June 23, 2014

Understanding The Controversy Surrounding The “T” Word

"Tranny" is an expression that has come under fire as a derogatory term for transgender people. Is it ever appropriate to use this word?

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The “Drag Race” controversy

By now, most people have heard or read about the controversy surrounding the use of the word “tranny” by noted drag queen RuPaul.

RuPaul’s show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has often been scrutinized for its use of expressions such as “tranny” and “she-male.” The most recent outcry came after the show featured a mini-challenge entitled “She-male or Female” in which the contestants were asked to guess whether a photograph was of a drag performer or a cisgender (a person whose gender identity aligns with their natal sex) female. Many groups and individuals, including Logo, the network that hosts Drag Race, saw this as the time to finally call RuPaul out for their offensive language and, in the case of Logo, distance themselves from the show in an attempt to show solidarity with offended trans viewers and allies. Many others saw the use of these words as an attempt to reclaim offensive language, as we have seen in recent years with words like queer, and have supported RuPaul in their choice to actively use this language.

This is one of the first times that trans-specific language has been called into question in large-scale media. The freshness of this issue has left many unable to come to a conclusion as to whether or not this language is offensive.

History of the word

The word “tranny” was widely used (often by those who were not considered to be part of the community) in the 1960’s as a word to identify any non gender-conforming  or female-presenting person who was societally judged to be male. The word is a shortened form of transvestite and/or transsexual. At this time, “transvestite” was generally used to describe a male-identified person who dressed as a female for erotic gratification, and also to describe drag queens, who are usually male-identified people who dress as women to perform as entertainers. On the other hand, the word transsexual (which has more recently been replaced by “transgender”) was used to identify a person whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth, sometimes taking steps to physically transition using hormone therapy or surgery. With the use of the word tranny, these two distinct groups of people individuals (men who cross-dressed recreationally vs. people who actually identified as women) were lumped together within the non-gender normative “other”. “Tranny” was (and still is) a derogatory word used to describe gender non-conforming people.

A Generational Rift

One major issue with this conflict seems to be a generational divide in what language seems appropriate. In modern day, there have been newer words created to allow people to find more specific identities. We now use transgender as a blanket term for anyone who identifies with a gender that is not in congruence with the sex assigned at birth. Drag is the accepted descriptor for anyone who dresses in the clothing of another gender for purposes of entertainment or performance. Despite these modern distinctions, many older trans-identified people and those who perform drag have maintained a connection with the term “tranny,” choosing to reclaim it in order to remove power from the word. This is in direct conflict with the younger generation, who has seen the development of more inclusive and sensitive language. This younger group of people tends to look at words like “tranny” as unnecessary and offensive, while the older generation may take issue with “language policing.” This has led to conflict and controversies within the transgender community. It is important to remember that even if a transgender person chooses to embrace this word, that does not make it appropriate for a cisgender person to use it.

Drag Performer Vs. Trans Person

Another major issue with the use of the word tranny is that many trans people feel that it is inappropriate to have cisgender drag performers reclaiming a word that is not used to harm them in their daily “out of drag” lives. Tranny has become a word applied offensively to trans people in an attempt to disregard or belittle non-normative gender identities. Trans activists and allies feel that mainstream drag performers such as RuPaul using this language is giving legitimacy to these words, allowing them to enter everyday vernacular without question. An argument used by many trans people is that  just as it isn’t acceptable for heterosexual people to use words like queer or faggot,  it shouldn’t be acceptable for people who are not transgender to use words like tranny.

It should be noted that many of those coming out in support of the language used by RuPaul have been male-identified drag performers and gay men. It is important to remember that those who most vehemently disagree with the use of the word are also those who are also most at risk for being attacked or harmed with words like “tranny.”

You can’t reclaim what doesn’t belong to you

While many different arguments have emerged in this debate, one thing is for certain: we have seen far too many people fighting to reclaim a word that doesn’t belong to them. This is similar to white people coming out in support of reclaiming racial slurs. Without the lived experience of being part of the oppressed minority, a person can’t possibly have the right to reclaim words that have been used so destructively.

Bryant Hayes is a sophomore at IU studying Gender Studies and Psychology with a certificate in Political and Civic Engagement, with an emphasis on Trans issues.