men tell transwoman: "No really, what's your real (i.e. male) name."

I do agree with RuPaul that one does need to take intent into account. I've got gay friends who've thrown around "tranny" -- but when I've gently mentioned that it's a term that a lot of trans people find problematic when used by people who aren't trans (or friends and allies), guess what, they stopped using it. But no, you had to go pissily justify your right to use the term and accusing people who complain of "Nazi-like" rigidity. That's hardly "coming from a place of love and respect" now is it? The place that comes to mind is: asshat-ism. Because bottom-line, if you have to have to ask yourself whether a term you're using is offensive, that's a pretty good clue that it's not a good idea to use it.

Words may never hurt me, but they can piss me off -- and I think RuPaul might also have something to say about the folly of getting on the wrong side of an angry drag queen.

<snap> <snap>


Just to be absolutely clear, since the use of irony can go over people's heads...

"Faggot" is a vile, hateful term -- and it's one that I'm all too familiar with. I was taunted with it as a boy who wasn't sufficiently manly for the school bullies. I've heard it muttered at me when I've been out en femme and in drag. I've had it screamed at me by potential gay bashers.

Which is why I didn't use it lightly. In fact it's the first time I've used it in more than 30 years (the last time was back when I was a school kid who didn't know any better). Why? Because I've lost patience with (some) gay and lesbian writers and editors who, when asked stop using a term that a number of trans people find equally problematic when used by non-trans people, not only continue to use it, but then go on to arrogantly proclaim their right to decide what's offensive to others, and belittle those who asked them to stop as being "overly sensitive."

My use of the term was a shock tactic intended to goad these folks into thinking about what they're saying, using a stark example that's close to home for them, since they've been utterly unwilling to put themselves in other people's shoes. I.e. "how would you like it if I took it upon myself to call you a faggot in the same way that you take it upon yourself to call trans people 'trannies'." Perhaps I could've more clearly posed it as a hypothetical, i.e. "how would you like it if I called you a..." But unfortunately, the experience of myself and others is that subtler arguments made in the past have just been blown off by these folks. So sometimes it takes a 2x4 between the eyes to get people's attention.

Those in question, including this particular editor, come across as being willfully oblivious. As someone aptly put it elsewhere -- in the case of the "pro-gay" radio DJ defending his right to call gays "fags":

When someone says you're doing something that hurts them, you could either a) stop doing it, or b) continue. Why would you continue? If you accidentally step on someone's foot in a crowd, and they say "Ouch!" would you apologize, or would you try to convince them that it really didn't hurt because you didn't mean any harm?

I understand if you're angered by my use of the term. But I hope you understand why I feel angered by those who insist on using a term they know that a number of trans people feel hurt by.

Incidently, I also meant the title of the piece ironically, inspired by the title of this article about hypocrisy.


Gina said...

While we're at it, I'm really sick of ftm-spectrum people throwoing the term "tranny", "trannyfag", "trannyboi" around. Tranny is a slang towards mtf spectrum people, not them. As you said, only the group maligned by a slur is the one who gets to reclaim it. Nor would I ever allow a DQ or CD to call me (a transwoman) a tranny. Trannies aren't women... period. It also bothers me 'tranny' originally meant transvestite. Somewhere in the late 90s it was recast as meaning transsexual or transgender. Not cool! Nope, I pretty much have a zero tolerance policy for that term and if someone wants to label me a p/c fascist... too bad.

Allyson Dylan Robinson said...

Rock and roll, sister. *Love* it.

Unknown said...

Great article...or it would have been if you hadn't started it with "Hey Faggot".

Cos what you are doing is using homophobia to defend against transphobia. That's not cool. It's never cool to deal with oppression by oppressing the person back. If it were a black person calling you "tranny", would you throw the n-word in their face?

Also, as a trans woman who does not pass, I get called "faggot" a lot, so seeing this article start with "hey faggot" is a slap in my face.

Samantha Shanti said...

Color me clueless, I grew up with the term "tranny" as part of my vocabulary. It was the part of the car that turned engine torque into forward motion.

