- “our first own language word for ourselves that has no medical-legacy” and which was coined in order to unite drag queens and transsexual women in Sydney during the ’60s and ’70s (as pointed out by Kate Bornstein).
- a word co-opted by pornographers and the sex industry in order to market trans women and others on the trans female/feminine spectrum as sexual objects.
- a word that people who are attracted to trans people have subsequently adopted to describe their attractions to us (e.g., “tranny chaser,” “tranny fetish”), and which some trans people also use to dismiss those very people (e.g., “He’s just a fucking tranny chaser”).
- a word that the mainstream public employs to ridicule trans women, and sometimes cis women, for “doing womanhood/femininity badly.” (as discussed by Hazel/Cedar Troost)
- a word that trans people reclaimed during the ’90s and early ’00s in order to challenge trans invisibility and cis assumption (as I discussed earlier).
- a word that some transgender spectrum people (especially on the trans male/masculine spectrum) use in a subversivist manner in order to imply that their gender identities/expressions/politics are more radical and subversive than other people’s (as discussed by Hazel/Cedar Troost).
- a word that cisgender hipsters bandy about in order to give the impression that they are politically progressive or cutting edge because they supposedly have some familiarity (usually a highly superficial familiarity) with trans communities and culture (e.g., Christian Siriano and his slogan “hot tranny mess”).
- a word that trans-unaware cisgender people use, not as a slur, but rather because they have heard other trans people (e.g., Julia Serano, circa 2001-2005) use the term self-referentially, and thus presumed that it was a neutral term that transgender spectrum people use to describe themselves.
Monday, April 28, 2014
A Personal History of the “T-word” (and some more general reflections on language and activism)
Important disclaimer: This is but one trans woman’s take on what has become a highly controversial term. I have penned it in the (perhaps implausible) hope of fostering more nuanced and historically situated dialogue about the word, and about language more generally. This piece is primarily intended for other trans folks, and for that reason, I have posted it on my blog rather than a more heavily trafficked or broader LGBTQ-themed website. People who are not trans-identified are free to read this, of course, but please realize that this is a personal blog, and not a space intended to serve as a platform for you to voice your opinions about the word—I suggest that you go elsewhere to do that if you are so inclined. Anyone who presumes that I am advocating for the continual usage of the word, or who cites this essay as evidence that they have “permission” to use said word, has clearly misread this piece and/or are blatantly misrepresenting my views. The vast majority of this essay was written in 2013, and it should not in any way be interpreted as me “taking a side” in any recent peripheral debates that have taken place within trans female/feminine spectrum communities lately. This is a substantial piece (with notes, it is over 10,000 words!), so I encourage readers to refrain from judgments until they have read the entire thing, as this piece may take some unexpected turns. Finally, some trans people find the word that I will be discussing to be very upsetting, so they should take this as a trigger warning that I will be using the “T-word” (sans abbreviations, hyphens, and asterisks) throughout this piece.
Language evolves. Words that were once commonplace now come off as anachronistic. And words that once had good or neutral connotations are now seen as problematic or politically incorrect, and vice versa. It happens all the time. But within my own lifetime, I can’t think of a single word that has undergone such a quick and dramatic shift as the word “tranny” has, particularly with regards to how it is used within transgender spectrum communities.
For the record, I do not have a horse in this race. I used to use the word all the time, but now I very rarely use it. I have not penned this piece to make the case for re-reclaiming the word “tranny,” nor to argue that we should completely do away with it. Rather, I feel that amidst all of the current debates about the term, some important history is being lost. So in this piece, I want to revisit that history, to provide some context for why the term initially gained popularity as a reclaimed word and how feelings about it have evolved over time. Toward the end of this essay, I will attempt to situate contemporary debates about the word within the context of activist responses to language more generally.
This is a highly personal account of the word from my standpoint as a trans woman who first began participating in urban, predominantly white, queer-centric trans communities in the U.S. in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Gender variant folks of different backgrounds, geographies, and communities might have very different yet equally valid stories to tell about the word.
Thirteen years ago
So I transitioned in 2001, and shortly thereafter became involved in the San Francisco Bay Area’s rapidly growing gender variant community, both as an out trans performer and an event coordinator (I organized and emceed a performance series called GenderEnders, put together numerous benefit shows for Camp Trans, and helped organize an annual Trans/Intersex/Genderqueer & Buddies Community Picnic). During that time and in those settings, just about everybody seemed to use the term “tranny.” It was generally viewed as a reclaimed word—that is, a word that has been used in a disparaging way by the dominant majority, but which the marginalized minority reclaims for itself to use in a self-empowering way. The idea is simple: If people are going to try to insult me for being a “tranny,” then why not take the word and turn it into a source of pride—“yes I’m a tranny, and there’s nothing fucking wrong with that!”
Some words are successfully reclaimed, a few examples being “queer,” “gay” and “dyke,” which are all now regularly used in non-disparaging ways by people who share those identities as well as by people who do not. Other reclamation projects do not fare quite so well. Some feminists have tried to reclaim the words “bitch” and “slut,” yet these words are still far more often used as insults than as self-empowered identities. Back in the early 2000’s, “tranny” seemed (at least to me) to be well on its way to being positively reclaimed. There were community-based events like the Tranny Fest film festival; performance troupes like the Tranny Roadshow; people often referred to the aforementioned Trans/Intersex/Genderqueer & Buddies Community Picnic as simply the “Tranny Picnic” and the annual Trans March as the “Tranny March”; and so on.
During this time period, I regularly used the word “tranny” in a reclaimed way. It appears in my 2003 slam poem Cocky as well as in many of my other early spoken word pieces. When I first pitched Whipping Girl to my publisher in 2005, the working title was actually “Hot Tranny Action”—it referenced a trans woman-focused activist website that I was in the process of creating at the time. The phrase was meant to be a play on words, as “hot” can mean “intense” or “angry,” and “action” can refer to protests and activism. We decided not to use it as the book title though, as we felt it would create too many misconceptions about what the book was actually about.
