Using “Tranny”

By , April 11, 2009 12:36 am

I admit it – I’ve used the word “tranny” both online and off, and even a few times on this blog. But, as I’ve been thinking more about the issue (and about how I feel about ‘fag,’ and the-N-word) I’ve come to the realization that I don’t like what it communicates.

At first, I wasn’t even sure what was making me uneasy. The idea of word reclamation is very attractive as a member of an opressed group, and there is something extremely powerful about turning a word on oppressors. Because, lets face it, “tranny” is not generally used in mainstream media as a positive term. With the exception of an Urban Dictionary link*, most of the top search results for “tranny” are sex sites, as good an example as any of the societal fetishization and objectification of trans women. Searching for “lesbian,” in comparison, brings up links to Wikipedia, Lesbian.com, resources about being gay, etc. That sends a very specific message about what being a “tranny” means, and could actually strengthen the argument that “tranny” should be reclaimed, or needs to be reclaimed. Which is what I used to think.

I’ve changed my mind.

Cedar does a good job pointing out the major problems in the “reclamation” argument in favor of using “tranny” in parts one and two of hir essays on the subject, so rather than try to restate them and fail I will simply quote hir:

I don’t think that the “reclaimed” sense of “tranny” can truly be isolated from that context of trans misogyny & subversivism within queer, trans, and punk communities, at least not for me, and I find it almost as offensive as the original. It’s still a signifier of non- trans woman/cis supremacy–just this time it’s non- trans woman queers, as opposed to cis men.

And…

So, from all these references that aren’t really about trans women, we can gather the following picture of what “tranny” is supposed to represent: sexually polluted, perverted/slutty/sex-obsessed/promiscuous, ugly, bitchy, really-male, exist only for sex, fake, doing femininity wrong/badly/not feminine enough/hyperfeminine.

What, pray tell, does the “gender neutral” “reclaimed” version of “tranny” do to reclaim or reject these concepts? It gets some of them, ok. But it doesn’t hit the most common theme running throughout its use against cis women–doing femininity badly.

That’s really what it boils down to. Whether or not I agree with the “reclaimed” visions, so-called positive uses of “fag” and the-N-word do offer strengthened identities of an oppressed group, outside of the grasp of the oppressors. Indeed, I’m realizing that is the reason I actually like “queer” as an identifier – it offers a (to me) positive identity of non-mainstream sexuality, gender, and expression beyond a “queer=bad” mindset. But I agree with Cedar that “tranny” has no such vision that I’ve seen. Rather, it seems to foster a dismissive view of transgender people (and particularly trans women), and so I’ve tried to stop using it.

Any thoughts from the (usually silent) peanut gallery?

-R

*I do have to give a shout-out for Urban Dictionary’s first entry for “tranny,” and particularly their rather humorous example sentence:

1. transvestite

2. transsexual

3. transparency (photog.)

4. transit van (veh.)

“Fuck. I have left the trannies of the trannies in the back of the tranny.”

That said, the last few entries for definitions are (shockingly…) transphobic and trans-misogynist**. Go do your part and vote ‘em down!

**A term which may require it’s own footnote***, and is defined by Julia Serano as “Sexism that specifically targets those on the trans female/trans feminine spectrums. It arises out of a synergetic interaction between oppositional and traditional sexism. It accounts for why MTF spectrum trans people tend to be more regularly demonized and ridiculed than their FTM spectrum counterparts, and why trans women face certain forms of sexualization and misogyny that are rarely (if ever) applied to non-trans women. ”

***Nested footnotes!

6 Responses to “Using “Tranny””

  1. Ash says:

    Hmm, very interesting. I never say “tranny” because many trans friends of mine feel similar to you. It kinds rubs me the wrong way as well. But I wonder why I am ok with fag, dyke and queer.

  2. Mama Mia says:

    Your timing on this post was perfect for me. I have been pondering this after reading other posts elsewhere. I often have mixed feelings when it comes to reclaiming words, even though I know it can be powerful. For me, as a cis woman, when i hear someone using the term “tranny”, I instantly think of all the negative things that go with it, all the insults I have heard it associated with. So I have been wondering how trans women and men would feel about it. Thank you for your thoughts. They were well presented.

  3. This may reveal my age a little more than I like, but when I was young “tranny” was still slang for “transistor radio”.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard “tranny” being used as a neutral term, only as an abusive one.

