The Trouble With Tranny

11.11.2010

By Kate Bornstein


Editor's note: It's been a rough couple of weeks for "tranny"s. First Glee came under fire for using the word during their Rocky Horror Picture Show episode during which a student says that he can't take part in the musical because his parents don't want him "dressing like a tranny." GLAAD discussed the incident in a blog saying, "The word 'tranny' has become an easy punchline in popular culture, and many still don't realize that using the term is hurtful, dehumanizing and associated with violence, hatred and derision against transgender people -- a community that is nearly invisible in media today." And earlier this week after we reported on a story regarding President Obama's openly gay drag queen nanny and used the term tranny (partly because tranny was a term coined and shared by transsexuals and drag queens and partly because "Obama's Tranny Nanny" is just too good of a headline to pass up) we received some heat, too.

I pushed to keep the word in the headline for a variety of reasons but mostly because as a writer and editor, I know that words have power. While I agree with GLAAD that too often (especially within mainstream media/culture) the word tranny is used pejoratively, we must always take into account the context in which the word is being used and by whom. In the right hands and mouths (hint hint: ours) the word becomes powerful -- liberating, even -- and loses the sting and stigma that others want us to feel when we hear or read it.

I am also of the mindset that we should look for opportunities to open up discussions about difficult subjects instead of simply erasing or deleting something (or maybe even worse -- replacing letters in a word with asterisks or hyphens in a misguided attempt to soften the word's blow, but which, in my opinion, just makes it look that much more perverse and thuggish) because it (or the shadow it casts) is challenging -- or even downright scary -- and this seemed like the perfect chance to give a little more attention to a very controversial and misunderstood word.

So, I reached out to both GLAAD and activist, gender theorist, and friend of Out magazine Kate Bornstein to see if they wanted to weigh in on this subject. I didn't hear back from GLAAD, but Bornstein was quick to give me permission (and her enthusiastic blessing) to run her piece "Who You Calling A Tranny?" which was originally published in July 2009. In it, she says everything that I wanted to say, but much more eloquently than I ever could.

Give it a read and then let us know how you feel about the word tranny (or fag or dyke for that matter). -- Noah Michelson

Doris Fish was San Francisco's pre-eminent drag queen in the 1980's. She died in 1991 from AIDS-related diseases. She was generous, flamboyant, kind, and ultra talented. Her charisma rating was off the top of the chart. She'd moved to San Francisco from Sydney, Australia -- then (and some say now) the undisputed home of the world's most fabulous drag queens. Doris took me under her delightfully feathered wings.

I was afraid of her raw sexuality, but bowled over by her courage. Doris was amused by my quest to become a real woman.

I learned from Doris that in Australia, from the 1960's through the 1970's, most all of the male-to-female spectrum of gender outlaw began their transition in the fabulous world of sexy, over-the top drag performance. Like me in the late 80's in San Francisco, the majority of MTF transsexuals just wanted to live their lives as closely as possible to whatever their notion was of "a real woman." They considered drag queens beneath them. The drag queens were amused by the MTFs pursuing the dream of real woman.

No matter what ideas you might have about transsexuals or drag queens, if you were M headed toward F in any fashion at all, you moved into, through, up and out of the drag queen community. So there was always a bond between the drag queens and the MTF transsexuals in Sydney. The bond was so strong, they invented a name for the identity they shared: tranny. It was a name that said family. Doris Fish taught me that she and I were family.

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