Community and Consequences: Understanding the Costs of Reclaiming “Tranny”

by: Tobi Hill-Meyer

I’m at a small local performance hall.  It’s the annual queer women’s music festival.  In this small college town, events like these only happen a couple times a year, and after an anti-social northwest winter, it feels good to be out.  I sometimes forget how many friends I have here; some that I haven’t seen in over a year.  The loud music washes over us as we dance in the semi-dark.  This is what I needed.  But in one moment, all that comes crashing down.

Somewhere in my head, I should have known this would happen and prepared myself.  “Tranny got pack!” shouts the performer on the stage.  The crowd begins cheering, but suddenly I’m crestfallen.  I just can’t join in the celebration on this one.  I withdraw from the crowd and move to the back of the room.  Looking around I see a few others who had the same reaction, and I can’t help but notice that out of the small number of trans women in attendance at this show, each of us are removing ourselves.  I raise an eyebrow towards one friend and we share a moment  of, “Yeah, I know.”

Like many trans women, I’ve got a complicated history with the term “tranny.”  Burned into my consciousness are societal insults about “tranny makeup,” jokes about celebrities who “look like trannies” and fashion tips for how to avoid looking like a “hot tranny mess.”  There is the “tranny alert” website that encourages people to take and post pictures of suspected trans women they see on the street and log their locations — presumably so that straight men can avoid them, but more realistically so people on the internet can laugh at them.  TV crime shows have “tranny hookers” that are depicted as worthless trash or murder victims.  And of course, there is my own experience briefly working in “tranny porn.”

I’m not so sensitive that I can’t stand to hear the word uttered — but having it repeatedly chanted from the stage is a bit much.  This is especially so because every negative message attached to “tranny” that I know is pretty clearly about women (if you have any doubts, just do a search for “tranny” in any social media, like Curiouser Jane did last month), yet it’s a guy who’s singing the song.  I know he intends for the message to be about empowerment, a celebration that he’s strong enough to reclaim the term.  However, I find it to be a forceful reminder of the violence and oppression aimed at trans women like me and that I don’t have the luxury of taking this word (and the stereotypes that go with it) lightly.

The message is supposed to be: “I’m brave because I have to deal with all this shit and can still use that word.”  However, the reality is that he doesn’t have to deal with the the bigotry that comes with that word.  Police officers aren’t going to profile him as a  tranny hooker and arrest him just for walking down the street.  He can laugh off jokes about tranny makeup because they so obviously don’t apply to him.  No one is going to post his picture to the web with a tranny alert to “protect” straight men from him.  I’m not saying he doesn’t deal with transphobia — I’m sure he does — but he doesn’t have to deal with the kind that comes along with this term.  So instead, the message comes across as insincere, bragging: “I’m braver than you trans women because I have the privilege not to have to deal with this stuff.”

This is not the first year that something like this has happened at this queer women’s music festival.  Perhaps that’s related to why there are only two or three trans women in attendance.  Perhaps that also has to do with the fact that in the half dozen years since adding the fine print “women and trans” to the event’s mission, they’ve had at least one trans man perform every year and only had one trans women group.  I’m not saying one thing caused the other, but each of these is an element of an environment that is not welcoming of trans women.  When folks who aren’t trans women casually use the term tranny, it’s a clear sign that a space doesn’t have a lot of trans women participating in it.

I want to be clear I have no investment in policing anyone’s language, if for no other reason than that’s a full time job and I’ve got better things to be doing.  I’m not going to start any boycotts. I’m not going to nag and lecture.  I’m not going to leave angry comments on your Facebook page.  I just think that trans men and other female assigned trans folks should be aware of the impact of using that word and the alienating effect it has on many trans women.  I give performances, and if I was ever alienating a lot of folks, I would want to know, especially if I was alienating people along lines of oppression.

I don’t mean to single out Athens Boys Choir, who performs “Tranny Got Pack.”  I appreciate his work, and I own one of his CDs. It is simply that it is difficult for me to see him perform live because of that song’s popularity.  I want to be clear that this isn’t an issue specific to him.  In the past few months, it seems like every other trans guy performer has been arguing for their right to use the term.  Recently, I was handed a flyer for a show featuring several musicians and bands I had been wanting to see.  However, when I noticed the line at the top “calling all trannies, faggots and muff divers,” I suddenly didn’t want to go.  It told me that it was unlikely that many other trans women would be there and that there’d be a good chance I’d feel alienated at the show.  I doubt the performers were the ones to create the flyer and maybe I’ll catch another show elsewhere, but I just felt very uninspired to put down money to go to that venue.