In my 2005 spoken word piece On the Outside Looking In, I not only refer to myself as a “tranny,” but I also used the plural term “trannies” to refer to trans people more generally. Today, such a move would offend many trans folks (and for that reason, I have removed the word from the version of that piece that appears in my recent book, Excluded). However, when I performed the piece back in 2005 (a mere nine years ago) nobody even flinched. It was viewed (at least in my local trans community) as just as legitimate a turn of phrase as using the plural term “queers” is in many LGBTQIA+ spaces today.
There are several important aspects about being a trans person in the 1990’s and early 2000’s that I believe help explain the popularity of the word as a reclaimed identity label during that time period.
First, trans folks had almost no visibility back then. I know that trans invisibility is still an issue today, but believe me when I tell you that it was exponentially worse back then. There was virtually zero media coverage of trans people and issues outside of a handful of sensationalistic movies and the occasional Jerry Springer show. When I was first coming out to people in 2001, most told me that they had never (to their knowledge) seen or met a real-life transsexual before. So the simple act of being out as trans was often read by the cis majority as a shocking in-your-face sort of move.
Given that people already viewed us as surprising and shameless for simply existing and being out, many of us played up this shock value ourselves in order to challenge societal cis assumption (i.e., when people assume that every person they meet will be cisgender/cissexual). I believe that this tendency to flaunt our trans identities in the face of a cis majority who didn’t want to believe that we were part of their reality contributed to the popularity of reclaiming the provocative word “tranny” as a self-identity label, and it can also be seen in activist groups of the time who sported unapologetic in-your-face names such as Transexual Menace or the intersex group Hermaphrodites with Attitude.
A second and related point: Back then, most cis people had not yet heard of any of the self-identity labels that trans folks have created for ourselves. In the early 2000’s, when I would come out to people as “trans” or as “transgender,” most acted completely oblivious or confused until I clarified things by calling myself transsexual or a “tranny.” People seemed to be familiar with the words “transvestite” and “tranny,” and to a lesser extent “transsexual,” although admittedly most did not have any kind of nuanced understanding of the differences in meaning between these terms.
In other words, at the time, there were no “respectable” labels for trans people. All trans-related labels were either unknown to the public or highly stigmatized. Back then, cis people used the word “transsexual” with just as much disdain as they used the term “tranny.” I think this helps to explain why many of us (at least in my community) didn’t tend to get quite so upset about the use of the term “tranny”—it wasn’t viewed as significantly more soiled in society’s eyes than other well known trans-related labels.
Today we have a few labels (“transgender,” “gender-non-conforming,” “gender variant,” “trans,” and even “transsexual”) that have garnered a modicum of recognition and respect in our culture. I feel that it is this respectability (as limited as it may be) that has led many trans folks to want to purge less respectful-sounding labels—such as “tranny” and “transvestite”—from the lexicon. Not coincidentally, these latter words also happen to be more closely associated with sex (and specifically with sex work, pornography, and fetishism) in the public’s mind, which surely contributes to some trans people’s desire to distance themselves from such labels.
Another observation: I’ve heard trans people today say that they hate the word “tranny” because it seems to make light of, or trivializes, trans identities and experiences. I respect that sentiment. But in retrospect, I think that might actually be part of the reason why many of us back then (in that very different era) gravitated toward it. Flippantly referring to oneself as a “tranny” made it seem like it was no big deal, which provided a useful way to diffuse the oh-my-god-you’re-a-transsexual-monster-serial-killer attitude that some cisgender people would cop upon trans disclosure moments.
To put it a different way, back when trans people were more often viewed as abominations and as outright dangerous or shocking, there were advantages to playing down or making light of our predicament. But nowadays, when many cis people think that trans is “no big deal” because they personally know trans people, or they regularly see trans individuals on talk shows and reality television, perhaps it is more useful to remind people of the seriousness of trans issues and experiences rather than making them seem mundane and not especially noteworthy.
Anyway, these are a few of my thoughts on why “tranny” was such a popular word among trans activists during the ’90s and ’00s, and why its apparent usefulness back then may not translate well during this very different time—a time in which public backlash against trans people and activism is arguably a more pressing concern than trans-invisibility.
In doing research for this essay, I discovered yet another possible explanation for why the word was once popular, one that pre-dates my participation in trans communities. In Kate Bornstein’s piece “Who You Calling A Tranny?” she points out that the word “tranny” was initially coined by trans female/feminine spectrum folks in Sydney, Australia during the ’60s and ’70s as a way to unite drag queens and transsexual women. She describes the term as “our first own language word for ourselves that has no medical-legacy” and says that only later was it “picked up and used as a denigrating term by mean people in the world.”
Thus, much like the word “transgender,” the initial popularity of “tranny” may have stemmed from the fact that it was a community-created, non-pathologizing identity label. And while I have framed the matter here in terms of trans people reclaiming a derogatory slur, the history of the word appears a bit more complicated than that. In fact, the word “tranny” has a number of parallels with the word “gay”: both began as in-community self-referential labels, which then garnered negative meanings when the mainstream public discovered them and began using them in derogatory ways, thus forcing members of these communities to have to reclaim the very words that they themselves originally forwarded.
Why I stopped using the word
Eight years ago (i.e., 2006), I pretty much stopped using the word “tranny.” My reasoning had nothing to do with contemporary debates regarding the word (which are discussed below). Rather, I stopped because I was in the process of noticing and critiquing disparities that existed within trans communities, especially with regards to how we were accepted within feminist and queer circles. Some of these disparities were driven by trans-misogyny, masculine-centrism, subversivism, and forms of cissexism that specifically target transsexuals—all of which became topics that I addressed in my book Whipping Girl.
