Last year I wrote a piece on The Huffington Post titled “Gay Dudes, Can You Just Not?” that generated digital eye rolls, nasty comments, and even threats from readers. It was critical of use of the word “tranny” by gay and bisexual men. The central idea was that the word, which I’ll now simply refer to as “the t slur,” is, in fact, a slur. It’s a term tied to a history of violence, oppression, anger, and hate. It’s a term I’ve been called by those who wish to harm me. And frankly, it’s a term many trans women, like slain New Yorker Islan Nettles, hear immediately prior to falling victim to physical violence.
I dared to inform those who use the word, who think they have a “pass” on account of themselves being part of the “LGBT community,” that it’s not their word to use, and it’s not their slur to “reclaim.”
As expected, response to my essay was dismissive and hostile. “The author is way off base,” one commenter wrote. “The word is just a shortened version of ‘transvestite,’ which is another description of a drag queen,” another said. “Words are just words,” said another. And referring to the use of the t slur on Glee, someone wrote, “You can easily tell that the kids of Glee were saying it out of love in the classroom,” and telling me to “lighten up, grow up.”
I never fully got the opportunity to refute the things said in those comments. But it’s that time of year again, when RuPaul’s show heads back to the cable, and the already high level of transphobic content on television spikes. So what better time than now to tackle this issue again?
Leela Ginelle at PQ Monthly described the conversation following my previous essay as “breaking the queer corner of the Internet.” Here’s my attempt at putting it back together with a warning: fragile.
RuPaul and others contend that the t slur isn’t aimed at trans women, and therefore, he, as a cisgender, gay man, is welcome to use the term as he sees fit. He’s gone so far as to denounce those who have apologized for using the term. “It’s ridiculous! It’s ridiculous!” RuPaul told The Huffington Post’s Michelangelo Signorile in 2012. “I love the word ‘tr*nny.’"
Elsewhere in that same interview, RuPaul became exasperated when discussing the cancelation of the short-lived ABC sitcom Work It, a show that seemed on track to become the most transphobic piece of media to hit network TV. “We live in a culture where everyone is offended by everything,” he told The Huffington Post. “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh my god, I’m offended!’” He continues, “In my circle of friends, we mock everything! Everything is up to be mocked. Don’t take life too seriously. … If you’re offended by a name that somebody calls you, or something, whatever, you gotta take that up with your therapist, kiddo.” And, in possibly the most ludicrous statement ever constructed, RuPaul said, “No one has ever said the word ‘tr*nny’ in a derogatory sense.”
Is that so? So when I sat in the only open seat on a crowded train in the months after coming out as transgender, when the woman next to me said into her phone, “Some fucking tr*nny just sat next to me” and decided to stand rather than remain next to me — that wasn’t her being derogatory? When a group of college kids called me a “tr*nny faggot” as I waited for a bus, triggering a panic attack that left me home sick from work for two days — that wasn’t them being derogatory? If only I knew that they meant it in a loving, happy way, oh, how things could have been different!
The fact of the matter, Ru, is that words do hurt, and when you continue to use words that are frequently used to dehumanize people like me, that are used as precursors for assault, after you’ve been informed how hurtful these words are, you’re no better than a racist who uses the “n word,” the homophobe who calls gay men “faggots,” or the misogynist who refers to his female coworkers as “bitches.”
And yes, readers, before you start with the, “but I know several trans friends who refer to themselves as that,” or “I know trans people who don’t find that word offensive,” I’m going to have to stop you right there. Your friend, acquaintance, family, coworker, or Starbucks barista may not have a problem with the t slur, but a lot of trans people do. I listened to a Kanye West album, and he’s throwing the n word around like it’s going out of style. Does that mean I, as a white woman, should feel free to use the word? Of course not. Why? Because it’s not my word to use, just as the t slur is not yours to use.
And finally, there’s the time-tested excuse: “I am trying to ‘reclaim’ the word.” How kind of you. Thank you so very much, but unfortunately, unless you’re a member of the group that finds itself most negatively impacted by a slur, it’s not yours to reclaim. The n-word cannot be reclaimed by someone who isn’t black, “faggot” cannot be reclaimed by someone who isn’t a gay man. “Dyke” cannot be reclaimed by someone who isn’t a lesbian. “Bum” cannot be reclaimed by someone who isn’t homeless.
And thus, the t slur cannot be reclaimed by anyone other than transgender women. Transgender women are the ones who find themselves so frequently at the receiving end of abuse related to this word. When you hear that word, whether it’s being used on a sitcom like How I Met Your Mother or Mike & Molly, the image being evoked is that of what the public sees as the stereotypical trans woman. The joke, as used on these shows, is often of the “ha ha, you almost slept with a tr*nny” variety. The punch line of the joke is that one of the characters, often a straight man, finds himself attracted to a trans woman, and that is just inherently funny for some reason.
Because the word is predominantly aimed at trans women, with us as the joke, it is only trans women who can “reclaim” it if we so choose. While I’m certain some trans men have had the word thrown at them, it’s not theirs to reclaim. While I’m sure drag queens have had the word thrown at them, they have the benefit of being able to wash off their makeup, take off their dress, and fade back into their male lives. I don’t have that luxury. This is my life. This is my identity, not an activity, and not a hobby. This is who I am, forever trans, forever vulnerable to the damage this word can cause.
“But Parker,” you ask. “Aren’t there bigger issues to worry about? What about the startlingly high rate of trans suicide attempts, or the number of homeless trans youth, or the number of trans women of color who find themselves the victims of physical violence? Why are you so hung up on a word? It’s just a word.” Well, my inner devil’s advocate, you’re absolutely right. Those are important issues, and addressing those should take precedence over whether I have a panic attack after being called the t slur. This isn’t about panic attacks, this is about the systemic dehumanization of trans people.
When someone is no longer treated as though they have a shred of humanity in them, they become easier to attack. It’s the same reason people often use the phrase “born a man” to describe trans women. When someone has a baby, finding “It’s a boy!” and “It’s a girl!” cards is no problem. I ask you to try to find a card that reads, “It’s a man!” You can’t. It’s for this reason that trans people are treated as though they never had the innocence brought on by childhood: it’s easier to attack someone if you don’t view them as ever having been “pure.” When it comes to morally justifying emotional and even physical attack, a man will always be easier to attack than a boy; a woman will always be easier to attack than a girl; a t slur will always be easier to attack than a human being.
When you use these words, and when you disregard the concerns that have been brought to you by both trans individuals themselves as well as organizations like GLAAD, you contribute to those larger problems: homelessness, violence, poverty, and more.
The new season of RuPaul's Drag Race could be used as a chance to change. Based on past comments — and there hasn't been anything said publicly since that Huffington Post interview — it doesn't seem likely. Miracles could happen, though, who knows.
In the meantime, RuPaul, you dehumanize us, and you teach the public that it’s OK to do the same. Once we’re no longer people, once we’re simply t slurs, it’s easy for society to toss us aside, to discriminate against us and beat us, to deny us care and send us to the streets.
I’m a human being, not a tr*nny. Knock it off.
PARKER MARIE MOLLOY is the founder of Park That Car and works as a freelance writer. She has contributed writing to Rolling Stone, Salon, The Huffington Post, and Talking Points Memo as well as The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @ParkerMolloy.