So, if you’re a trans guy or trans masculine/trans male genderqueer who wants to publicly use the term tranny or to associate it with your work, I’m done arguing about it.  You can use the term, and there’s nothing I or anyone else can do about it.  You might even find a group of folks who will praise you for being brave and edgy.  All I ask is that you take a moment and try to understand the costs, the people you will be impacting and alienating.  Because I have a feeling that many the people using the term don’t fully understand the consequences, and if they did, they might decide it’s not something they really want to do.

Tobi Hill-Meyer is a trans activist, writer, and filmmaker and has directed two trans focused Feminist Porn Award winning films.  Tobi started producing media to fill the utter void of diverse trans characters as well as to offer an alternative to the overwhelmingly exploitative and exotic ways that trans women’s sexuality is often portrayed.  Check out Tobi’s work at HandbasketProductions.com.

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36 responses to “Community and Consequences: Understanding the Costs of Reclaiming “Tranny”

  1. It’s occurs to me that the flippant and playful use of the slur by (my fellow) trans men is serving as an unintentional as it may be shibboleth to let trans women and trans fem/me people they arent wanted in spaces and cliques and at events. Guys, how does that make you feel that you are doing that?
    It makes me feel super shitty.

  2. Very nice, Tobi.

    I often wonder if the idea isn’t simply to alienate trans women altogether. Not sure why, but sometimes the effort to “redeem” seems like a redemption for everyone but those on the trans fem spectrum. The guys should know better.

  3. “How do you feel about trans women using the term?”

    It’s certainly more complicated. I wrote a three part series covering a lot more of the background of the term which can be found here:

    http://www.bilerico.com/2010/12/lets_talk_about_tranny_-_meanings.php

    http://www.bilerico.com/2010/12/lets_talk_about_tranny_-_media_criticisms.php

    http://www.bilerico.com/2010/12/context_lets_talk_about_tranny.php

    The short answer to your question, though: I certainly know some trans women who cringe at the word even when other trans women are the ones saying it, but even while cringing, they might feel it was justified as long as the trans woman who said it was referring to herself and not other trans women or trans women in general.

    That feels different because when someone uses the term for themselves it often sounds to me like “Yeah, I’m alternatively seen as a hypersexual object available to straight men looking for something “exotic” and a freaky wierdo fake-woman who’s seen as disposable, so what?” So when a trans woman, especially someone with experience in the sex industry, dealing with street harassment, and struggling with poverty, says it, that rings true. Whereas when someone who’s not a trans woman says it, it usually sounds like they don’t know what they are talking about.

  4. I should have commented here instead of tweeting, I realize belatedly, so I will do so now. What bothers me about the argument over terms like tranny, shemale, chick with a dick whatever is when trans people police other trans people about using those terms to describe themselves and themselves only. Like, no. No one gets to tell me I can’t call myself a tranny or whatever. The whole POINT in some ways of trans politics is that people aren’t allowed to identify and pigeonhole you without your consent. However in keeping with that point it is also uncool to put those terms on to others. It’s a potentially very hurtful word and I know people who are outright triggered by it. It behooves me then to be very conservative about how I use words when I am describing or speaking with others. Not to mention what you and your friends group may find acceptable is a far cry from what may be acceptable on stage. One is a very small, known audience. (when my friends and I joke about being Team Tranny in online gaming, hey we’re all trans and we’re poking fun at each other, and our group includes a trans woman, genderqueer, transmasculine. We know each other so well that we don’t have to worry about whether the intention is to wound) The other is a huge audience and the performer can’t possibly know how everyone in the crowd might feel so it seems like good sense to just leave that kind of thing out.

      • Amen to that. I don’t want to cut words out of anyone’s lexicon but I do want people to be accountable for the power they wield when they choose to use these terms.

  5. I know I can’t stop this but, getting our panties all in a wad over this word is going to BACKFIRE on our community in a BIG way. This tranny word is out there and in use. If we get all in an uproar at this point, it will just turn it MORE into a tool of hatred. We have to face it, yes there is tranny porn, there are people who have tranny makeup and some look like a hot tranny mess etc. Come on people LIGHTEN UP! I look at pictures of myself from 5 years ago and think “OMG I left the house looking like that?” and laugh. Seriously being using the word transgendered is OK but tranny is somehow hugely offensive? Aren’t we being a bit over sensitive here?

    OK if you can’t lighten up, look at other minorities who have got all in an uproar over a term used for them. Where did it get them and did they remove the word from use doing so? Nope, it was turned into a tool of hatred and used to push their buttons. I for one am not going to “have my button pushed” over something this silly. Life is too short to get all bent out of shape over this!

