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Op-ed: The T-Word Hasn’t Changed, We Have 

Op-ed: The T-Word Hasn’t Changed, We Have 


There have been a few knockdown drag-out fights recently within the LGBTQ community over the use of the word "tranny," a confrontation that has become known as "Trannygate." On one side, trans activists and their allies contend that the T-word is a slur used to dehumanize trans people, while the other side, mostly gay men including drag queens, fire back with "it's just a joke," "don't be so sensitive/P.C." or my personal favorite "it's just a word."

Openly gay entertainers Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris recently used the word while kidding around on television, and they subsequently apologized. Openly gay Project Runway star Christian Siriano teased people as "hot tranny messes" during the show's fourth season in 2008. In a recent interview that appeared in the Huffington Post, drag entertainer RuPaul said "no one has ever said the word 'tranny' in a derogatory sense" then he went on to say that he wished Bass had told his critics "F-you, you tranny jerk!"

The T-word has a long history of being tossed around in both media and casual conversation, so people are wondering why it's suddenly a slur. The truth is that the T-word has always been depreciative. It was coined by the porn industry to fetishize trans women and boost sales.

A Google search of "tranny" brings up 169,000,000 hits, the vast majority of which come from online porn that is also tied with the equally derogatory term "she-male." When someone says "tranny," they're expressing a sexual fetish that degrades women who happen to be trans. So it's not "suddenly" a slur. The difference today is that trans people are finally feeling empowered enough to stand up and demand that they be treated with dignity.

When gay celebrities use language that publicly ridicules trans people, it sends a clear message to our lesbian, gay and bisexual youth that, despite anti-bullying efforts to protect them, it's still OK to bully those who identify as trans or who are otherwise gender variant. So it never gets better for trans youth while they are being bullied not only by their straight peers, but also by their LGB peers who simply mimick their adult role models.

Words have power, like it or not. This fact was recognized by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's "Think Before You Speak" campaign, which tackled the phrase "that's so gay." Most of us acknowledge that's a phrase that should be banished from the lexicon because it equates being gay with being stupid or strange. But what about the harm caused to trans youth when the word tranny is equated with someone who's a "mess?"

While there is no proven direct link between bullying and suicide, it must be noted that trans youth have a suicide rate almost double that of their LGB counterparts, and that half of all trans youth will attempt suicide at least once before their twentieth birthday. Project SPIN, a collaboration between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center to prevent LGBT youth suicide, is looking more closely at how trans youth are specifically being affected by bullying.

"From my experience leading workshops in schools across California, students hear just as many put-downs related to gender-identity as comments related to sexual orientation" says Sara Train, Project SPIN Coordinator. "When I ask students to share words or expressions that they hear regarding someone who is transgender, often their response is 'tranny, he-she, it...' The list goes on. This language has become all too common in schools."

But the anti-trans climate in the schools can change, according to Marsha Aizumi, activist and mother of a young trans man.

"I think LGBTQ adults can show our youth what it means to be accepting," Aizumi told me. "This is a concept that I have struggled with because I want to lash out to people who spew hatred and hurtful comments, especially at my son. But if I lash out I am just like them. I need to rise above them and understand that they too are on their journey."

Now that our collective conscious has turned toward the well-being of our youth, it is time for all of us to grow up and think about how we, as LGBTQ adults, impact their lives. Whether or not we want to be role models, the reality is that we often are, and it won't get better for them until the adults stop bullying each other.

JAKE FINNEY is the Anti-Violence Project Manager for the LA Gay & Lesbian Center.

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