January 24, 2012
This is a fabulously written article by a trans man directed at other trans men. There’s been a very intense discussion happening over the last few years about why it is inappropriate for trans men to use the perjorative ‘tranny’ to describe themselves, as it’s primarily been used against trans women. Trans women have been writing and talking about this brilliantly for years and are, as the article indicates, the foremost experts to be heeded on the subject, but this article really is great - it’s concise, sensitive, warm, intelligent and gently-humorous without pulling punches.
Trans brothers, dear dear dear men, whom I respect and look up to and adore, allow me to quote noted gender theorist Inigo Montoya:
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I’m writing this because there’s been tons of talk about this slur recently. Trans men, some of them high profile, using tr*nny, trans women calling them on it, trans men demanding that they have a right to say it, et cetera. So before I start the serious stuff, I want to say that I’m not who you should listen to. This is really a trans women’s issue. You should listen to trans women. But they are already talking, and from your reactions, it’s clear we need to talk about this. From one trans guy to a bunch of others.
I’m not mad, guys. Well, ok, I’m a little mad. But mostly I just want to help fix this. We’ve made some bad mistakes. I used to use this word too, and I own that. I fucked up. We fucked up. Now let’s work to make this better.
Tr*nny is a slur. I think we’ve all agreed on that. Diverse sources, from Julia Serano to Kelly Osbourne, all agree. But for whom is it a slur? We know what image is summoned when we hear n*gger–a Black body. When we hear fag–a queer male body. When we hear d*ke–a queer female body. These words evoke certain identities. There are clear images associated with them. Fags are effeminate. D*kes are too masculine to be proper women. What clear image is evoked by tr*nny?
You know as well as I do: it’s the image of a trans woman. A “male” body, or rather, a body doctors would assign as male, in women’s clothing. A person attempting–and always failing, in these images–to be female. That’s what the image has historically been, and with only a few tiny changes, that’s what the image is now.
Whenever I have this debate, I suggest people google “tr*nny.” I stand by that suggestion. Click over the image tab and you’ll see trans women and drag queens galore, a few car parts, and fabulously enough, a picture of Kate Bornstein with a photoshopped mermaid’s tail, but almost never a trans man. When you do see trans men online associated with the slur, they’re almost always calling themselves tr*nnies. They’re not having the word pinned on them by cis people. This distinction is excruciatingly important.
The fact that cis people don’t call trans men tr*nnies very often illuminates two important things about trans male experience: the degree to which are and have been invisible, and what a weird place we stand in as female-assigned men in a patriarchal world.
The invisibility is a big part of what’s scary about being a trans man. We’re so unspeakable that there isn’t even a common word used to degrade exclusively us. When we look into history for gender variant people, we see trans women, and we see this word used against them. We see few trans men, and just like those historical trans men are mostly invisible, so are the structures of oppression used to keep them down.
Reclaiming tr*nny feels like a way to have a history. But that word was never our history. It feels like a way to name and confront those invisible oppressive structures. But it doesn’t do that work, because while the structures that oppress trans women have many elements in common with the ones that oppress us, they’re not the exact same ones.
That’s because, like I said, trans men are in such a weird position in relation to patriarchy. To the patriarchal eye, we seem to following the sexist imperative that being a man is better than being a woman, which of course the patriarchy is all for. But we’re doing it by violating another central patriarchal imperative: that people with vaginas are women.
So we move through this sexist world in a peculiar manner–able to wield our male privilege when we’re allowed to function as men, but subject to a particularly painful brand of transphobic and homophobic sexism when we’re understood as women.
Sure, sometimes trans guys get called tr*nny. But let’s please be real: It’s not that often, and it’s a recent phenomenon. Maybe we’ll get to the point where it’s a common enough slur against trans men that we can start to have the reclamation conversation. But man, I hope we don’t. It’s depressing and comical, us wanting our very own slur.
Sure, you might have a trans woman friend who doesn’t mind you calling yourself a tr*nny. This is because women, like men, don’t always agree with one another!
Sure, you may be very attached to the word “tr*nny” as a part of your identity. You can identify as anything you want! But if it is absolutely imperative for you to use that word, and you using that word makes trans women feel unsafe around you, I’m not sure what to tell you. Maybe you should do some work within yourself, trying to discover why you have such an intense need to own a word that makes people feel unsafe. All of which is to say that, ultimately, your identity is your identity, but you don’t need to share all of it with everyone if it makes them feel unsafe.
Raise your hand if you’re a young white trans guy who went/goes to a liberal arts college and is reading this on his Macbook. (My hand is raised.) Please know that most people who get tr*nny used against them on a daily basis are poor trans women of color. Please try to remember that working to include poor trans women of color in our movement is like, one of the most important things we need to do right now.
Which is more important, working to make trans women feel comfortable and safe in our community, or using a word that makes us feel all tingly and transgressive?
Resist transmisogyny. You do not need someone else’s slur to connect with your own history. Stop using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.