The Trouble With Tranny | Out Magazine

The Trouble With Tranny


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 80s 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.

Years earlier, when I went through my gender change from male to female, I glided through life under the commonly accepted assumption: I was finally a real woman! That worked for me until I ran into a group of politically smart lesbians who told me that I wasn't allowed to co-opt the word "woman." Woman was not a family word that included me. My answer to this exclusion was to call myself a gender outlaw: I wasn't a man, I wasn't a woman. By calling myself a gender outlaw, I had unknowingly reclaimed the right to name myself outside the language generated by the bi-polar gender system. Under that system, each of us needed to fit neatly into a pre-fab sex/gender identity.

Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and The Rest of Us was first published in hardcover by Routledge in 1994, just over 15 years ago. The book hit the world of academics, feminists, and sex and gender activists at a critical timefeminists were getting tired of being alone as gender's only activists. Gender Outlaw made it okay for more and more people to name themselves outside of a system that would rather see them dead for disobeying its rigid binary rules. The people who stepped outside their lines early on added a new energy to feminism by giving feminists allies and resources to tear down the sex and gender system that wasand still is -- oppressing all of us.

Over the past decade and a half, people have been using Gender Outlaw as a stepping-off point on their personal gender odysseys. People of all sorts of birth-assigned genders have been naming themselves, and they've been getting together with groups of people who've done the same sort of self-naming. And now weve arrived at a time when the next generation of gender outlaws get to call the shots. To that aim, Seal Press has commissioned what we hope will be a ground-breaking new book: Gender Outlaws, the Next Generation, edited by S. Bear Bergman and yours truly, the older generation.

[When we were looking for submissions for Gender Outlaws, the Next Generation], Bear posted a call for submissions on his blog. In the interests of keeping the call as open as possible, we agreed to include as many trans-identities as we knew, so we used the word "tranny." And that's where the activist shit hit the postmodern fan base. People have been pissed. Here's their argument: FTMs are co-opting a word that belongs to MTFs. The word "tranny" belongs to MTFs, reason those who were hurt by our use of the word, because it was a denigrating term reclaimed by MTFs -- ergo, only MTFs could be known as trannies. I spoke with Bear, and we agree thats wrong on several counts:

1. Tranny began as a uniting term amongst ourselves. Of course its going to be picked up and used as a denigrating term by mean people in the world. But even if we manage to get them to stop saying tranny like a thrown rock, mean people will come up with another word to wound us with. So, lets get back to using tranny as a uniting term amongst ourselves. That would make Doris Fish very happy.

2. It's our first own language word for ourselves that has no medical-legacy.

3. Even if (like gay) hate-filled people try to make tranny into a bad word, our most positive response is to own the word (a word invented by the queerest of the queer of their day). We have the opportunity to re-create tranny as a positive in the world.

4. Saying that FTMs cant call themselves trannies eerily echoes the 1980s lesbians who said I couldnt use the word woman to identify myself, and the 1990s lesbians who said I couldnt use the word dyke.

At one phase in the evolution of transpeople-as-tribe, it was the male-to-females who were visible and representative of trans to the rest of the world. They were the trannies. Today? Ironically true to the binary were in the process of shattering, the pendulum has swung so that it's now female-to-males who are the archetypal trannies of the day. The generation coming up beyond the next generation, i.e. my tribal grandchildren are the young boys who transition to young girls at the age of five or six. Theyre the next trannies. None of us can own the word. We can only be grateful that our tribe is so much larger than we had thought it would be. How to come togethernow thats the job of the next generation of gender outlaws.

Labels aren't all that bad when they're used consciously, but a major downside of using labels to describe an identityeven the labels we wear proudly as badges of courage -- is that lables set up us-versus-them scenarios. The next generation of gender outlaws is seeking to dismantle us-versus-them. As a people, none of us deserves to hear the words Youre not welcome here, or Youre not good enough, or Youre not real. My Goddess, we just have to stop saying that to each other, all of us whose identity somehow hinges on gender or sexuality. We have to stop beating up on each other. The Sydney drag queens and transsexuals knew that when they came up with the word tranny to encourage mutual respect.

Whats more, the time has come for those who are coping with sex and gender oppression to raise ourselves up to a level of respectability of other marginalized groups -- those working for equity along the lines of class, race, age, looks, religion, ability, family status, and citizenship. Were not taken seriously precisely because our focus is on sex and gender. In the eyes of this culture that makes us morally suspect. What the fuck does our sex or our gender have to do with our morality?! We need to de-Puritanize this fucking culture, thats what weve got to do. It's time to reclaim more than names. It's time to reclaim the moral high ground.

The first generation of gender outlaws made themselves known in the world. The job of the next generation of gender outlaws is to weave all of us gender and sex positivists together as a globally recognized tribe. I'd like to be around to see substantial progress made along those lines.

kiss kiss

Kate

For more from Kate Bornstein, visit her Blog for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws and follow her on Twitter

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