    • I agree to a point Stephe. However when people are arguing for the right to use the term aren’t they the ones that are making it an issue? Having conversations about reclaiming the term and what is best for the community is fine in my eyes. I do want to be respectful of others and hear their opinions since this impacts all of us. However the people that say it is their right to do so especially if they are of a male or masculine identity, a gay man, or drag queen it begins to intrigue me. To show how the topic is not just about one little word is what if a person corrects you and says they want to be referred to as Black instead of African American and you choose to call them what you wish. Is that person being overly sensitive? Or if a person refuses to use the preferred pronouns towards a non cis gendered person is that ok and the person should just deal with it and its fine? Claims of oversensitivity and victim blaming have a bad track record of only perpetuating discrimination from what I have seen.

      A lot of ongoing discussions about the term and use of it transcend this issue alone and carry over into other aspects of life. I think its cool having discussions about these topics and being civil just talking to other people and seeing their views and feelings. Overall about the term I feel meh about it. My main interest is about the sense of entitlement and ownership of the word especially by people that aren’t impacted in the same ways as others from the term. I don’t get offended really and I think how Neil Patrick Harris responded is probably the way to go in my opinion. I <3 that guy =D

      • Stephe, the whole reason people “get all in an uproar about a term being used for them” is because that term is *already* a tool of hatred.

        I don’t think anybody has figured out a surefire way to end oppression, but I am quite sure that doing nothing and hoping that bigots don’t notice that slurs are hurtful is not an effective approach. Neither is telling people who are speaking up about oppression that they are being “over sensitive”, or claiming that they are the ones at fault rather than the perpetrators of the oppressive behavior.

  6. “, look at other minorities who have got all in an uproar over a term used for them.”

    You mean like what happens when someone says “nigger” and a host of other words? I’ve seen it put a negative spotlight on the speaker and even end their career, depending on where it was said. And you could consider that word “reclaimed” in comparison. That is what happens when minorities get in an uproar over it.

    The hate groups are still going to use it no matter what, but so what. They’re hate groups. Reclamation isn’t going to change that. That isn’t a backfire.

    And are we being oversensitive? Did you look at the other 3 blog posts written about this and the explanations as to why it is painful? This is someone telling you that you’re hurting and alienating people with it. Maybe listen instead of telling them to “LIGHTEN UP!” or suggesting they’re oversensitive. There is a reason they are sensitive to it. And you’re ignoring it.

  7. Ugh, it is depressing that Katz is still doing that song, I’d (wishfully) assumed that he’d stopped doing it years ago… I remember him doing that song at Camp Trans 2008 (I think? Maybe 2007?) and feeling like “oh wow, now even this space, which had felt like maybe the only even sort of safe space that I have in the world, suddenly doesn’t any more.”

    • Hey. This is Katz – athens boys choir. I don’t perform that song anymore and haven’t in years because I’ve been educated. Please read my reply post below. We all need to be given the opportunity to learn and grow. I apologize to the people I’ve offended in my journey.

  8. well said, tobi.
    it’s very disheartening to me that the person who wrote the original post explaining why he, as a tran man, has the “right” to say the T word has taken no accountability or responded to any of the comments.

  9. I’m FTM and I transitioned about ten years ago. I heard “tranny” and “tranny boy” so much that I adopted those words into how I spoke about myself and others. They were FTM community norms. I didn’t hear any objection to this or other information that would lead me to understand how offensive and alienating this is to trans women until relatively recently. I should have put two and two together on my own. I should have listened more closely to women in the trans community because they were probably saying it wasn’t cool (or at least not using “tranny”). I guess I’m one of those guys who Ms. Hill-Meyer mentioned who -wants- to hear when I’m being offensive/alienating because I don’t mean to be that way and I love my trans sisters, and I believe that everyone deserves some basic respect. I get it now. Sadly, I’ve done years of cementing that word in the lexicon, but I am ready to do years of gently reminding my brothers (and others) of the harm it does. Male privilege is real, even for FTMs. Identifying as “feminist” does not mean that we are above reproach – it means that we must listen to women! (Radical notion.) Thank you for this article, and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.

  10. Stop being so PC and wanting to censor people. I know Transwomen and Transmen who use the term tranny and they’ve all told me it’s not a slur. Granted these are not the batshit crazy Trans people who are professional victims and hate biological men and women and think that calling us ‘cisgender’ is somehow a slur. Would you prefer people call you a shemale, chick with a dick, or for the FTM guy with a pie, or man with a pussy instead?

    • Wanting people to be thoughtful about the words they use is not censorship. You sound like you’re cis and so therefore I’d ask you to think about the fact that you have likely never felt the pain the word tranny can cause someone. I don’t like it when we focus overly on terms as trans people and forget the bigger issues, but the fact is words have power and people have the right to be safe from things designed to hurt them. Just because you may not find it harmful does not mean you can invalidate someone else’s hurt and erasure over it. We’re different and we feel different things. And really, suggesting our only options are tranny, chick with a dick, or shemale is pretty asinine.