As a result of my growing awareness of these disparities, I pulled back from referring to myself with more general trans terms (e.g., “transgender,” “tranny”), and began using more specific identity labels such as “transsexual” and “trans woman,” as I felt that these identities and standpoints were in more need of being articulated. (This is why I purposefully chose to describe myself as a “transsexual woman” in the subtitle of Whipping Girl.) In other words, I stopped routinely using the word “tranny,” not because I found it inappropriate or offensive, but rather because I found it to be too generic for the activism that I was engaging in at the time.
(For the record, I do believe that more general umbrella terms serve important purposes, and I often refer to myself as “transgender” or “trans” nowadays. Elsewhere, I’ve written about how activism centered on more specific identities need not be mutually exclusive with broader umbrella-based activism.)
Six years ago
During the early ’00s, I would sometimes come across trans people who expressed that they personally did not like the word “tranny,” but such occasions were relatively sporadic. It wasn’t until 2008 that I first remember hearing arguments denouncing the word on a more regular basis. Much of this appears to have been part of a backlash against Project Runway’s Christian Siriano’s popular catch phrase “hot tranny mess.” While I never saw that show personally, I do remember cis folks at the time suddenly using the word “tranny” and “tranny mess” quite a lot, almost as if they now owned the word. It was admittedly quite annoying.
One common response to this was for trans folks to argue that “tranny” was a derogatory word that nobody should ever use. Such arguments seemed to discount the fact that many trans folks at the time were regularly using it to refer to themselves in a positive, self-empowered way.
Other trans folks made what I call the “ingroup argument”: Because of its history as a slur, it is inappropriate for any cis person to use the word “tranny” under any circumstances. However, trans people are free to use it amongst ourselves as a special in-community word. While I understand the reasoning behind this argument, I believe that it overlooks the original intention behind why many trans activists set out to reclaim the word “tranny” in the first place. A common goal of reclaiming words is to turn a disparaging term into a legitimate one, as part of a strategy to assert that the referents of the label (in this case, trans people) are a legitimate thing to be. Many of us believed that we were working toward a future where “tranny” no longer carries bad connotations, and where anyone is free to use it in a non-derogatory manner, much like how both queer and straight folks use words like “gay” or “queer” today.
In any case, over the last five years, all of these arguments stressing that “tranny” is an inherently bad word have (for better or worse) created an environment where it is potentially controversial for anyone to use the word in any setting. For instance, I’ve been in trans woman-only settings where individual trans women have been interrogated by others for self-labeling themselves in that way.
Who is allowed to call themselves “tranny”?
Around the same time that trans folks were pushing back on the use of “tranny” in the mainstream public, two other debates surfaced regarding which gender variant subpopulations have the right to try to reclaim the word, or to use it self-referentially.
The first of these is the argument that people on the trans female/feminine spectrum have the right to reclaim “tranny,” while those on the trans male/masculine spectrum do not. My introduction to this idea came from Hazel/Cedar Troost’s excellent two-part blog-post series entitled “Re-Reclaiming Tranny (or not),” from November 2008 and January 2009. Hazel/Cedar’s posts made the following points:
1) When the word “tranny” is used as a slur, it is specifically meant to target trans female/feminine spectrum folks. For instance, it invokes the hypersexualization of trans femaleness/femininity in our culture (as seen in the phrases “tranny porn” and “hot tranny action”), which does not directly implicate or affect trans male/masculine folks.
2) In addition to sexualization, in our culture, “tranny” is used as a slur that implies “doing femininity or womanhood badly,” and thus is used to insult trans women and occasionally cis women, but not trans men. In other words, tranny is never used to call maleness or masculinity into question.
3) Many of the people who are most insistent on reclaiming the word “tranny” are folks on the trans male/masculine spectrum who are not only not personally targeted by the word, but who also sometimes dismiss trans women who are offended by the word via subversivism (e.g., claiming that trans women who distance themselves from the word “tranny” do so because they are too conservative, assimilationist, or binarist).
Hazel/Cedar’s posts won me over when I first read them, and for the last several years, I have tended to lean toward the trans-guys-reclaiming-the-word-tranny-is-problematic camp. And this perspective has since gained significant support within various segments of the trans community.
But in thinking through this issue more recently, I feel that there is a counter argument to this that is often overlooked. Historically, people on the trans female/feminine spectrum have garnered virtually all of the public’s attention and backlash, whereas (until recently) trans male/masculine folks have been almost entirely invisible. So perhaps people associate the word “tranny” with trans female/feminine spectrum folks because they are more aware of our existence? And therefore, as the public becomes more aware of trans male/masculine identities, perhaps they will begin to use word “tranny” as a slur against them as well?
There is some evidence to suggest that this may be the case. For instance, I have heard some trans male/masculine individuals say that they have been targeted by the word. Sure, this may not occur very frequently, but that could simply be because the public is less likely to read trans male/masculine individuals as trans (as a result of said invisibility). Here is more convincing evidence: If you google the word “tranny” along with either Chaz Bono or Thomas Beatie/“pregnant man” (the two trans men who have garnered the most mainstream attention) you will find plenty of instances where people unflattering or dismissively refer to them as “tranny”s. [blatantly obvious trigger warning: transphobia abound in said search results]
By no means am I suggesting that trans men are just as targeted by the word “tranny” as trans women. That is clearly not the case, at least not at this point in time. But as I said, words evolve. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the word “tranny” eventually becomes a word that is used to target all trans people independent of the direction of their gender-non-conformity and/or transition. And it could potentially become a slur that is used to dismiss anyone (whether cis or trans) who is perceived as falling short of being a “real woman” or “real man.”
