I’m happy to be a part of the Bilerico team now, and I thought I’d start off by reposting something I wrote in my own blog a couple weeks ago. It was inspired by a reoccurring conversation I’ve seen on several blogs, including this one, so it seemed fitting.
It always goes like this. A cis (non-trans) person tosses out the word ‘tranny’ in a comment. Then a trans person calls them out on it and tells them its a word that they shouldn’t be using. Argument ensues over who’s allowed to use what language, invariably, we hear “but my trans friends are okay with me using it.” And usually the issue ends unresolved — in my opinion, because no one discusses the history of the term or why it can have such a powerful negative impact.
It might appear to be a benign act of adding a “y” on the end to make the term more informal and cutesy (notice a similar transformation when changing “cute” to “cutesy”). From this perspective, why would it matter? No one will tell you “fag” or “faggot” are okay but “faggy” and “fagotry” aren’t. However, there is a whole historical context to the term that isn’t all that widely known, but is a huge part about what makes the term less appealing.
The term itself was first popularized within the porn industry. And while I’ll be the last one to denigrate sexuality and pornography, the fact is that “tranny porn” is about as representative of trans people’s sexuality as “girl-on-girl porn” is representative of lesbian sexuality. The usual context that it has been used in porn is to highlight how trans women are not really women, while also painting us as more exotic and sexually available.
So when the term became linked to the porn industry and popularized, it became a useful way to get a sense of someone’s background with the community. If a cisgender person used the term “tranny” it probably meant that they got most of their knowledge of (or at least intro to) the trans community from the porn and sex industries, and perhaps didn’t have your best interests at heart. This is also probably related to the creation of the term “tranny-chaser” as a way for the trans community to identify people who might take advantage of a trans person’s relative vulnerability or see trans people only as a sexual commodity.
This use of language has stuck. For example, 6 out of the top 10 google results for the term “tranny” are porn sites. And five years ago I imagine it was probably 9 or 10. Compare that to a google search for “transgender” which gives you 10 out of 10 resource and support sites. Also, searching for terms like “tranny activist” and “tranny politics” results in only a few hits — 194 and 157 respectively. Yet searching for the term “tranny sex” provides 1,470,000 hits — that’s a 10,000 fold increase.
Even now, after many people are reclaiming the term, the vast majority of its use is about sexualizing and objectifying trans people. It’s true the term is being reclaimed, but instead of comparing it to how terms like “queer,” “dyke,” and “fag” are used today, I think it’s more appropriate to compare it to the use of the term “faggot” about a decade ago, or “queer” almost two decades ago.
The issue of reclaiming the term is further complicated, though. You see, while I have been discussing the impact the term has had on trans people, the reality is that it is trans women who have most directly targeted by it. Trans men have been comparably invisible is the sex and porn industries, and the trans men porn that exists today is almost exclusively produced by trans men. Yet a significant portion, arguably a majority, of the effort to reclaim the term has been made by trans men. Usually by trans men who are not familiar with the negative history of the term, let alone having been subjected to its sting themselves.
It is difficult to know what to think about that gender breakdown. When I run into a group of trans men who frequently use the term, I am not sure whether to thank them for creating community use of a new and positive meaning behind the term, or to criticize them for their insensitivity and lack of awareness of how the term might hold a lot of trauma for those of us who have been the direct targets of its use.
Regardless, it is true that I also try to reclaim the term myself. But as with all reclaimed terms, context is the key. I recently had to educate a colleague of mine as to how his saying “I met a really hot tranny last weekend” was not a very appropriate place to use the term, even if it was a positive attribute he was commenting on (for the record, I would have been a lot more comfortable with “I met a trans woman last weekend, she was really hot”).
Personally, I’m not comfortable using the term to refer to anyone but myself or friends who have similarly used it. And if I wasn’t trans, I wouldn’t want to use it at all. I might use it to draw upon its history, such as if I were to call myself “Another tranny rebelling against patriarchy,” or to underscore someone else’s transphobia as in “You just don’t care what the dirty tranny thinks, do you?” And I suppose in certain contexts when I want to draw upon its history I might use it to refer to trans people in general, such as “Trannies unite!” or “I wish there were more trannies here.” But that’s a relatively rare circumstance. I generally appreciate use of the term that links it to trans women’s sexual autonomy and trans-positivity — the exact opposite of its derogatory use.
I’m not going to lay down any rules for how you might use it though, especially if you’ve been the target of its derogatory use yourself. All I ask is that you think about how you use it. And be able to explain yourself if someone wants to question you about it.