      ETA: ALSO the feelings of a small representative sample are not always the feelings of every trans person on the planet because weirdly we don’t call each other every night and have a big meeting about what does and does not offend us. It’s just better to be cautious when you’re in company where you don’t know what people’s feelings are. I don’t know why that’s hard.

    • I know gay men who call themselves and each other “fag” and “homo” all.the.time. who were angry that Kobe Bryant was *only* fined $100,000 and still kept his job. I know lesbians who routinely say “dyke” who have a massive fit any time a gay man says that particular word. I suppose now I’m led to believe that these folks are either batshit crazy gay people who hate heterosexuals and/or men?

      Also, I believe that Tobi VERY SPECIFICALLY stated that she wasn’t trying to censor or police anyone’s language. How you can read what she wrote and get that she is being a professional victim really makes me think that you have some personal investment in using the word tranny, and trans women should feel relieved you don’t just toss out shemale instead.

  11. Wanting people to be thoughtful about the words they use is not censorship. You sound like you’re cis and so therefore I’d ask you to think about the fact that you have likely never felt the pain the word tranny can cause someone. I don’t like it when we focus overly on terms as trans people and forget the bigger issues, but the fact is words have power and people have the right to be safe from things designed to hurt them. Just because you may not find it harmful does not mean you can invalidate someone else’s hurt and erasure over it. We’re different and we feel different things. And really, suggesting our only options are tranny, chick with a dick, or shemale is pretty asinine.

    • Not so. Nothing Tobi said obligates you to do anything, though one hopes common decency and respect would be powerful enough motivators.

    • “I have no investment in policing anyone’s language”

      I guess stating one’s experience at hearing what is, at best, a loaded term that specifically targets you, makes you feel excluded and probably unsafe in a space that is billed as inclusive and safer is TOTALLY the same as telling people what words to use.

      I’ll also note this is the second nonsense derail (“Drew” tossing out cisgender=slur and now, trans woman = he/she). A body would think that people invested in claiming the use of the word “tranny” would make posts in good failth and not try to get people involved in pointless discussions that have no relationship with that actual issue being addressed.

  12. Free speech does not protect someone from being thought of poorly for saying offensive or even unpopular things – and criticism is far different from censorship. I’ll never cease to be amazed by the lack of self-awareness that must be needed to criticize someone for the crime of criticizing someone. I mean, if someone comments here telling me that I’m wrong and should stop making this argument, isn’t that the exact same “censorship” that I’m supposedly guilty of?

    I also have to respond to Mitch’s side dig of using “he/she,” another common slur for trans people. It almost appears as if he is baiting me in the hopes that I’ll complain so that he can confirm his pre-conceived notion of my being oversensitive. Honestly, I’ve heard much worse and am not majorly impacted. But it leaves us with two possible interpretations. I would hope that no one on this blog would intentionally de-gendering someone with derogatory language, but the only alternative is that he was awkwardly attempting to use gender neutral language because he didn’t realize that I am a woman — and that would mean that he was commenting without any more than a cursory glance at the article.

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  14. Hey Tobi and all the folks reading this,

    Please let me first off apologize. I wrote “Tranny got Pack” in 2002 and believe me, I would take it back if I could. Language, esp language dealing with identity, is tricky. This is not an excuse, just an explanation and I want to get my side out. I wrote this song nearly a decade ago in Athens GA when and where there was no trans population. People weren’t talking about the politics of language and what it meant to use the term “tranny”. There’s a lot of learning to do in this life and I, like everybody else, need to be able to learn, correct our mistakes, and become better people. It’s a stupid song I don’t perform anymore because I’ve been educated and it makes me want to puke just thinking about performing it. I’m not reclaiming the term Tranny. I travel around the country teaching trans 101 workshops where I specifically talk about this very issue. I am human and I am a performer. Sometimes those two things collide. I’ll make mistakes again but I will maintain my love for this community and my desire to continue learning how I can serve it better. It hurt my heart to read this article because I gave up that word so many years ago but I understand that its impact remains and for that I am sorry. Thanks for listening

    • Katz, Thanks for letting us know. I appreciate where you’re coming from and it’s very nice to hear your perspective and where you are now after realizing the impact. Even though I wrote about your performance a couple of years ago, I certainly don’t mean to focus on any one person – it’s a community problem, not an individual one – but to show how one would naturally want to change their behavior when they understand what it is causing. Which is exactly what you did. Thanks.

  15. TY for this post. One cannot reclaim what was never used to police you. The fact is that trans men aren’t policed with this particular term, and ought to be listening when trans women speak up to say it hurts and offends them. I appreciate as well that Katz took a moment to clarify the changing thinking behind the decision to use that language. TY again for this post.

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