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.