Find a new word

There’s all kinds of uproar, particularly among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (and among non-LGBT people who watch reality television) about the word “tranny” lately. Thus far I’ve read the 101 Facebook threads and opinion articles with interest, but I’ve avoided sharing my own opinion.

And then today, I read an article that I found really compelling, but I disagreed with why the person posted it. And I’ve decided to have my say on the subject.

First, a disclaimer: this all started with some controversy over the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which features (primarily) men who create costumes and personas to perform as drag queens. Many of them do pretty remarkable work, and that’s coming from someone who’s not particularly fond of most drag queens or most drag performances.  I rarely watch the show, though I usually find it entertaining when I do.

The word “tranny” has historically been used as a slur, just like lots of other words used derisively against minority groups. It’s short for transsexual, or transgender, or transvestite… I don’t claim to be a linguistic authority on the exact word that it was originally derived from, but you get the idea. Those words refer to someone who was born of one sex but identify as (and often outwardly live as) the other. More recently, “trans” is a more common and preferred alternative.

No, not this.

Like many of slurs, there has also been an effort to “reclaim” the word by the very people it’s often used against. In the same way that many gay men — particularly younger gay men — have taken to calling each other “faggot” and “queer” as a way of reclaiming the word from their detractors, some trans people will refer to themselves and to each other as “tranny”, sometimes playfully or affectionately.

I’m all for people describing themselves however they are comfortable, and if people refer to each other that way without malice and with no hurt feelings on the receiving end, then that’s their business. However, some of the language in RuPaul’s Drag Race (and in the ongoing and very public controversy over the language in the show) has offended a whole bunch of people, in the show and not, trans and not, gay and not, and so on. The debate has gone far beyond the show or its contestants.

The detailed history of what was said, by whom, and to whom isn’t crucial to this post. If you’re unfamiliar with the debate, Google it and you’ll get brought up to speed very quickly. Where I have heartburn isn’t so much about the words used in and about the show, but more the general concept of slurs.

In general I try to take a stance of “if someone asks you not to call them a slur, it’s polite not to” approach. Similarly, if someone is genuinely offended by language, whether you meant offense or not, in many (most?) cases I’d suggest that you simply find a different word unless you truly believe the person is deliberately just being difficult for the sake of it. (I think genuine offense is fairly easy to distinguish from manufactured outrage, but in general I’d still err on the side of politely changing your language if asked.)

I’ve been on the receiving end of slurs that I didn’t like. A dear friend used to call opponents “faggots” when we were playing video games together… He clearly had no ill will toward gay men (I’ve been “out” to him for more than a decade) but it was language he was accustomed to using when angry at someone, and I had to ask him to stop. Whether it’s used against me, or just around me, I’m going to be uncomfortable and I’m going to ask you to stop. Similarly, if you use “the n-word” around me, I’m going to get heated pretty quickly.

(Side-note: the fact that I’ll say “tranny” and “faggot” but restrict myself to “the n-word” is telling, I think… Brief self-reflection leads me to conclude that it’s because of near-universal societal condemnation of the last one, but not the first two yet… but I suppose that’s a subject for another post.)

These are the kind of words that people hear seconds before they get beaten up, thrown out of the family or church (in the case of the anti-LGBT slurs), or killed. They’re words used out of malice and hate. I don’t think they belong in civil conversation, and I’ll tell you so if I hear you use them.

So why, then, the vehement defense by so many people (RuPaul included) of the appropriateness of saying “tranny”? Why not simply choose a different word, if it’s offensive to many? From most of the dialogue I’ve seen online on the subject, it seems the defense mostly falls into one of three camps:

  1. I’m a gay man, or a drag queen, or trans, and it doesn’t bother me… so I should be able to say it
  2. Stop being so sensitive, toughen up, quit whining (this being the primary argument from RuPaul)
  3. RuPaul says it and I like RuPaul so anyone who doesn’t like it should shut the hell up (not in so many words, perhaps, but the protectiveness toward RuPaul is apparent)

Frankly, I just don’t agree that any of those are valid reasons for using offensive language in the media with an audience of millions. If you don’t mind being called “tranny”, then fine, don’t object to people calling you that. If you think people are being too sensitive, ask yourself what’s offensive to you and reflect on why (and if you’re about to claim that absolutely nothing offends you, you’re either delusional or sociopathic, so don’t). And if you can’t think beyond an emotional reaction to someone daring to question a celebrity that you adore, then that’s just sad.

I could rant on this for many more pages, but my point is this: it’s a word that is unquestionably offensive to many, many people. True, many people who aren’t trans (including some male-identified drag queens) think it’s perfectly fine to use, but they’re not trans, so they don’t get to approve the word for everyone else. And yes, many trans people don’t mind the word or even embrace it, and that’s fine for them… But their approval shouldn’t mean the rest of the world has to hear it either, any more than some black people regularly using “the n-word” means that it’s okay for everyone else to.

Slurs are hurtful, and if you’re politely asked not to use them, there’s rarely any justifiable reason for continuing. “Freedom of speech” doesn’t mean “freedom to be an asshole without being thought rude for it”.

Find a less objectionable word and move on.

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One Response to Find a new word

  1. Dee Norris says:

    Good rant, Kevin.

    Tranny has been a slur when used externally toward Trans people, but when used internally, it is often an endearment between friends. Thus is root of the debate.

    RuPaul is publicly encouraging it’s use externally yet citing the internal use as a justification. The obvious problem is the when used externally towards Trans, it still carries the external meme and emotional baggage greatly amplified by an increased association with drag, impersonation and entertainment.

    His continued use of the term demonstrates his total disregard for achieving social Equality for the LGBTQI? community and his willingness to sacrifice gender non-conforming people for his own gain as an entertainer.

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