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Archive for November, 2009

What’s In a Name? (archive)

This post is in regard to the former name of the podcast.

I’m having a dilemma with regard to the name of this podcast.

I don’t know how long it has been going on, but there’s a bit of a debate going on about the word “tranny.” As you know (because I’ve mentioned it on at least two episodes), this word currently carries a significantly negative connotation. Some trans people, I for one, are trying to reclaim this word, using it as an identity marker and allowing those we trust to use it in reference to us with an affectionate connotation. Some trans women are of the opinion that trans men are unable to reclaim this word because we had no claim to it in the first place; that the word is only used against trans women, and therefore trans women have the power to say whether it is worth reclaiming or not, and any trans men using it are not reclaiming but misappropriating it and perpetuating transmisogyny.

I disagree with this position inasmuch as I, as a trans man, have been called a tranny as a slur, and other trans men of my acquaintance have as well. This is not a trans woman’s problem alone. However, with the notable exceptions of Kate Bornstein who says “tranny” was originally used by Australian drag queens as a term of solidarity and the performers in the Tranny Roadshow, many trans women seem to want nothing to do with this word ever again, and see no use in it being reclaimed by anyone.

Tobi Hill-Meyer says on her blog, “When trans women are told that they are politically ignorant when they object to trans men ‘reclaiming’ a derogatory term that has been used specifically against trans women and not against trans men, that’s transmisogyny.” The first part of this is very important. When trans women object to the use of “tranny,” often times by trans men but not always, a common response is an explanation of what reclamation is, which suggests that trans women aren’t politically savvy enough to know that already, and that as soon as that little matter is cleared up there’s no reason to object to the word being used.

My friend Trannysaurus originally turned me on to this issue in his post about it a few months ago, in which he responded to a post by Cedarquestioning the “tranny” reclamation project. I’m not going to repeat all of it as it stands better on its own, and has more links for further reading. Since then I’ve been considering my own use of the term more closely. And, considering as I’ve told listeners in at least two episodes that “tranny” is a slur and in general shouldn’t be used, I thought I should address the matter here.

I’m going to resort to an imperfect analogy for this part of my analysis. I don’t think I would have been comfortable calling my podcast “Ask a Queer.” I identify my sexuality as queer, I study queer theory, I speak of the queer community, and I frequently ponder how the concept “queer” is congruent to other concepts such as “kink”; reclaiming “queer” as a word is a project I actively engage in and find worthy. But to use queer as a noun that stands in for a particular person? I just can’t do it. After spending more time with Doombat this year, I’ve become more accustomed to using “queers” as a collective noun because ze tends to use it that way.  But I say “I’m queer,” not “I’m a queer.”  The second one just feels wrong.

I think it would be equally difficult for me to reference a work that used the word “queer” in such a way. And don’t even get me started on “fag” and its variants; I can’t say it out loud without stumbling, and even typing it felt uncomfortable; “dyke,” while more comfortable than “fag,” probably because I tend to hang out with lesbians more often than gay men, I still avoid using. If I were trying to promote a creative project that I thought had good content but had a name that I thought was offensive, oppressive, ignorant, inciting, or just made me uncomfortable, even if the name were something I could technically lay claim to as an in-group member, I’d have a hard time of it.

And even if I weren’t trying to promote it to others but just listen to/watch/read/experience it, I might not even be able to get past the title to the content. Kynn suggests that using language like this can create an echo chamber, where only the people who can get behind its use for whatever reason will take part in the experience, and those who object to it tend to self-select out of the experience or may be deliberately shut out when they voice their concern. Together with the political naïveté construction, this gets polarized fast and is easily perpetuated, leaving even more trans women solidly out of the so-called progressive movement than already were due to other transmisogynistic rhetoric from feminists and lesbians and womyn-born-womyn-only spaces over the decades.

Kynn also raises the point, who are we talking to when we use this word in public communication? Leaving aside the question of what communication these days isn’t public for now, this is an important point. We have to consider the audience: who will see the use of the word and what reaction will they have?