Frankly people are people. Having been given shit my whole life growing up and taunted from a safe distance by terms like "faggot" and "lezzi-slut," I don't think any such term is a good one, no matter who it's thrown at. RuPaul can do what he/she wants, put I certainly don't think speaking for everyone, let alone people he/she doesn't really know or understand just fuels the fire of ignorance.

planet trans said...

Please do not use the word "Faggot". It is as offensive to me as any other racial or gender slur.
My own experience within the last week has been exhausting.
The article Dallas Voice's official blog "Instant Tea" article
"Planetransgender takes action against the word ‘Tranny’" was in response to my article "DEMAND the Dallas Voice stops using "TRANNY" after I objected to the unethical and transphobic language found on the Dallas voice and the Dallas Voice's blog "Instant Tea". What really brought this to a boil is that Luna promoted "Pissed OFF Trannys with Knifes" on that same post when 18 of 22 posts where from Lesbians, Gays, Queers, Intersexed and Straight people voiced there objection to this defamatory word. The only ones who defended this was Daniel A. Kusner who authors Instant Tea, when he attemped to say hey everyone else is calling you bad names, why can't I and some guy named "Joe".
Next "Instant Tea showed true hate and bigotry by publishing that "RuPaul" says its ok to be a hateful bigot tripe.
I then published hopefully my last article about the Dallas Voice because I am hurt. I cry over this. I needed my love of Jesus to give me strength and I wrote about love,
"Open Letter to Focus on the Family, AFA and Dallas Voice's Official Weblog Instant Tea"
These words adversely affect me so I left Queer after the owner posted a comment saying he knew transgender people who called themselves "Trannies" and he did not understand why I should be offended by that. That is from a gay man. He does not understand that. Wow. Ok. Bullshit.
Stand Up for our rights. DEMAND RESPECT. But please do not allow yourself to become a teabag. I wish that defamatory word was not in the title becuse I would have liked to cross post this article. My most important influences include Gay men. Without the Methodist Faith and the Reconsiling Ministries influance I would have totally missed out on the brilliance of life.

Gina said...

While I agree one slur doesn't justify another, Lena used the word "faggot" in an ironic way to demonstrate how offensive "tranny" is to most transwomen and how it's not just a benign term of endearment. Unfortunately, most gay men just don't get it, so she used a shock technique. Maybe not your preference, but not the same as randomly calling someone a hateful name. Cisgender people, be they gay or straight, have no right to use it (nor does Ru Paul, a gay man, have a right to call me that). If Mr. Kusner doesn't understand that, then it has to be put in such a way a totally insensitive person is capable of understanding.

ff said...

I found this part of what Christian Siriano said to be deeply offensive to myself, and to the trans world in general.

"If you think of heterosexuals, they have white-trash women and trailer parks, and we have drag queens and trannies."

There is no way that he can back out of that. It's on the table in black and white. The damage is done.

On the upside, thanks to CS and Ru Paul, the media is focussing on us, on the 'T' word, & how we feel about it. We need to get people listening and learning about us, and that is what is happening, only now we have some more press. I say take the good with the bad and move on into better hunting grounds. I wrote a piece on this:

Gina said...


While I agree with you Christian Siriano is representative of some gay men who think they have a right to define what transpeople are (as is the snotty twit who wrote the article inspiring this thread), that incident was quite a while ago and he's already apologized for it, especially after GLAAD raked him over the coals. He's pretty much kept his mouth shut since then. But this does bring up the issue of:

If the transgender umbrella is going to include everyone who's mildly gender variant (including swishy men like Siriano) ergo does that give them a right as supposed "community members" to call transwomen "trannies." This is an issue the trans community needs to think seriously about. It's illustrative of a real structural weakness in the concept of a "broader transgender movement."

Dex said...

Thanks for posting this article; definitely thought-provoking!

Still, the only words that are hurtful or offensive are the ones we allow to be. If we choose to allow the word "tranny" to become a discriminatory word, we just end up giving the hate mongers more ammunition.

Language is fluid. Not to mention that there is a lot to say in regards to implication, context, and meaning.

Of course not all of us who are trans are going to agree on this, especially since we're a community that's essentially based on being a living epitome of self expression - but, our diversity is our strength, and a great thing for the rest of our peers to learn from. ;]

Gina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ff said...