A second argument that has arisen asserts that drag queens should not use the word “tranny,” or that when they do, they are appropriating trans women’s experiences. People who make this case often point to Ru Paul, who has been a vocal supporter of the word. Because Ru Paul does not identify as transgender, it is relatively easy for trans activists to portray him as a cis gay man who has no right to reclaim a word that primarily targets trans women. In addition, on his show Ru Paul’s Drag Race, he has routinely done other things that trans women find highly offensive or insensitive (e.g., using the even more controversial term “she-male,” and running skits that seem to encourage the audience to clock trans women). So it is fairly easy (and arguably justified) for trans activists to make the case that he is a cissexist gay man who has no right to reclaim the word.
In other cases, the claim that drag queens are “cisgender gay men” and thus have no right to reclaim the term is more specious. After all, some drag queens present as female/feminine in their day-to-day lives, and as such, they are often targeted by the word “tranny.” Still others eventually transition to female. There isn’t a sharp boundary that one can draw between drag queens and trans women any more than there is a sharp boundary that one can draw between butch women and trans men: While many people clearly fall into one camp or the other, there are others who blur those lines, or have inhabited both identities at different times in their lives. (And for to those who adamantly wish to draw a line in the sand between drag queens and trans women, I encourage you to read about Sylvia Rivera or watch the film Screaming Queens.)
In an excellent blog-post called ‘Let’s Talk About “Tranny”,’ Tobi Hill-Meyer makes this very relevant point:
While breaking down who can and can’t use the term based on identity is an easy shorthand for some very complicated issues, it has downsides. One of the big downside[s] is that it can cause an increase in policing the boundaries of trans and trans female/feminine identity. Can a drag queen use the term? A trans man? A genderqueer trans man? An uber feminine fag? Not to mention that it creates a situation that encourages judgment of how trans someone is or how valid a female identity is, which can leave transfeminine genderqueers in a difficult situation. The same goes for any trans woman who is misread as either not trans or not a woman. And such people who also happen to fit aspects of the stereotypically tranny image are left in an even more tenuous position. The downside of black and white rules is that you spend a lot of time parsing the gray areas and trying figure out how to put people in their place rather than evaluating the value of the rule in such situations.
The “T-word” in 2014
It seems that within the last year or so, the tide seems to have shifted even farther away from skirmishes over who has the right to reclaim the word “tranny,” and more toward the realm of nobody-should-use-the-word-period. An argument that is increasingly made to justify this latter position is that trans women often experience the word in association with abuse or violence. According to this argument, even if I (as a trans woman) were to use the word in a reclaimed and self-empowering way, I may inadvertently trigger others who have had the same word hurled at them during an assault, or in a harassing or threatening situation.
Now, I am sensitive to this as someone who has had slurs hurled at me during harassing or abusive altercations, and who has subsequently experienced intense reactions to those words after the fact. Part of the reason why I no longer use the word “tranny” today (with the exception of reading my older writings, or pieces such as this where I am looking back at how the word has been used in the past) is that I have no desire to needlessly or flippantly toss around a word that is likely to trigger or upset other people. Having said that, I do think that it is important for us to interrogate this argument, as it has some unforeseen implications and drawbacks.
First, I believe that the reason why many trans people (and especially trans women) experience “tranny” in association with harassment and abuse is that 1) many cis people have extremely negative views of trans folks, and 2) “tranny” is the only word (or most familiar word) they have to refer to us. Hence, the word is often used in a derogatory fashion. So what happens when people become familiar with more “respectable” words such as trans or transgender?
Well, they may end up using these words in a similarly negative way. In fact, this is already starting to happen: I have heard of numerous instances (whether it be on the streets, or on TERF websites and Internet comment threads) where cissexist individuals use the words “trans” or “transgender” in a similarly disparaging or degrading manner. In other words, the problem is not these words per se, but the negative meanings that people try to convey with such words. Given this, it doesn’t make much sense for us to simply purge every trans-related label once others begin using them in a derogatory fashion. Rather, it makes more sense for us to challenge the underlying negative meanings themselves (a point that I will return to in the final section).
Second, there is diversity among trans people in what words they find upsetting and/or what words they have experienced in association with abuse. For instance, while I have on multiple occasions been called a “tranny” in association with harassment, I don’t find the word to be triggering, perhaps because I came out into a trans community where the word was regularly used in a reclaimed way. But as I allude to in the last chapter of Excluded, I am often triggered by the word “trap,” even when it is used in a non-cissexist manner. My life would be a lot easier to manage if people simply stopped saying that word, but I don’t expect the trans community to collectively work to purge that word from the lexicon. Indeed, I have heard other trans women say that they are not really bothered by the word “trap,” even when it is used to refer to us.
Along similar lines, I have had harassers call me a “she-male,” and I have found it very distressing—I experience it as an affront to my identity. And yet, I have met non-op trans women who use the term self-referentially. From their standpoint, they feel that they need the term because so many transsexuals actively try to invisibilize and invalidate trans women who do not seek out bottom surgery. In their eyes, “she-male” is the most easily recognized term in our culture for a woman with a penis, so they have sought to reclaim it. While this honestly squicks me (as the word has been used in disparaging ways toward me), who am I (as a post-op trans woman) to say that they should not be able to reclaim that word?
Those who have read my writings may know that I personally abhor the term “transwoman” (i.e., spelled as one word). While I wouldn’t say that I find it triggering, I have had numerous instances where others have non-consensually described me as a “transwoman,” or where editors of articles that I have written have removed the spaces between “trans” and “woman”—I have found those experiences to be highly invalidating. And yet, at the same time, I know there are other trans folks who regularly use the one-word variation and they can have legitimate rationales for doing so.