  1. The people who use the word already in earnest dismissal of others’ humanity. These people are probably not going to learn anything from a trans advocacy project no matter what its title.
  2. The people who are not already part of the community and may be curious to know more. Shock value or genuine reclamation may draw these people in. However, using the word in education projects can promote the idea that using it in general is okay, especially if someone in this group doesn’t actually make the jump from the title to the experience.
  3. The people who are part of the community and dislike the word. They are not going to feel included, especially if their attempts to request a change are not responded to.
  4. The people who are using the word in a positive sense and like it that way. These people are probably not going to be affected either way, and will continue using or not using it in the places they see fit.

If we’re talking game theory, this clearly points to groups 1 and 4 being unaffected by word-choice, and groups 2 and 3 potentially being very negatively affected by it. That seems to indicate that it’s better not to use the word in educational projects like this one.

The only response I can make to that is that the word’s not going to get any better if we don’t use it in positive ways, a point thatTrannysaurus makes. But I have to in turn respond to that by saying, using a word in positive ways usually doesn’t make it hurt any less when it’s used negatively. For people who are not in-group to me, casual uses of “tranny” to refer to anyone who hasn’t specifically cleared it will still raise alarm bells, despite my own liberal use of it in my own circles to refer to myself. And as queenemily says, “the word ‘tranny’ gets used with alarming regularity in the media, and I’m not sure it actually registers that it is a slur.  It’s always so jolly, like it’s a whimsical, fun term that cis people can throw around with abandon.  Always with the implication that trans people are laughably pathetic.  Because my identity, our history, of itself is a joke.” Trying to reclaim this word in public spaces may not subvert this connotation at all to many audiences, and even reinforce it.

I think reclaiming “tranny” is a useful project, and one is definitely possible on a personal basis. As a performance piece, I can’t say. I’ve been studying deconstruction a lot this semester, and we’ve read several plays/performance pieces that make me intensely uncomfortable because of their subject matter, and don’t make a whole lot of sense until I read the background material and analysis; I can’t say that these pieces are useless or counterproductive just because they have that effect on me. (And I think there are other issues surrounding the site of performance pieces that feed into/run parallel to common criticisms of drag shows, but that’s another topic for another time.)

But with this podcast in particular (and the Q & A event that Kynn criticizes), I don’t think my work is functioning as a performance piece, but instead as an educational project. And I’m not sure I can continue to attempt to do education work under the banner of this word that is so divisive to my community.


Bonus facts that didn’t seem to fit in the post proper:

With safe-search turned off, Google returns some 14 million hits for “tranny,” overwhelmingly dominated by porn. Safe-search returns 8 million; the hits that aren’t actually referencing automobile parts feature the words of such popular and hilarious figures as Perez Hilton and Christian Siriano. This website is now the top hit for “ask a tranny,” both with quotes and without.


I realize this is a long piece and I hope it wasn’t too dense; I tried to avoid jargon but I think some slipped in. I haven’t decided for sure whether I will change the name, but I have a few alternatives in mind and I will give everyone fair warning for feed updating if I do decide to change it.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear listeners’ feedback on this matter.

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This episode carries the old name of the podcast. Some of my reasons for the change can be found here.

00:00 Opening
01:04 Introduction to the episode
01:19 Tip 1: Staring
02:00 Tip 2: Avoidance
02:21 Tip 3: Pronouns*
03:46 Tip 3a: Honorifics
05:00 Tip 4: Questions
08:20 Tip 5: Terminology
10:05 Tip 5a: Epithets
12:27 Tip 6: Outing
13:08 Tip 7: Education and Respect
14:34 Upcoming episodes & contact information

Leave me a voicemail! Click “Call Me” in sidebar

15:36 Closing
16:04

*Note: Apparently I mixed up the “Generic Singular Pronouns” episode with the “Split Infinitives” episode. Grammar Girl actually says that using singular “they” is a controversial choice; but it is one I am prepared to defend.

Links mentioned:
Grammar Girl: Generic Singular Pronouns 
Grammar Girl: Yo as a Pronoun 
Grammar Gril: Who Versus That 
“The word “tranny” is not cute, it’s not hip and ironic, it’s not okay at all unless it’s being reclaimed by a transperson. (I’m not even going to touch “shemale”/”it”/”chicks with dicks,” because realizing how grossly offensive those terms are isn’t Trans 101, it’s Remedial Not Being an Asshole.)” —Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi 

Email: feedback@transrelating.com
Twitter: DDog 
Podcast blog: http://transrelating.com

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License

Ask A Tranny SE002: Respectful Language

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