  4. trillian says:

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Ash – I feel like fag, dyke, and queer all have more positive visions behind their reclamation (and, although I don’t agree with the ‘positive’ of reclaiming the-n-word, I can see how someone using it would). Likewise, I use queer all the time, although I’m not a huge fan of dyke or fag, because I really buy into what I feel the reclaiming of the word does (and don’t as much for fag and dyke). (Again, this is just my own opinions, and not to dismiss or disagree with anyone who does use ‘em.)

    Mama Mia – Thanks for your comments! I’m glad my thoughts were useful, and hope Cedar’s posts were as well.

    SnowdropExplore – That’s part of why I get such a kick out of the Urban Dictionary definition…as someone born in the mid-80s, the primary definition for ‘tranny’ is a derogative term for trans.

  5. Rick says:

    I actually responded to the same essay, because it’s one of the best written and most complete arguments I could find. However, I disagree. I think “tranny” does cover the ‘doing femininity badly’ point, because someone like me (ftm) *is* a female person doing femininity badly by refusing to do it (or caricaturing it in drag, but not all transmen do femme drag) and refusing to let that be negative.
    That said, I think its not-yet-reclaimed status does limit its use — I wouldn’t call someone else a tranny unless I was absolutely sure they were ok with it.
    If no one steps up to reclaim it, it remains a wholly negative term. People who use it in a derogatory manner aren’t going to suddenly realize how mean they’re being. It’s all well and fine to recognize that it has hurtful meanings to it, but what’s the actual solution?

    • Rebecca says:

      Welcome, Rick! Thanks for the comment. I stopped by your site to read your thoughts on tranny, and I’ll be keeping that in mind as I respond, but I’ll try to limit my response to your comment here.

      I disagree. I think “tranny” does cover the ‘doing femininity badly’ point, because someone like me (ftm) *is* a female person doing femininity badly by refusing to do it (or caricaturing it in drag, but not all transmen do femme drag) and refusing to let that be negative.

      I think I see where you’re coming from, but I feel like that’s feeding into the cissexist idea that trans men are “really” women (doing femininity badly) and trans women are “really” men (doing masculinity badly). I – as a trans woman – would rather be viewed as doing femininity badly (or, ideally, doing it well…). That is, I’d rather have my presentation compared to my identity (female) than my assigned sex (male).

      (Or, in a perfect world, simply accepted and not compared to anything at all.)

      Likewise, using tranny in the sense I think you are still seems to link back to masculinity as the gender against which everything should be compared. In your case, it would be whether a “real” woman looks like a man, in my case whether a “fake” woman does. In either case, the benchmark is the success at presenting or hiding masculinity, not at presenting masculinity or presenting femininity.

      If no one steps up to reclaim it, it remains a wholly negative term. People who use it in a derogatory manner aren’t going to suddenly realize how mean they’re being. It’s all well and fine to recognize that it has hurtful meanings to it, but what’s the actual solution?

      That’s a tough one, and something I don’t have a really good answer to. Part of changing people’s opinions lies in calling them out on it, though. From another post at your blog, about the friend-of-a-friend who didn’t “get” your presentation, I agree that the best outcome would have been to let her know why she was missing the point of being able to present as one identifies and chooses. Similarly, I’ve now made a specific effort to point out to my friends – mostly in TV and movies, but occasionally in casual conversation – when someone or something is transphobic or cissexist. (As I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog, How I Met Your Mother provides an unfortunate amount of fodder for this type of education…)

      And you’re right, people aren’t going to suddenly realize how mean they’re being, but cultural shifts can happen. Kike, spic, wop (not to mention the n-word) haven’t disappeared, but they certainly aren’t as used or accepted in casual conversation anymore. Likewise, while I’m not holding my breath for “gay” to go away as an insult (let alone “tranny”) I’m going to do my part to make sure the people in my life aren’t using them as such.

      I guess, ultimately, you’re right that – for almost all aspects of identity – the best way to handle labels is ask if they’re OK. Personally, I no longer use ‘tranny.’ Particularly after reading Cedar’s posts, it has an association with negative views of trans people, especially so when directed at myself. Likewise, language is what we decide it to be. “Tranny” doesn’t inherently need to mean anything positive or anything negative, but it does sound like we’re on opposite sides of how we each interpret it. :)

      PS – I think it’s interesting you also use transman and transwoman (without the space) as opposed to trans man and trans woman. I’m not a fan of that either, because I feel like being trans is a (huge) aspect of my identity, as a person and as a woman, but I don’t like conflating it with my identity as a woman. (Cedar has another interesting post on that topic.)

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