Op-ed: Burning Books, One Word at a Time
To be ignorant of the past is to be forever a child. —Cicero
Some time in the early 2000s, I saw a profoundly troubling trend being born in the newly popular Live-Journal-type blogs. It later spread through Tumblr and Twitter, across our small, bright quilt of communities: an online thought police. The officers of the thought police felt deeply entitled and were intent on unraveling a half-century of LGBT community-building to insulate themselves from what has become the unendurable offense of much of today’s activism: feeling offended.
The Internet is a world of words, whether typed, superimposed on cat pictures, or spoken in videos, and decades of boundary-shattering LGBT culture have delivered up dictionaries full of scandalous language that make children — particularly those who’ve been windburned by a lifetime of hovering helicopter parents — very uncomfortable.
Right now, the endless flap over the gender community’s language is a hot topic, with RuPaul’s televised shemale and tranny games highlighting the question of who gets to say what in our balkanized communities. The language cops, in this case conservative trans women who object to their use under any circumstance, want tranny and other such words completely banned. I understand the arguments against the insult, but I don’t think these torch-wielders realize that transsexual women do not own the experience of gender crossing or the language created around it. Both the experience and the language have a long and hard-fought history across many groups; our history books are full of these stories. In seeking to blot out our internal language of historical words like tranny, the thought police are essentially burning books, one word at a time.
I am an artist. I’m far from being placed among the best in my fields (at least by those who want to hold a measuring stick to everything), but I feel this identity deeply. My deepest and most banal experiences all flow through the lens of my creativity, which I express as art. Before I am a woman, a transsexual woman, or even a physical body, at my core, I am a soul who loves to create whatever beauty I can from whatever I have at hand.
The world is full of those who create, and also those who destroy. Flaubert said, “One becomes a critic when one cannot be an artist, just as a man becomes a stool pigeon when he can not be a soldier.” Those who criticize their own community’s artists as transgressive word villains while producing nothing themselves might find uncomfortable resonance in that quote.
The LGBT community has historically been a source of art, culture, and wit that guides the world’s tastes. In being forced to embody the artifice of acceptable lives, we learned to create art itself. We wrote love songs to those we loved in secret. We brought together those who shared our marginality. Pushed to the fringes, we were often forced to find dark humor in the worst of circumstances. Through it all, disempowerment, rejection, and violent punishment lent an intrinsic sense of transgression to just being ourselves. And pain does inspire some of the most moving art.
From of that artistic heritage came the words we have created and reclaimed to describe ourselves. I feel slightly ridiculous talking about slang words like tranny and shemale, words I myself do not choose to use. But I’m not going to asterisk them out or hint at them, because if you’re reading this, you’re most likely a grownup and I’m going to hold you to that. Faggot and dyke have reached the sort of homeostasis that racial epithets have in their communities; taboo for outsiders but reclaimed in the culture’s art, with full awareness of the history. But control over the language of gender travelers is still being fought for in the LGBT community, and like children squabbling over an inheritance, transsexuals, genderqueer people, and drag queens all lay historical claim to these words.
In the United States, a major difference between us and non-LGBT people is how we are shaped by our struggle against society’s rejection and punishment. As this struggle has lessened, so have some of the differences in our formative experiences, and one result is the emergence of the kind of comfortable, privileged scold we once only saw warming the pews of conservative churches. Like those who demanded chastity and temperance with little experience in the ways of sex or booze, our modern-day conservatives would strike words from the lexicon that were created long before they first tinted their Twitter avatar to Equality Red.
Shemale was around long before it popped up in neon font on ’80s porno covers. Somewhere between a portmanteau and a dumb rhyming joke, nowadays it is firmly associated with sex work. Tranny is a diminutive based on a picked-on trait, like fatty or darkie. For myself, I prefer transsexual woman, if I have to be specific, and just female otherwise. Shemale’s connection with sex work is what drives most trans women away from it, and what draws culture-lampooning drag queens toward it. But tranny has evolved, from scattered in-community usage by drag and trans entertainers to accreting negative connotations from its frequent use as a dismissive semi-insult — it’s gone from “Those trannies kicked ass last night when they got raided at Stonewall” to “Ugh, look at that hot tranny mess!”
I would argue that the same process has happened to the once obscure academic term cisgender, which basically meant “not transsexual” but has now accreted a critical mass of scornful usage by hashtag activists on Tumblr and Twitter who sneeringly use it to describe people they outright hate. Google “die cis scum” for an overview, and compare to the results for “die tranny”; at this writing, there are almost 100,000 more results for the former than the latter. This is not to minimize the violence enacted against the trans community — on average, at least one trans person is violently killed each month, and I wish more people were talking about that than about how they’d like similar violence enacted upon “cis scum.”
Appropriated academic lingo is the weapon of choice for in-community censors and thought police. These arriviste extremists have weaponized terminology like cisgender, created in the sterile labs of academia for use in the classroom, and plundered other established social movements for an arsenal of response-silencing buzzwords like privilege checking that all create the same result: intimidation at the threat of being labeled a bigot by someone whose oppression outweighs your own.
The strategy of the thought police is usually perfected in academia, where a relatively challenge-free, protected existence allows students and professors to practice a style of discussion wherein one’s opponent is systematically disarmed of every right to speak or think until the only point that is allowable belongs to the most oppressed social justice warrior.
I would never impose the labels tranny or shemale onto another person. But even if I don’t love them, I must acknowledge that some subcultures use those words to mean things that are important to them — gay men, drag queens, sex workers, and even some transsexual people. I don’t own those words.
It’s one thing to decide what you wish to be called. It’s another to seek to scrub words and identities from the lexicon, to snatch them from the hands of the people who created or claimed them before you were even born.
Tranny is a dumb word. It has been used negatively. But let’s be clear. Here’s a pearl of wisdom coming from a person who ducked Scud missiles in the first Gulf War. Here’s a word to the wise from someone who has been physically assaulted for being gender-variant. Here’s a tidbit from someone with 20 years of transition in the can: If hearing someone else call themselves a tranny is the worst thing that happens to you all day, you need to suck it up. Seriously.
These words are not yours to control. You do not use them. You do not embody them. You did not create them. And you do not have the right to dictate how other members of our vast, diverse community may use them amongst themselves. I stand against censorship. I stand against the new thought police. I stand for art and self-determination.
CALPERNIA ADDAMS is an out trans actress, musician and consultant. Calpernia.com. This column appears in the June/July issue of The Advocate.