The Trouble with “Tranny”

Actress Gabourey Sidibe made headlines today for an interview with Arsenio Hall where she repeatedly used the word “tranny”.  You can see the video, the reporting and her subsequent apology here.  It was quickly picked up by social media and the following debate ranged from “shocked and appalled at her transphobic bigotry” to “*eye roll* whatever tranny” within the LGBT community.

The transgender community has made it clear that the term is a slur and it should not be used.  GLAAD and other organizations have publicized this when it has been used publicly and a number of individuals from Neal Patrick Harris to Lance Bass have issued apologies for using it.  For those active in LGBT advocacy it has been a no-brainer for some time.

However, the conflicting reactions today seemed to arise from the various experiences individuals have had with the usage of the word, and who it was being used by or about.  The definition online (sketchy at best since the term is given credit as only existing since the 1960s) includes transsexual, transgender and transvestite.  There is a great explanation of the main popularization of the term by pornography and the impact of that in creating the pejorative context for the transgender community here and a response moderating that perspective on the same site here, though both are truly in reference to the transgender community’s own use and perception of the word, not the usability for cisgender individuals.

Many of the “shocked and appalled” responders seem flabbergasted by those who don’t – or didn’t before now – know it was a slur.  Though by the number of people whose comments in several conversations I watched today they didn’t, it’s worth considering the reasons.  First and foremost, it seems the greatest contributor is the continued lack of awareness of the needs and experiences of the transgender community.  I documented my own admitted lack of knowledge recently here, and it’s something I’m actively working to change.  So, it seems many people weren’t aware it is a slur because they just aren’t familiar with the struggles of the transgender community.

The second challenge goes back to the groups included in the definition, specifically transvestites.  Drag queens, transvestites or crossdressers – “tranny” is also a term that some in that community call themselves or each other.  This extends further to fans and friends of, most often, drag queens using the term in this context.  RuPaul famously defended the use of the word, angering many in the transgender community.  However, for the “*eye roll* what’s the big deal” responders, specifically gay men, not being willing to listen and understand the transgender community’s perspective is disrespectful and insulting.  You don’t have to “mean it that way” to be unintentionally contributing to the problem.

It seems clear that in any situation you default to the needs and experience of the group that has and continues to experience violence and vitriol, so the deference is clearly to the transgender community who in the LGBT rainbow still struggle far more significantly with legislative and societal acceptance.  Educating on the subject, specifically and especially within the LG (and let’s be honest, mostly the G) part of the community is important.  For the vast majority of us who are neither transgender or transvestite, these episodes should make it clear it is past time to stop using the word and let the drag queens and transgender advocates parse out the specifics for themselves.

In that, the unwillingness of some who are “shocked and appalled” to acknowledge that the word has and is used in other ways while still trying to stop it seems counter-productive.  In my own experience in my early years within the gay community, and I say gay because it included few lesbians and even fewer transgender individuals early on, I only ever heard the word “tranny” in the context of drag queens, or someone cross-dressing for a night for the fun of playing with their sexual expression – and it was always celebratory and positive.

My experience with the community and understanding of the damaging complexities of the word have grown since then, but I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to acknowledge this usage and experience by others similar to me while explaining how the seemingly harmless usage in that scenario does not balance the painful experience of the transgender community.  It’s possible to continue educating each other without the pretext of “this is the only thing it has ever meant, ever, to anyone.”  I mean, for many cisgender heterosexual men the word describes first and foremost a car part.

For all practical purposes, knowing part of our community finds the term hurtful and often accompanied by violence or sexualized objectification means they deserve deference from the rest of us.  However, in explaining that to others, insulting their different experience or lack of awareness of the pejorative aspect is not a productive means of arriving at further understanding for any of us.  Being aware of an individual’s intentions should still play a factor in the nature of the response and efforts to educate them.  Some people deserve to be screamed at and others deserve a modicum of patience; knowing the difference between the two and tailoring responses to the specific circumstances gets all of us further and faster toward understanding and respect.

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2 Responses to The Trouble with “Tranny”

  1. vincent john ward says:

    For me, the word tranny is a term I simply never used because I don’t personally like it. It isn’t clear if it refers to a transvestite or someone transgendered. Oddly, I didn’t know the word was specifically considered a slur but my reasons for not using it are probably why it’s a slur. I would rather have arrived at it that way than because the “pc police” said so.

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    • I hear that, and I know that many are irritated by the word-focus aspect of political correctness. It’s not ever been a regular part of my vocabulary either. I do think deference to any group that experiences violence associated with the use of a word is worth some consideration though.

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