The T Word: Taking on the Transphobic Slur
I can’t escape from the “t bomb” these days. In the words of a friend, it is like Visa: fucked up, oppressive, and everywhere I want to be. I’m talking, of course, about the word “tranny.”
Lately I can’t pick up an independent San Francisco newspaper without coming across it. This may be partly because Israel Luna’s travesty of an exploitation film, “Ticked Off Trannies With Knives,” has come to San Francisco, courtesy, appropriately, of the Another Hole In The Head Film Festival (as in, “The trans community needs this like another hole in the head”). But the prevalence in print of this ugly little word goes far beyond that. These supposedly liberal, LGBT-aware papers throw around the T word whenever they want talk about trans people, as if typing out “transsexual” or “transgender” is just too much work.
Lots of other cis people seem to think that this word is okay to use, too. An acquaintance of mine tried to tell me about Italy’s new “prison for trannies,” clearly thinking this was something I would be happy about. (I wasn’t, either about the news or about his choice of words.) People I know routinely giggle about the “trannies” at the Power Exchange and Divas, within my hearing, as if they expect me to laugh along. Even those who are generally respectful to me and the trans people of their direct acquaintance use the T word, often without any particular malice, as though completely ignorant of its history.
So I hear the T word from supposed allies. And of course, one can always hear it from haters. But I also hear it from other trans people, particularly other trans men. And that pisses me off.
Look, as a self-identified fag, I am all about reclaimed language. Taking a brutal slur and wearing it like a badge of honor is an act of tremendous power. I absolutely encourage all those who have been burned by the T word in the past to go ahead and brand themselves with it if they desire. So no, it’s not reclaimed hate-words that I have a problem with. My problem is with some of the people who think they have a right to the word ‘tranny’ at all.
Let’s clear one thing up right now: while “tranny” is undoubtedly a transphobic slur, it has not been applied to all trans people equally. As I have said before in this column, it is a word that has been primarily used against trans women, drag queens, and other male-assigned people who present in female or feminine ways. It is just not used in an equivalent way against trans male types.
I’m not saying trans guys never get called “tranny;” I did, once. It was last year at Pride, by somebody so drunk that it’s possible she thought that I was a trans woman. Incidentally, this year at Pride, two cis female friends of mine got called “fat tranny bitches” by an equally inebriated individual. (What is it with obnoxious drunks and the t-bomb?)
It’s sort of like a straight boy being called “gay.” The insult isn’t so much to him as to gay people everywhere. So it is that anyone wishing to nastily insinuate a failure of femininity can hurl the T-word at pretty much any woman, but the real recipient of the insult will always be the trans female community.
It is impossible to talk about the T word and why it is so offensive without talking about trans women. This being the case, we pause your regularly scheduled column in order to make a brief disclaimer. I am not a trans woman. I am a trans guy. As such, I get a lot of privilege and I know it. In writing “Transgression” I constantly struggle with how much to say about subjects on which I cannot speak from personal experience. To talk of a group to which I do not belong is to risk speaking for it, which is very bad. To not talk about these issues at all, though, would be much worse. There is already a bad pattern of trans men refusing to acknowledge the privileges which they have over trans women, a pattern that I refuse to join. And so, with trepidation, I proceed.