The Trouble With Tranny

11.14.2010

By Out.com Editors

At this moment in the LGBT community, we are so painfully aware of the harmful potential of words as we try to address the damage that unrelenting taunts and harassment brings to the lives of our young people. So many voices within our community are talking about the responsibility to speak up and speak out when hurtful words are used. This is an important moment of awareness and action.

It is, therefore, bewildering to me that people are defending the use of the term tranny. Some people use the word because they have transgender friends or because they want to express solidarity with transgender people, without intending any harm, and we understand that. But the reality is, tranny is heard by many transgender people in way that is very different than what you mean.

Tranny is a word that appears on the lips of bullies and bashers. It serves notice of pending and continuing harassment and violence. They use it as a demeaning putdown, as a way of saying the person on the receiving end of these insults is less than human or is deserving of the damage being done to them. It is a word that many transgender people have heard against their will and in situations that lead to emotional and physical pain. It is a word yelled at transwomen at bus stops before the attack starts; it is what children who don't fit gender stereotypes are called in the hallways; it is how co-workers put down someone transitioning in their office. Its most common use is to harm.

Yes, there are transgender people who use the word to describe themselves and do so proudly. We absolutely defend their right to do so. But here's the critical difference -- they are transgender people; it is our right to define ourselves. If you are not transgender -- even if you are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, or even if you have transgender friends -- it is not appropriate to use the word. It is not yours to arbitrate.

It is like the word queer, which is an identity that some of us in the LGBT community gladly claim, while for others it is demeaning and very painful. Just bring up this topic in an LGBT group and you'll get more opinions than there are people in the room. It is not, however, a word that we think is okay when straight people use it about us. This is the same situation.

The most recent flurry of controversy around this stems from a Glee episode, a show I watch fairly regularly. While Glee has been extremely positive about issues of sexual orientation, they have also called a character the epithet she-male and censored some of the transgender words and content from their recent version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Glee has an opportunity to build on their positive portrayal of gay characters to include equal sensitivity about transgender issues. Transgender people and our advocates have the right to speak up when we feel that their portrayal is inaccurate or demeaning or just misses the boat.

The words that we say and write are powerful; they have an impact. We are each responsible for the words we choose to use, especially when we are speaking in the public sphere. If you are transgender, define yourself in any way that feels right to you. But if you are not, please act respectfully. Listen to the voices of those who say that this word hurts and makes our cause more difficult. We need to be careful that our words and actions make it very clear that we stand with the transgender community, and not with those who would bully or harm. -- Justin Tanis of the National Center for Transgender Equality

For more on the National Center for Transgender Equality, visit their official website.

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