The point is that there is diversity among trans women, and trans people more generally. We will never all agree on language, as we necessarily have different experiences and come from different perspectives. So I am concerned about how assertions that the word “tranny” is offensive or unacceptable in all cases, regardless of context or intent, presumes that there is some kind of universal trans perspective. Any time an activist movement starts asserting that their constituents are all uniform in their views on a particular matter, it leads to the erasure of certain voices within the movement. And this is not a trivial problem—I spend most of Excluded explaining precisely why such one-size-fits-all approaches inevitably lead to far smaller movements with far more narrow and distorted agendas. Typically, those individuals who fail to adhere to the consensus view will be dismissed as not being “real” or “legitimate” members of the marginalized group, or accused of “reinforcing” the oppression the marginalized group faces—indeed, I have already witnessed numerous accusations along these lines being made in contemporary debates about the word “tranny.”
Finally, as I alluded to at the beginning of this section, it is relatively easy for me to give up the word “tranny” in order to accommodate other people, as I stopped using it as an identity label years ago. It would surely be more difficult for trans folks who continue to find it to be a self-empowering identity label. But what if the next word we seek to do away with *is* a label that I find to be important and self-empowering?
For instance, lots of trans folks seem to dislike the word transsexual—a word that I use in a reclaimed way and which has become an important part of my identity and activism. What if the community moves to purge that word over the course of the next five or ten years? Do I become a pariah if I continue to use it? What if it’s some other identity label that I (or you) use nowadays? What are the ramifications of that?
Some may find this suggestion to be far-fetched or alarmist. But honestly, I could not have imagined this large of a community pushback on the word “tranny” as recently as seven years ago. So it seems to me that this scenario is entirely plausible.
Those who oppose the purging of the word “tranny” will often trot out the trope of “word policing.” It is an easy way to demonize those who detest the word as being “too authoritarian,” just as accusations of “political correctness” dismiss the same people as being “too sensitive.” Such accusations deny the reality that words have meanings and can be used to wield power over people. But at the same time, power can also be wielded via attempts to eradicate words that others have long used as part of their identity, activism, and/or culture. I believe that it is incumbent upon us as activists to consider the negative effects that eliminating such words can have on those marginalized individuals (an issue that I have discussed in greater depth regarding attempts by some to eradicate the word “bisexual”).
Words don’t kill people, people kill words...
In the Disclaimer to this piece, I mentioned that I wrote most of this essay in 2013 (all of it except for the previous “2014” section and this revamped “conclusion”). I didn’t post it back then because frankly I was worried about misinterpretation and blowback. I worried that people who abhor the word “tranny” would disparage me for not taking a hardline stance against the word and/or for giving “potential ammunition” to the other side of the debate. And I worried that people who like to carelessly drop the word without regard for how others feel about it would either cite this essay in order to bolster their claims, or else accuse me of kowtowing too much to those who wish to “censor language.” I suppose this all may still occur: A negative drawback of holding complicated or ambivalent views on a contentious matter is that one runs the risk of being misunderstood and denounced by people on all sides of the debate.
I started writing this essay simply because I thought that it would be interesting to chronicle how dramatically community reactions toward this word have shifted over the last decade. As the title suggests, I initially viewed this piece as a personal historical project. And I decided to shelve a previously completed version of this piece last summer, again, because I feared that it would be misinterpreted and misunderstood. But a couple of months ago, I found myself wanting to revisit this piece. As I did, it became increasingly clear to me that I was not *really* writing about the word “tranny” per se. After all, I do not have a personal stake in the word, so if it dies a slow death, I won’t personally mind. And even if I did harbor strong opinions about the word, I highly doubt that anything I could say would really make much of a difference: There is so much critical mass against the word within trans communities these days that I have a hard time imagining it ever making a comeback.
So why did I bother spending countless hours over the course of a year to write a 10,000-ish word essay about a term that I have no personal investment in? Well, because I realized over time that what this essay is *really* about is language. And more specifically, about how we, as trans activists, constantly and continually attempt to transform any and all language that relates to us.
As activists, we often stress how crucial words and language are. You don’t need to convince me of this—I literally (pun intended!) named myself after a character in a George Orwell book. The problem that we often make, however, is that we mistakenly assume that words have fixed meanings: that they are inherently good or bad, righteous or oppressive, revolutionary or conservative. The truth is that the meanings that we assign to words (or presume they have) are often extraordinarily arbitrary. One subpopulation of trans folks will celebrate a particular word as a self-empowering label, while another will claim that the same combination of letters and syllables is problematic for some reason, or does the community more harm than good. We denounce people for their attempts to reclaim words that we detest despite the fact that we ourselves routinely use reclaimed words (e.g., gay, queer, dyke) that others detested and protested in the past. And we complain about how neologisms look “too foreign” or are “too confusing” despite the fact that many words we regularly use nowadays started out as neologisms. In some cases, we point to a word’s troubled history to make the case that we should completely do away with it (e.g., when people who dislike the word “transsexual” point to its origins as a pathologizing term), and in other cases, we completely ignore any positive history a word may have had (e.g., how people who dislike the word “tranny” ignore its origins as a community-created, non-pathologizing identity label, or how it was used in a positive way by activists in the ’90s and early ’00s). Frankly, there is no rhyme or reason to any of this.
Once again, this goes well beyond consternations regarding the word “tranny.” I can’t tell you how many conversations I have participated in over the past two decades about trans terminology. Should we refer to our community as transgender, gender variant, gender-non-conforming, trans, trans*, or other? Are we MTFs, transwomen, trans women, women of transsexual experience, girls like us, survivors of Harry Benjamin Syndrome, or other? Should we call it a “sex change,” sex reassignment surgery, gender reassignment surgery, gender confirmation surgery, bottom surgery, or other? Is it transsexuality or transsexualism? Should we spell “transsexual” with one or two S’s? Are we “transgendered” or “transgender”? Can transgender and transsexual be used as nouns and/or as plural words?
