In an editorial for New York Magazine posted Sunday on its Vulture blog, actor Alec Baldwin said his farewells to public life, inadvertently digging himself deeper into an already substantial hole of missteps, fumbles, and botched mea culpas.
Baldwin opened the piece by telling the story of how he reached out to "a gay-rights group that [he] had researched and admired," in hopes of learning more about how words can hurt and what words in particular cause that hurt, after he was taken to task for allegedly calling a photographer a "cocksucking little faggot" late last year. Then, without a hint of irony, Baldwin writes, "We talked a lot about words and their power, especially in the lives of young people. One young man, an F-to-M tranny, said ... "
Notably, Baldwin wrote this after his conversation with LGBT advocates about words and their power. As has been covered a number of times at The Advocate, the word "tranny" is a slur. It's a word trans individuals often hear immediately prior to being attacked.
Much has been made of the various aspects of Baldwin's supposed homophobia, but very little attention has been paid to instances of transphobia from him. There haven't been many, and in all likelihood they have been the result of ignorance, not malice.
"The only thing about sexuality today that's overwhelming to me is people who want to have sexual-reassignment surgery," Baldwin said in a 2008 interview with The Advocate. "It's one thing to say, 'I'm a guy, but I don't like women,' and another thing to say, 'I'm a guy, and I want to be a woman.' I'm like, wow. The transgendered thing totally blows my mind."
Right there, Baldwin repeated an all-too-common misconception about transgender people: the idea that being transgender has to do with one's sexual orientation, and that the desire for a transgender woman to transition comes from a deep-seated need to sleep with straight men. This isn't the case, as demonstrated by trans women who are primarily interested in other women or trans men primarily interested in other men. "Transgender" is not just a souped-up level of gay.
Then again, given the level of cultural understanding of trans people and identities, it's not exactly surprising that Baldwin embraced the "trans as 'super-gay'" misconception. After all, in 2004 he actually got to play this part. In season 2 of Nip/Tuck, created by gay showrunner Ryan Murphy, Baldwin had a brief stint playing Dr. Barrett Moore. As a character, Dr. Moore was a "confirmed heterosexual." He befriended Avery Tanner, a male sex worker, and while Tanner found himself attracted to Moore, the feelings were unreciprocated on account of Moore's orientation. But Tanner was determined to win Moore's love at any cost, so he underwent a number of surgeries, performed by Moore, to become Ava (played by Famke Janssen), a woman frequently referred to in the show as "the Hope Diamond of transsexuals."
It's portrayals like that of Famke Janssen's character that spread some of these myths about trans people, inadvertently serving as the public's sole source of trans-centric knowledge. In apologizing for using the word in 2011, Lance Bass admitted that he believed "tranny" wasn't a slur, as he had heard the word used frequently on RuPaul's Drag Race and by Christian Siriano on Project Runway in 2008. (Siriano has since apologized, and said he doesn't use the word anymore.) Even within the LGBT community, many find themselves equally confused about what terms to use, what words are acceptable, and which ones aren't.
From where I stand, it's clear that when Baldwin referred to a trans man as a "tranny" in this interview, he was wrong. Ask RuPaul, however, and you might arrive at a very different conclusion — to date, RuPaul, a cisgender (nontrans) gay man, has repeatedly defended his use of the word on Drag Race and in his music as not offensive, because "the intent comes from a place of love."
In the meantime, is it reasonable to hold Baldwin accountable when so often we let those in our own ranks contribute to the confusion?
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.