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.
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.