It used to be OK to refer to someone as a “transvestite” (still is in the U.K., from what I gather), but then the preferred term in the U.S. became “crossdresser.” However, some activists pointed out that “crossdresser” and “crossdressing” make too many assumptions about a person’s life history and current gender identity. So to avoid such assumptions, many of us began simply describing people as “presenting as female (or male),” but some have objected to that on the grounds such phrasing is pathologizing (with analogies being made to patients “presenting” symptoms of an illness), even though this phrasing had activist (rather than medical/psychiatric) origins.
I have informally started referring to this phenomenon as the “activist language merry-go-round,” as these continual shifts in terminology never seem to end. In some cases, a particular word replacement may seem to be a vast improvement over the previous term (I don’t hear too many people lamenting the loss of “sex change,” for instance). But most of these word swaps seem to be fairly arbitrary and/or provide incremental (if any) improvement over previously existing terms. A few terms blatantly espouse a particular ideology (e.g., the usage of Harry Benjamin Syndrome implies a belief that transsexuality is an intersex condition), but most seem to be more about aesthetics (e.g., in many of the terminology debates I have alluded to above, there are linguistic precedents to support both sides of the argument).
It is true that words and language are important. But this importance stems not from the actual words themselves, but rather the meanings that we attach to them and ways in which we use them. Case in point: The words “gay” and “lesbian” are generally considered to be inoffensive, and even respectable, words to use to refer to people of those particular sexual orientations these days. And yet, those labels have very different histories. The word gay has a long (as in several-hundred-year-long) history as a pejorative lay people used to refer topeople who were considered to be promiscuous, prostitutes, and/or sexually deviant, before it became an in-community term for gay men. As the straight majority learned of this latter usage, they began using it in a derogatory fashion toward gay men, as well as other people and things they did not like. Lesbian is a historical reference to the Greek Island of Lesbos, which was home the poet Sappho (circa 6th century B.C.). The term was used by sexologists for years before it was reclaimed by lesbian activists. As the straight majority learned of this usage, they began using it in a derogatory fashion toward lesbians, any woman who is not conventionally feminine, and/or primarily associating it with a particular genre of pornography that had virtually nothing to do with actual lesbians.
The words gay and lesbian have been used as both slurs and as self-empowering identities at different times by different people. One is used primarily as an adjective, while the other can be used as an adjective or a noun. Nobody takes these words literally (e.g., assuming that all gay men are happy, or that all lesbians are of Greek descent), nor does the historical usage of these terms take precedence over their contemporary usage (e.g., nobody assumes that “gay” implies promiscuity or prostitution, or that “lesbian” implies pathology or geographic origin). Their prominence today is not due to the fact these were the magical *perfect words* that allowed these groups to finally challenge the oppression they face and garner mainstream acceptance. Rather, these words are merely accidents of history—one can rather easily imagine that, under slightly different circumstances, other neologisms or reclaimed terminologies (e.g., homosexual, homophile, sapphist, queer, dyke, fairy, woman-identified woman, to name but a few possibilities) could have become the accepted terms for these populations.
In other words, the “activist language merry-go-round” does not stop when the marginalized group finally finds *all the perfect words* to convey their identity and circumstance. It stops when people (or at least, a big chunk of society) cease projecting stigmatizing meanings, assumptions, and stereotypes onto those identities and circumstances. And for trans people, this obviously has not happened yet.
Stigma is the engine that keeps the “activist language merry-go-round” in perpetual motion. We grow up in a culture where everything related to being trans is deemed illegitimate, suspect, fake, immoral, ridiculous, gross, etc. These meanings seep into the words that people use to describe our bodies and lives, our identities and partners, the things that we do, and virtually anything associated with us. These negative meanings and the systemic social structures that propagate them run deep and remain largely out of our reach. One of the few areas in our lives in which we can exert a modicum of control is through language: the words that we personally choose to embrace (or discard), and the words that we will tolerate (or not tolerate) from the mouths of others.
There is an understandable tendency for us to be suspicious toward (and perhaps even despise) trans-related language that was popularized before our time, as such words may seem to symbolize or embody the very stereotypes and negative meanings that we are trying to detangle and dissociate ourselves from. This desire to destroy previously existing terminologies, and to replace them with novel alternatives, or freshly minted reclaimed words, seems to occur in every activist movement to some degree.
Historically, this process has been fairly slow moving—a gradual evolution in word usage over time. But in the Internet age, an idea or argument regarding language can catch on like wildfire (as I discuss in Notes #10 and #13). This is perhaps even more true with regards to trans communities, where the people who tend to be most active on Internet community forums and blogospheres are younger trans folks, those who are in the process of coming out or transitioning, and/or who are not too far removed from those life events. Furthermore, many trans people ultimately become far less active in, or completely dissociate themselves from, the community after a few years of vigorous involvement (I am admittedly an anomaly in this regard). Together, these trends can create a wave-like phenomenon: Newly engaged activists are constantly forwarding their own word preferences designed to replace the previously existing terminology (which they find problematic for understandable reasons), just as the activists who initially championed that previous terminology (and who also did so for understandable reasons) are pulling back and thus remain largely unavailable to defend that language or explain why those language preferences resonated with them in the first place. Hence, the “activist language merry-go-round” keeps on spinning.
At this juncture, a few points need to be made before people start hating on me. First, I am not in anyway implying that newer activists are “naive” whereas their predecessors “have historical perspective.” I believe that ahistoricity runs rampant among all generations, and especially within LGBTQIA+ circles, where (with a few exceptions) we suddenly “come out” into communities that we were neither raised nor socialized into, and for which we have little previous historical knowledge about (unless we go out of our way to purposefully seek it out). Second, while the “activist language merry-go-round” often results in a mere “re-branding” of previously-existing identities, objects, expressions, and ideas, it is also true that each new wave of trans activists contributes new and important concepts that further our understanding of trans people and our experiences. And many of these concepts will be responses to present circumstances that could not have been envisioned by activists of the previous wave. So while some shifts in language may be somewhat arbitrary, others may be vitally important.
