Hot _____ Mess

I’ve noticed a really infuriating trend lately. I’m used to journalists, conservative bigots, and Hollywood using dehumanizing slurs to refer to trans folks on a pretty regular basis. But somehow it hurts more coming from other queer folks.

I blame that Christian Siriano guy, of course. I’ve never even watched Project Runway, and still he’s managed to infiltrate my everyday life–I’ve heard kids at the high school where I work toss around “hot tranny mess” the way my high school peers used to toss around “retarded.” (That still hasn’t gone away, has it? We really need to work harder.)

While the reaction to Siriano’s infuriating catchphrase (see Bitch Magazine and The Bilerico Project for two great pieces) seems to have died down somewhat–and he at least sorta kinda apologized–the phrase itself is far from gone.

Now, as usual I feel I need to make the disclaimer that while I consider myself a strong trans ally and often feel most at home in trans communities, I don’t identify as trans. This often makes me feel like I’m on shaky ground writing on topics like these–running the risk of speaking for instead of speaking of or with–but I have faith that someone will speak up if I need to check my privilege and shut up.

Here’s the problem, for me: I feel like I can’t ask for the removal of “tranny” from our collective vocabulary. I still don’t know how I feel about language reclamation and the complex interplay between insiders and outsiders in using reclaimed language. But it’s clear to me that I’m not the one who can reclaim “tranny.”

My problem with the term itself is that I think it’s used to enforce a distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” trans lives and narratives. While bigots and cop shows don’t usually see those distinctions, many cisgendered queer folks clearly do. The easiest way I can think of to describe the distinction is to point you to a Chris Rock bit that got quoted in an episode of The Office.

[Upon searching, I can’t seem to find a video of the moment in question; all the YouTube clips I found were pulled due to terms of use violations. If you have access to NetFlix Watch Instantly, look for “Diversity Day” from the first season of the American Office. The quick summary: Michael Scott has to be individually trained on diversity and sensitivity, because the whole office was offended when he acted out a chunk of Rock’s standup, which revolved around the concept of the “two types of black folks–there are black folks, and then there are n——.” You can at least see a discussion of the original bit in a Time article.]

Now, I’m definitely not qualified to speak on the n word–I think Renee has great things to say about it–but I do think that for people like Michael Scott (who is, yes, a fictional character, but who resonates so well with a lot of American bigotry and insensitivity), the n word functions in much the same way that the t word functions for some cisgendered queer folks. It’s a way to separate out the undesirables.

After all, many bigots are forced to re-examine their biases when faced with a friend or a loved one who doesn’t fit their assumptions. How do you continue being a homophobe when you find out that a close co-worker or your daughter is gay? You have a few options–you could ostracize that friend, staying true to your bigotry. You could revise your worldview. But really, that kind of examination is hard work. It’s much easier to conclude that there are your friends, and then those other queers. Your daughter is a good person–not like those dykes and fags.

“Tranny” can function the same way. (Again, I’m not talking about the word’s usage within trans communities, although I’d love to–this is specifically about cisgendered use of the word.) It’s a way to make the distinction between trans lives and bodies that fit neatly into a package–often friends and acquaintances–and those that fall along the questionable margins–often drag queens, crossdressers or sex workers.

I also want to point out that the term is very often reserved for people on the male to female spectrum, who also shoulder a disproportionate amount of the gender-motivated violence. What does it all mean? If you’ve read any Julia Serano, you might come to the conclusion that there’s sexism and misogyny at play here–we question the authenticity of feminine expression more than the masculine. But whichever way you slice it, it’s language that continues to enforce our rigid assumptions about identity and authenticity.


4 Responses to Hot _____ Mess

  1. Cedar says:

    It’s really funny that your related post section linked you to my blog, but not either of my posts about tranny.

    Don’t know if you read them or not, but yeah, cis folks using “tranny” = not cool. And most of it’s not even in an attempting-to-reclaim form. argh.

    • pandanose says:

      Yeah, unfortunately I have no control over the “possibly related” links—you should see some of the weird places my posts appear.

      That’s my very point. Although plenty of queer cis folks will claim that language is okay because it’s been reclaimed, that’s not their goal in using it. It’s an othering strategy, a distancing tool, and a way to enforce assumptions about authenticity. Probably some awesome race and class issues thrown in there, too.

  2. mark snyder says:

    Thank you for this post. You make some great points. I’d like to invite you to post your bloggings over at sometime, and feel free to promote your own blog there by putting links to the originals in your posts there, and setting up a profile.

    We have a discussion over there right now about the word tranny as seen here:

    It was great discovering your blog!

  3. pandanose says:

    Hi Mark! Thanks for the invitation. I’ll be honest and say that I used to be a quite regular reader of QueerToday (before the Ning switchover), but at some point a few posts rubbed the wrong way and I haven’t really been reading much since then. Perhaps I’ll have to take another look.

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