Lexical growing pains, or hollow justifications for using a slur? From ‘queer’ to ‘tranny.’


RuPaul attends the Broadway opening night of “Hedwig And The Angry Inch” in New York. (Photo by Mike Pont/Getty Images)

January 1, 1939

The “Wizard of Oz” is released and Judy Garland somehow becomes Queen of All Things Gay.

June 28, 1969

A bunch of fed-up drag queens in New York’s West Village decide they’ve had it with police raids and harassment and lead the charge to fight back.

June 1990

An anonymous pamphlet called “Queers Read This” is published and distributed at New York Pride and from that point forward, everyone toes the party line, and the venom is forever removed from the word “queer.”

Were it only that simple.

Once deemed derogatory, “queer” eventually became regarded as a commonplace and largely innocuous adjective attached to everything from academic studies to television shows, while for some, the original sting never quite disappeared.

Now it seems, we’re witnessing a very public negotiation over the word “tranny,” whether or not it’s ever appropriate to use, and if so, by whom.

In an interview in the latest issue of Paper magazine, New York drag queen Lady Bunny held court on “tranny,” and in her verdict defended fellow drag queen RuPaul, who has come under fire for his use of the words “tranny” and “shemale” on his show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”:

Tranny is an abbreviation for transvestite and transsexual, so I’m free to use it since I fall with that category. Much as blacks can use the N-word. I know tranny from London, where they abbreviate everything — breakfast is brekkie, biscuit is biccie. Tranny is used affectionately on the club scene. Even transsexual advocates like Jayne County and Kate Bornstein have come out and said that these words aren’t necessarily slurs. I can understand how the word “shemale” in RuPaul’s “Female or Shemale” game could be more offensive, because shemale is mainly a porn term which stresses the male parts. But Ru’s use of shemail [as a play on mail or e-mail] is fine. I’ve used “shemail” on my own site as my contact info for over a decade. It’s a silly play on words to indicate that since I’m a drag queen, my e-communications are going to be more feminine. In no way is it derogatory to trans women. I think there are a few militant trans women who have started this mudslinging and I’m sorry that Ru backed down.

After Logo, the network that airs “Drag Race,” distanced itself  from Ru and condemned his usage of “tranny” and “shemale,” he doubled down on his right to use them on Twitter and on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, noting that he’s been “a tranny for 32 years” and he loves the word. In doing so, he has become the face of a debate over a word whose negative connotations have not evaporated as quickly as he would have them.

There was no set date when “queer” stopped being an insult and became just another word. Rather, it had a journey through the early 20th century up to the late 1980s, when groups like Queer Nation began to reappropriate it, with this explanation given in their pamphlet:

WHY QUEER

Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world. It’s a way of telling ourselves we don’t have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the straight world. We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer.

Queer, unlike GAY, doesn’t mean MALE.

And when spoken to other gays and lesbians it’s a way of suggesting we close ranks, and forget (temporarily) our individual differences because we face a more insidious common enemy. Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe’s hands and use against him.

It’s here. It’s queer. And we’ve quite literally gotten used to it.

Fashion designer Christian Siriano faced criticism when he popularized the phrase “hot tranny mess” while he was on “Project Runway,” which eventually earned him condemnation from GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). He later apologized and, years later, sort of recanted his apology.

One of the best examples of a slur that’s morphed into something more nebulous, depending on the context in which it’s deployed, is “c—,” that crude, still-unprintable word occasionally hurled at women and derived from slang for female genitalia. Many women have an uneasy relationship with it, and for some, it elicits an altogether visceral reaction. It exists on a spectrum that includes “30 Rock’s” Liz Lemon trying to get one of her subordinates fired when she overhears him using it to insult her to part of a complementary Instagram hashtag that’s deployed with pride by “Orange is the New Black” actress Lea DeLaria.

Disarming as ever, DeLaria demonstrated both uses in this post (NSFW).

The caption (censored here) reads: “Thought for your Sunday morning Thanks @rachface230. #totec—-”

Azealia Banks deftly incorporated it into a smug refrain on “212” — accompanied by a giant grin, and the most well-known reappropriation is probably by Eve Ensler’s usage in the Vagina Monologues. But the best example of the c-word’s disarmament may be when it was used by Jon Stewart after a now-famous email by a Maryland sorority girl was made public. Every time writers incorporated “c—punt” into his Daily Show script, Stewart would crack up. It was violently absurd, it rhymed, which just made it fun to say, and it was always in reference to this girl’s hilarious, ridiculous letter. It was used several times, and there was zero uproar.

Have we have reached a point where “c—” is arguably less offensive than “tranny?”