Some people may assume that my discussion here is self-serving: “Well, now that Julia has written her books and articles forwarding the language that she wants, she is trying to prevent future generations from replacing her preferred trans-related words with theirs.” Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, I do not have the power to stop any one person, let alone an entire trans community, from forwarding or protesting whatever language they wish. The phenomenon that I am describing here is bigger than any of us.
Furthermore, I have accepted the fact that the “activist language merry-go-round” will not stop until trans identities, expressions, bodies, etc., are viewed as legitimate in our culture. When that time comes, trans-related words and labels will no longer be saturated with stigma, and only then will trans folks not feel compelled to eradicate such language or replace every term with novel (or reclaimed) alternatives.
Returning to the initial topic of this essay: The word “tranny” is, on one level, merely an ensemble of letters and syllables. But on another level—one in which many of us viscerally experience—the word is often (albeit not always) used to unleash an onslaught of negative sentiments. My fear is that we, as trans activists, are focusing all of our ire and wrath on the word itself, while not challenging the negative sentiments it seems to embody (and which are our true foe). And I am worried that the message that we are inadvertently conveying to the cis majority is “don’t ever use the T-word,” rather than encouraging them to interrogate and challenge the numerous negative meanings, assumptions, and stereotypes that people sometimes try to convey via that word.
In this essay, both directly and indirectly (via articles I’ve linked to) I have discussed a plethora of different meanings that different people have associated with the word “tranny” over time:
My purpose in listing these various meanings is not imply that “tranny” is a special magical fairy-dust word that can mean anything to any person, and therefore all people are entitled to freely use it however they wish. The word does have a history as a slur (albeit only over the last few decades), and some trans people have experienced the word in association with sexual harassment and/or transphobic violence. People should be aware of this history, and if they choose to use the word, they should be responsible for their decision to do so. At the same time, we should all be cognizant of the complex history of the word, and (I would argue) we should judge people primarily according to their intent and the context in which they use it.
Earlier in this essay, I cited “queer,” “gay,” and “dyke” as examples of words that have been positively reclaimed. Despite being successfully reclaimed, these words are still sometimes (by certain people, in certain contexts) used as slurs. Most of us can rather easily distinguish between positive or neutral uses of these words—e.g., “Zachary Quinto came out as gay a few years ago” or “The Dyke March is this Saturday”—and negative ones—e.g., “That show is so gay, I can’t believe you like it” or “Fucking dykes!” (as angrily shouted from a passing car at me and my girlfriend).
I would love to see conversations about the word “tranny” reach this level of nuance. Rather than calling out the mere utterance of “tranny,” let’s call out instances in which the word is used to exploit, erase, or denigrate trans people. And rather than simply calling out the fact that someone has used the word, let’s call out the negative meanings behind the usage (e.g., “When you called her a ‘tranny’ just then, you were trying to sexualize/objectify her,” or “...you were implying that she’s not a ‘real’ woman”).
I would argue that it’s the negative meanings behind word “tranny” that invalidate us, not the word itself. If we only strive to eradicate words (whether it be “tranny” or others), those negative meanings will continue to persist, and they will inevitably latch themselves onto other words. And it is only when we have convinced the much of the cis majority to abandon those negative meanings that the “activist language merry-go-round” will finally stop spinning.
I, for one, am looking forward to a time when trans activism and trans-related language is not so dizzying all the time.
1. Admittedly, this is an oversimplification, as people can have alternative goals for reclaiming words. An excellent paper describing these various goals is Robin Brontsema, “A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation,” Colorado Research in Linguistics 17, no. 1 (2004), 1-17.[PDF link] Personally, I think the “ingroup argument” often gains momentum (at least initially) because it functions as a compromise of sorts between those who view the word as inherently bad (and who thus remain able to push for the eradication of the term within mainstream society) and those who embrace it as a reclaimed word (who thus remain able to use the term self-referentially). However, a negative side effect of this compromise is that often leads to “border wars” over who is a legitimate member of the group or target of the word (and thus are allowed to reclaim it) and who is not—I discuss such border wars later in the essay.
2. I say that I “leaned toward” the trans-guys-reclaiming-the-word-tranny-is-problematic camp because I agreed with the logic behind the argument. However, I did not personally feel comfortable with the idea of telling trans male/masculine folks that they have no right to use the word. This is especially true for those who were out in the ’90s and early ’00s, and who embraced the word in order to challenge the rampant cis assumption and trans male/masculine invisibility that existed back then. However, I would insist that trans male/masculine folks who choose to use the word “tranny” are responsible for educating themselves about trans female/feminine perspectives on the word.
3. In Whipping Girl, I argued that this difference in visibility is due to societal effemimania, plus the fact that, in our culture, male/masculine physical cues trump female/feminine ones when it comes to how we gender people (leading trans women to be read as trans more frequently than trans men). In “Psychology, Sexualization and Trans-Invalidations,”[PDF link] I discuss how trans male/masculine invisibility is closely linked to the public’s tendency to sexualize trans female/feminine folks.
4. I fear that some trans male/masculine individuals may take this passage out of context, and say something like, “See, Julia Serano said that trans guys are also oppressed by the word ‘tranny,’ therefore we have every right to reclaim the word ourselves!” So let me be clear: I do not have the authority to give you (or anyone!) permission to use the word “tranny.” And my words here are not intended to provide anyone with cover to use a word that may upset or offend others. As I said in note #2, I am not about to “police” anyone’s identity label choices, but I do believe that trans male/masculine folks should be cognizant of trans female/feminine perspectives on the word.
