I was in graduate school in snowy Syracuse, New York when the word “queer” came onto the scene as a self-identifier for LGBT people. One colleague whispered her horror to me, saying that “queer” always was and always would be a terrible word. Yet the wave swept over a large segment of the LGBT community and the collective decision, at least in my generation, was to “reclaim” the word for ourselves. We were out, loud, and proud, and we had just discovered that we could co-opt Roy G. Biv for our political purposes and move past the pink and black triangles of our elders. Queer Nation was here.
Fast forward into the age of the information superhighway, and conversations roiled online about the use of “tranny” among LGBT people. We’ve arrived in a different place with this epithet, and it doesn’t include any kind of reclamation. Whereas people in the LGBT umbrella felt that they themselves could use “queer” as an in-community term, that has not been the conversation with the t-word. Even Kate Bornstein, the author of Gender Outlaw, was told in no uncertain terms that her trans sisters were hurt whenever they heard her use it, and they wanted her to erase it from her vocabulary. She went public with her feelings of conflict.
If trans women are walking away from using “tranny” en masse, then the rest of us should, too. Even trans men like myself. Even if that word has been used against us personally. Certainly non-trans gay men should consider it verboten. Ru Paul and his insistence on throwing it in the community’s face is not only misreading his own likeability, he’s making it harder to find common ground between gender nonconforming people and transsexuals, two groups who surely need each other politically. As I’ve said for years now, people who would discriminate against someone because they don’t fit gender norms don’t ask first how an individual identifies, leaving the transvestites or masculine women alone and only oppressing transsexuals.
We are in this together, or rather, we need to be in this together. By “this” I mean the fight for our civil rights. And by “civil rights,” I mean, the following:
- The right to receive affordable and necessary preventative and critical health care
- The right to receive health care insurance appropriate for our needs as gender nonconforming people (e.g., I need my PAP smear covered, I don’t need a prostate exam)
- The right to have our identity documents reflect our gender identity
- The right to have our commitments to loved ones honored legally just as they are for non-trans, heterosexual people
- The right to custody or visitation of our children when our legal commitment to a partner ends
- The right to obtain and keep our jobs, and not be discriminated against in our place of employment because of our gender identity or expression
- The right to obtain and keep our housing, etc.
- The right not to be harassed at school or at work because of our gender identity or expression
This is not an exhaustive list of course, but you get the point. The line between discriminating against butches and trans men is fuzzy, full of vagueness precisely because bigotry is not a rational process.
That said, the crevasses between L, G, B, and T are enormous, and our lived experiences vary because we live with intersections of race, class, and mobility, as well as other aspects of social power. If trans women ask and then tell a celebrity like Ru Paul to stop using the t-word, he should. Instead, he pushes back, insisting on using it even more. After all, if Ru Paul can stop using one word, when does it end? Transsexuals everywhere will stop him from speaking at all by the end of this slippery slope, right?
Silencing only comes with institutionalized power, which presumably trans women as a group don’t have. Consider the latest instance in which transfolk are supposed to just laugh along and let a gay man make a mockery of trans women (WARNING: triggering content in the YouTube video):
Let’s talk about slippery slopes. If the t-word can’t be banned within the LGBT community, can we ask non-LGBT to stop using it? If we’re supposed to laugh at Ru Paul screaming “tranny!” in front of “hot mess,” every week on his show, must we laugh at the image of a battered trans woman sex worker? Is no marginalized group allowed to purge a terrible word with a violent history from the public popular culture sphere, or must they all wait for the mainstream general public to decide they’re not interested in using that term anymore?
I call bull hockey on this. The days when we could use this word with impunity should be over.