Transgender women, for whom the slur “tranny” is typically reserved, are still engaged in an ongoing battle when it comes to society recognizing their humanity, and it’s worth noting that both Lady Bunny and RuPaul are cisgender men, as is Siriano. There’s just as much of a push-pull over whether or not Ru or Lady Bunny have the right to decide what’s an acceptable label for trans people and what isn’t. Recently Heklina, a drag queen and San Francisco institution, announced on Facebook that she would be changing the name of her drag club Trannyshack, the moniker it’s sported since 1996:

First, a little history about the name Trannyshack, and the club itself. When I started the club (waaaaaay back in 1996) the word ‘tranny’ did not have the charged weight to it that it has today. Simply put, it was not (arguably) considered a slur word, and not even thought of on the same level as the words ‘dyke’ or ‘faggot’ (two words which, maybe ironically, have somehow become less charged and have been ‘reclaimed’ to a certain degree-for instance, leading the Pride Parade in San Francisco every year are the Dykes On Bikes. I can’t imagine in this day, a contingent called Trannies On Bikes). There are people who might argue this, but I’m sorry it just was not a word thought of as a slur on the same level as today. It was just not. I considered the name transgressive, and cutting edge. …

Increasingly, and in the past year especially, it’s become clear to me the meaning the word tranny has taken on. I’ve tried to avoid the issue because I’ve spent almost 20 years branding and promoting my club. But more and more, I am asked on the street, in interviews, and online about my thoughts on the word, and the name of my club. I’ve given the answer ‘Oh, my club is different, it means so much to so many people, it’s this it’s that, etc.’, but it’s been nagging at me. I started to talk to people close to me about the need for a rebrand. What really was the clincher for me was a post I saw on Facebook by a performer at my club. I wasn’t tagged in the post, but came across it anyway. He said how excited he was to be performing at my club but, out of embarrassment, he couldn’t type the name of it, and something along the lines of ‘you all know where it is.’ Ouch, OK. Time for a rebrand.

I am in the business of (hopefully) entertaining people. It’s never been my intention to hurt people. I am not another [blackface drag performer] Shirley Q. Liquor, wanting to offend just for sake of it. Also, on a purely business level, I don’t want to be viewed as archaic, out of step with the times, like an ostrich with my head in the sand.

Heklina acknowledges a difference between drag’s elective, cartoonish, exaggerated (and much-loved) performance of gender versus an identity that’s lived and negotiated publicly on a daily basis, and perhaps isn’t so interested in calling attention to itself — certainly not the same attention drag queens seek.

Look at Lady Bunny (drag queen) and look at Janet Mock (author and trans rights advocate):


Film subjects Wade Davis and Lady Bunny, filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and film subjects Twiggy Pucci Garcon, Janet Mock and Wazina Zundon attend the HBO Premiere of “The Out List” at HBO Theater on June 18, 2013, in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO)

That battle to be seen recently extended to Laverne Cox’s Time magazine cover. While it was greeted positively, there was an undercurrent of disappointment over Cox’s exclusion from the Time 100.

Wrote the Daily Dot’s Aja Romano:

Time’s refusal to place her on the list of the most influential people of the year says far, far more about the real state of transgender erasure and invisbility in the U.S. cultural landscape than does its attempts to reap the rewards of its own snub of her by placing her on the cover months later. Giving her the cover for the upcoming issue allows Time to hail Cox as an icon within her own community, while conveniently failing to acknowledge the place she, Mock, and other transgender women hold within the larger sphere of cultural influence—something her inclusion on the Time 100 would have and should have done.

Just this weekend, attackers harassed a trans woman on Atlanta’s MARTA, taunting her and ripping off her clothes while other passengers cheered on the bullies.

Perhaps for “tranny” to lose its sting, interactions such as the one on MARTA must become the exception rather the rule, given how many trans women must steer their lives with an eye toward safely avoiding or defusing transmisogyny. It’s not unlike the careful allowances women make for everyday sexism, such as the ones detailed in #YesAllWomen, always with an eye toward self-preservation. Maybe that sting will never leave. Maybe we’re waiting for a “Trannies Read This” moment that’s yet to happen. Whatever the case, it’s a linguistic evolution that’s occurring in full view of the world.

Trans activist Autumn Sandeen examined the flap through the lens of trans rights icon Sylvia Rivera, noting that much of the language Rivera employed during the 1970s would now be considered “dehumanizing.” She argued for a little more flexibility.

“Time moves forward, and with that progression community terms change in their usage and meaning,” Sandeen wrote for the Transadvocate. “Terms that once were appropriate for LGBT community members then aren’t appropriate now; terms that once were unacceptable to refer to community members are now acceptable. Sylvia Rivera showed us how to move and grow in our choice of terms.”

h/t Towleroad

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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