5. I say “arguably justified” because it depends on one’s interpretation of the word. If you view “tranny” as a slur that specifically targets people who are transgender-identified, then this argument is indeed justified. However, if you view the word (a la Kate Bornstein) as a word created by trans women and drag queens to unite both camps, then Ru Paul does seem to have a stake in the term (even if he is not doing a very good job on the “uniting” front). I am not arguing for or against either of these interpretations, just acknowledging that both viewpoints exist and seem to be contributing to this ongoing debate.
6. Another historical note: In the trans communities that I participated in in the early ’00s, there was a lot of talk about people taking responsibility for their own triggers, rather than citing them as a justification for removing potentially distressing words, opinions, people, etc. Much of this seemed to be a direct response to the then commonplace claims that the presence of trans women in women-only spaces would trigger survivors of sexual abuse (I discuss such claims in Whipping Girl, p. 242 and Excluded, pp. 30-31). This was also in the wake of 9/11, when many Americans felt that they were entitled to “be free of” (i.e., to remove or censor) any language, political or religious views, people, songs, etc., that made them feel “unsafe”—this atmosphere also likely fueled discussions about people taking responsibilities for their own triggers in my community. I’d like to think that there is some sort of middle-ground for us to both be respectful of people’s triggers while at the same time acknowledging that people will differ in what they may find triggering, and that attempts to make “safe spaces” often result in “same spaces” that favor homogeneity over diversity.
7. “Trap” is a derogatory slang term for trans women, popularized by cis men who believe that we supposedly “deceive” them into being attractive to someone who is “not really a woman.” A number of years ago (while self-googling), I stumbled upon a message board where someone lifted a photo of me from my website, and others started gawking at it, with some of the commenters referring to me as a “trap.” I found it highly violating and degrading, and I believe that it is why I continue to have such an intense negative reaction toward the word.
8. I discuss my reasoning for this in Whipping Girl. pp. 29-30, and in the footnote of Trans Feminism: There’s No Conundrum About It.
9. Kate Bornstein talks about this here. Jayne County—a trans woman who has been out since the ’70s—has also recently complained about other people’s attempts to censor her from using the word “tranny.” Both women were out as trans decades before me and were trans pioneers during a time that was far more fraught than anything that I experienced during my coming out in the early ’00s. Even if we do not agree with their views on this word (or other issues), I personally believe that both have earned the right to call themselves whatever they want, as most of us wouldn’t even be here without their trailblazing lives. Admittedly, other trans folks may strongly disagree with me about this.
10. As I allude to in the following paragraph in the text, attempts to purge the word “bisexual” in recent years (stemming from forces both within and external to bisexual/pansexual-umbrella communities) is another example of how previously taken-for-granted identity labels and activist terminologies can rather suddenly find themselves to be subjected to undue scrutiny and potential eradication. I discuss this particular case in my essay Bisexuality and Binaries Revisited.
11. One of the most formative books in my life was Orwell’s 1984. I read it several times in the years before my transition. And during those years, I very much related to the circumstance of having to navigate my way through a dangerous and repressed world without letting anyone find out who I really was or what I was thinking. While not a perfect character, Julia despises the society she lives in, but is adept at keeping secrets and not being found out. Julia is a survivor. She takes risks, but calculated ones. She is a passionate person, but only indulges in that side of herself when she knows that it’s safe to let her guard down. That is how I saw myself pre-transition and why I chose Julia as my name. That, plus the fact that I had always aesthetically liked the name Julie for reasons that remain unclear to me.
12. For a period in the ’90s, trans activists began spelling it “transexual” with one S (as seen in the activist group name Transexual Menace). Presumably, this purposeful misspelling was done to free the word from its pathologizing past. The problem with alternate spellings is that, while they may feel reclaiming and radical when written or when reading them off the page, they typically sound identical to the non-reclaimed variations when spoken.
13. In the ’90s and early ’00s, the word “transgendered” was commonplace—one can find it in classic books like Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw and Leslie Feinberg’s Trans Liberation, and I routinely used it in my early writings (e.g., my chapbooks Either/Or and Draw Blood). We routinely talk about people being “gendered,” so it makes sense that one might describe someone as being “transgendered.” But at some point in the mid-’00s, there were increasing complaints about “transgendered.” Many of these centered on the notion that, because the word is an adjective, it is grammatically incorrect to add an “-ed” to it, or that the “-ed” implied “past tense” (although others have thoroughly debunked such claims). In any case, such complaints started to garner critical mass around the time that I was writing Whipping Girl. I vividly remember using the “Replace” function to change all instances of “transgendered” to “transgender” in my manuscript. I remember that it initially felt so strange to say that someone was “transgender” rather than “transgendered”; nowadays, the exact opposite is true: “transgendered” feels horribly wrong to me on a visceral level. While trans folks these days often say that they find the phrasing “transgendered person” to be offensive, other trans folks have said that they find “transgender person” to be offensive. As I have argued throughout this piece thus far, there is no pleasing everybody when it comes to activist language.
14. While I prefer “trans woman,” those who prefer “transwoman” can point to words like “congresswoman” as precedents. People who like the term “transsexuality” can point to “bisexuality,” whereas those who prefer “transsexualism” can point to “lesbianism.” Those who hate the usage of transgender or transsexual as a noun can point to the word “gay” (i.e., we don’t talk about people being “a gay”), whereas those who do not mind will cite the fact that it’s OK to talk about someone being “a lesbian.” Those who hate the plural versions “transgenders” and “transsexuals” can stress how inappropriate it is to refer to “gays,” whereas others can point to the frequently used plural words “lesbians” and “queers.” The arbitrary nature of the “transgender” versus “transgendered” debate is discussed in note #13.