Snarks And Reclamation

Published October 28, 2012 by Sez

Disclaimer 1: In order to talk about homophobic and transphobic slurs, you kind of have to use homophobic and transphobic slurs. I’m not asterisking things out; I feel like that gives the words in question a “he who must not be named” type power.
So if reading slurs in this context is likely to upset you, now’s a good time to stop reading.

Disclaimer 2, This post is, in part, about the difficulties a trans ally can face. I know, I know. The poor, oppressed ickle cis girl. Privilege-o-rama. I’m not for a second forgetting that.

This is something I see from both ends. As a queer woman (some might say lesbian but “queer” is my preferred label if I’m wearing one) I don’t like hearing gay, queer, etc thrown around as negative slang.
As part of my job I talk to teenagers about why homophobia is bad, m’kay? One thing I talk about is how using gay to mean bad is homophobic even if you DON’T MEAN IT TO BE. Because if you know that “gay” means “same sex attraction”, that it hurts people for you to use their identity as an insult, and you STILL can’t be bothered finding a better way to express yourself, then you’re being homophobic.
At this point people often bring up reclamation – black people using the word “nigger/nigga” being a favourite example. Is it ok for white people who are part of a social group that includes black people who use “nigga” affectionately to join in with that? If so, the convoluted teenage logic goes, it’s ok for people who don’t regard themselves as homophobic to fling “gay” around like a verbal hand grenade. I can usually debunk that one in a matter of seconds, but it does raise an interesting point. As a kid said to me the other day “Say all my mates are gay, and we’re meeting at a gay pub, and I go in and say “Hello, you gayboys!”, and we ALL know it’s a big joke, I think that would be OK”
I had to agree with him. Not that it would be OK, but that, depending on the people there, it might be. But that generally, reclaiming was reserved for the people who were affected by the slurs in the first place (at which point another little smartase pointed out that I’d said that homophobia affects everyone. D’oh!)
Why this long and confusing preamble?
Tranny is why.
The word “tranny” and I have a complicated relationship.

It’s a slur. It’s used, horribly, against transgender people. It’s not ok for me to use “tranny”. Just like a white person saying “what up my niggaaas!?” I’m probably going to come off as unbelievably crass at best, nastily prejudiced at worst.

Here’s the thing, though. I would say that a slight majority of the trans people I am aware of in my not-online social and work circles sometimes choose to reclaim it. One or two of them choose “tranny” as the main word they identify as, gender wise. I also know people in the transgender community who hate the word regardless of context, who feel that there’s never a context when anyone can use it ever, regardless of what their gender identity might be. It’s been suggested to me that tranny is just too triggering to reclaim, and that the right of some not to hear the word trumps the right of others to identify themselves that way.

So I, as a cisgender person, have friends whose gender identity I fail to respect if I refuse to use “tranny” and friends whose history of oppression I fail to acknowledge if I agree to use it. It’s a weird head space to occupy.

Also, as someone who identifies as queer, I’m aware that I make some people who have had that word used against them uncomfortable.
But that’s the thing about reclaiming. It’s prickly. It hurts to pull words used in hate back and make them a source of strength. And for LGBT people, there’s the issue that all the words we use for ourselves are also used as slurs, or as pathologising diagnoses. ALL our words have to be reclaimed, and ALL our words have the potential to hurt us.
Like I said at the top of this post, I don’t believe in asterisking words out. I don’t believe in giving slurs the power that censoring lends them. I’m with (cis, white, rich, hetero male) George Carlin on this. There are no bad words. It’s context that makes them good or bad .
So I’m going to come down on the side of my trans friends who DO identify as “tranny”, and defend their right to do so even if that offends other trans people.

Which leaves me in the position of sometimes, just sometimes, saying, and defending “tranny”.
Which I have absolutely no right to do.
Ho hum.

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5 comments on “Snarks And Reclamation

  • I hate the word being applied to myself (especially given the circumstances it has been used), and I will challenge anyone who does so. Others are welcome to identify as such if they wish – it’s their choice – but it’s also my choice to reject that term entirely, when it can be applied to me. Of course this can set up conflict if we are referring to a group we are both part of…

  • that sounds like a pretty tough situation, cat. i mean, if your friends specifically want you to call them “tr*nnies,” it’d be rude not to. (i like using the asterisk, but that’s just me.) so i think you have to do that. and i think you’re right to defend your friends’ choices to id that way.

    still, i think you should be very cautious when moving in other circles. like, i don’t really think it’d be cool to use the word “tr*nny” while other people were around just because it can be so triggering for some people. the other thing is that grues might take their cues from you and think it’s totally fine for them to throw the word around.

    tl;dr i think you’ll be fine as long as you’re mindful of context and company while saying “tr*nny.” i think. honestly, i don’t know for sure what i’d do if i were you. i think i’d be torn.

    • Oh yeah no, the LAST thing I wanna do is chuck words like that around out of context and miseducate a bunch of people. I just find the “this word is intrinsically offensive” argument deeply flawed. To make things more complex, the trans* members of my youth group recently nicknamed me “the honorary tranny”. Flattered, but I’m not getting it printed up on a tshirt any time soon!

  • Ugh, I hate the word ‘tranny’. Especially when people tell me I shouldn’t be offended because some people are ok with the word. Yes, some people do label themselves as ‘tranny’, and so it’s not an insult to call them one, at least in the right context/environment. It still insults ME to call me one.

    It’s not ok to ASSUME that calling someone a ‘tranny’ is ok. Just as it’s not ok to ASSUME that calling someone a ‘nigger’ is ok. That’s the important thing.

    I sometimes refer to myself as a ‘cripple’ due to my physical disabilities – part reclamation, part shortcut that stops people asking further questions. I’d be rather alarmed to hear someone else call me one though. I know my own intent, I don’t know someone else’s.

    Another word that pisses me off in a similar way is ‘bio’ or ‘biological’ being used to describe cis-gendered people, because its implication is that by being trans I’m not ‘biological’ or ‘biologically male’. What am I, a fucking robot? My body might not look like the body a narrow-minded person would say a male body ‘should’ look like, but it is a male body, because I’m male.

    ‘Bio/biological’ is even more politically mired than ‘tranny’, because in the less-enlightened and fairly recent past it was fairly widely accepted by trans people who hadn’t encountered the more accurate and less offensive term ‘cis-gendered’ or ‘cis’ and needed some way to distinguish not-trans from trans, and is still used by some trans people. To me it’s a mark of ignorance whoever is using the term. We’re not automatically fully educated about gender and terminology just by dint of being trans. Others just don’t get why it upsets me so much, however I try to explain.

    I think what it comes down to is the fact that many words mean slightly (or hugely) different things to different people. The best that can be hoped for is sensitivity in their use. By asking people how they feel about different terms, you can gauge what is appropriate. With people you don’t know, I think it’s better to play safe.

  • Maybe I’m out of it, but I honestly have never heard the word “tranny” used to mean transgender in a negative way. The only context I’ve ever heard it used is a shortened version of transvestite. I always thought it was the same as drag queen and used by gay men in that way to refer to people who are very happy being a man but dress up in makeup or women’s clothes to get attention or for entertainment or performance purposes such as Boy George or Ru Paul, who don’t see themselves as women or have any intention to become actual women.
    Isn’t this whole controversy stem from Ru Paul’s show which is about drag queens, not actual transgender women?
    I think a word can have two very different meanings and so it depends on context. I think it’s wrong to use tranny to refer to actual transgender women in a negative way, but okay to use it to talk about drag queen performers in an affectionate way.

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