I think using the word 'faggot' in print especially cannot be justified by saying it was ironic. It is an offensive word and it should be dropped from any ordinary usage other than in historical documents. Using that word in print is either emotionally immature or an attempt to draw a crowd, the same as the use of 'tranny' in the Ru Paul story (Dallas Voice). Any usage of these words is unacceptable to me. It's how I feel, and I believe that the vast majority of trans folk, straight folk, gays, queers or whatever label you want to use, would agree with me. If anyone is adamant about it, put it to a vote.


I didn't say or imply that:

"Christian Siriano is representative of some gay men who think they have a right to define what transpeople are"

I don't agree that the Christian Siriano incident has 'expired' as you implied.

The reverberations of Siriano's comments are ongoing as I described in my article (which was about how these things go viral in the media)

I don't feel comfortable when commenters use personallanguage directed at others like this:
"as is the snotty twit who wrote the article inspiring this thread"

"including swishy men like Siriano"

While the T in LGBT is currently vying for acceptance in the community and in ENDA, I believe it's counter productive for trans folk to begin questioning anyones rights to be included, by using language like this:

supposed "community members"

Italic emphasis bothers me anyway as a technique in journalism, which is something I am trying to erase from my own habits (mainly because it's a favorite of the religious right)

I'm not trying to be confrontational, but if I don't respond to these things, it's as though I accept what you said, and I don't.

As you may note, I did not direct any statement at you personally. I am discussing the language you used and how I believe it may be interpreted.

I would ask that you give me the same respect.

Gina said...


This is not about whether we should "chill" when we're called an insulting term, this is about people who are supposedly in the same "LGBT community" having entitlement to refer to us by a term that most transwomen overwhelmingly experience as offensive. Will you allow that some segments of the trans community (transwomen) have been denigrated with this word more than others (transmen)? That countless murders of transwomen have occurred with that word being screamed at the victim? Reclaiming hate speech is an urban myth. The terms are only reclaimed for proprietary use within the group directly oppressed by it, not within the wider culture. And every group that achieved their rights within society has demanded control of the demeaning speech used against it. Diversity only adds strength when members of a patchwork community genuinely respect one another as equals. That is, sadly, not the situation of transwomen under the LGBT flag.

Gina said...

My apologies for the prior double post... there was a long lag time before the posts appeared onscreen.

Brielle, you are entitled to your own sense of self-respect, how you wish to be addressed and so do I. That's non-negotiable. As to the word "faggot" it is part of the English language, part of this nation's cultural and political history and part of gay culture. That cannot be erased. The vast majority of the time, it is highly offensive and hurtful. There are ways it can be used to make a serious political point. I believe the OP used it in just such a way.

Christian Siriano has described himself as a "swishy gay man" (I would never label someone with something like that if he hadn't) and I consider that a perfectly valid self ID as is the word "camp" (which he's also used to describe himself). The key is... HE labelled himself as such. Got the difference?

As to calling Mr. Kusner a "snotty twit," I admit that was snarky of me and uncalled for. My apologies. Instead I will identify him as a smug, condescending transphobe (without any quotation marks).

Human rights are as personal as it gets and defending them sometimes requires, for me, the emotional immediacy of highly personal speech. You may certainly choose to conduct yourself otherwise.

grvsmth said...

"It also bothers me 'tranny' originally meant transvestite. Somewhere in the late 90s it was recast as meaning transsexual or transgender. Not cool!"

But it was cool when it meant transvestite? Does that mean that what makes it an insult to you is the association with transvestites?

Gina said...

No, it wasn't cool when it was used as a dig at tranvestites. I don't think it's cool when it's used towards anyone (although for me, I think mtf-spectrum women may use it among themselves in an affectionate way if they wish). I think it's, perhaps, more painful when used against people who live 24/7 as women than against men who situationally express themselves in a female role, but it's a horrible word nonetheless. I believe its current use to refer to the entire MTF spectrum (and sometime as a self-identifier by FTM spectrum people) is sign, not so much of evolution, as an intellectual laziness in truly examining the widely differing segments of the "transgender community."