The “Tranny” Debate: A Musing in Two Anecdotes, a Comparison, and a Proposal

This is a guest post by Das Janssen. Das Janssen is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Chicago State University and a member of several of Chicago’s overlapping queer communities.  His lifetime quest is to avoid having the last word. 

The word “tranny” has become the center of a lively debate in recent weeks. Some say the word is a transphobic slur and ought not to be used. Others say it’s a perfectly friendly term. Still others say it is a slur, but worth reclaiming and turning friendly. Accusations of censorship fly past allegations of hostility and the articles just keep showing up in our social media feeds. RuPaul Charles defended his use of the word on his television show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Dan Savage too has recently defended his use of the term, in a scathing tone that leaves his disdain for a college freshman with whom he had a disagreement quite clear. Facebook pages and blogs have exploded with people discussing this issue. Jack Halberstam, a noted queer theorist weighed in a few days ago with a call for queer communities to stop squabbling over terms and grow a sense of humor.

I am delighted that this conversation is taking place at all and that it has been as sustained as it has. We don’t need agreement, or a party line. What we need is to talk to one another more, to understand one another’s motivations more, to accept our differences more. We need to let words be more. We can’t really control how the meanings of words change, but we can use them advisedly. “Tranny” is a bad word. But we are adults and can say bad words when bad words are warranted.

Anecdote 1: A couple of years ago, I was describing a conversation with a student to a colleague, Albert (not his real name). It was the end of class, and as we were packing to go to our next activities, a student asked me how she was doing in the course. I didn’t have my computer or grade sheets handy just then and explained that she should come to office hours to find out. My lament to Albert was that students just don’t seem to have a basic understanding of what information we are and are not able to access on request. Albert, being much wiser than I, pointed out that the student wasn’t really asking me what her grade was. She was nervous about her own abilities and asking me if she was smart enough to do the work. She wanted reassurance and encouragement. It had never occurred to me to reassure this student of her ability because it seemed so obvious. And it was obvious. To me, just not to her. Sure enough, when I next interacted with the student, thinking of her question in this way allowed me to let the student know I believed in her, which in turn helped her to live up to her potential.

I submit that the brouhaha over the word “tranny” needs a similar approach. We need to look behind the objections and take a peek at what is motivating them. What are people really objecting to when there is an outcry over someone saying “tranny?” Is this really an attempt at censorship? That would be surprisingly foolish; there really is no way to enforce the outright banning of a word. It would probably be a mistake to dismiss the objectors as stupid enough to expect that to work. At the same time, objectors have been accused of hyperbole, and that’s fair. Some of the objections to the word that have entered the public debate are over the top. When people don’t feel acknowledged or listened to, particularly with regard to urgent matters, we can get a tad hyperbolic. All the more reason to listen instead of simply telling objectors to “get stronger, bitch,” (RuPaul) or develop a sense of humour (Halberstam).

The gist of all the pearl-clutching and handwringing is this: We feel unsafe. Many trans people, people without the audience of a celebrity or a renowned academic, are feeling pretty damned unsteady. We know that as the religious right absorbs its loss of the marriage equality battle, it will be focusing its sights on trans people. Our freedoms and our safety, already quite precarious, are about to come under ever more concerted attack and those factions of the L & G communities that are inclined to assimilate with high socioeconomic straight populations are prepared to join in on the bashing of us. We are worried, and have good reason to be.

Comparison: I dislike the word “vagina,” as it is one of the least female-friendly terms I have ever encountered. The term for this particular organ used to be the honest, blunt Anglo-Saxon “cunt” until the Enlightenment, when it was given the Latin name “vagina.” But in Latin, a vagina is a sheath. A sword-holder. A sheath has little purpose or meaning aside from what is placed inside it. Using that word denies that is its own thing and exists in its own right. History backs up my support of “cunt” as a more feminist term. Areas that were near hills with clefts in them commonly used to have “cownte” and similar variations as part of their names. Families who lived nearby absorbed the place-names into their surnames. It wasn’t an abusive term for women until the 17th century and wasn’t an abusive term for a man until the 19th. (Source: Oxford English Dictionary)

Given this explanation, one might see how the term might be preferable to “vagina” if one is interested in reasserting the value of the female as independent from how she is of interest to the male. But in today’s world, if we were to go around using the word to refer to female genitalia on a regular basis, we would offend a lot of people. It would be very difficult for us to establish credentials as feminists. We would be using a word a lot of women hear right before dying at the hands of men. Use of “cunt” is a violence now and all my academic arguments about why it’s actually less offensive do not stop it from causing people to flinch when they hear it. It may be that the word “tranny” has shifted meaning in a similar way. It was once a benign term, even a term used to empower those of us who suffer social disapprobation because of our transgression of gender norms. Now it is a term that cannot be used correctly without an understanding that it conveys some pretty nasty contempt for human beings.

Anecdote 2: When I was a child, an adult in my life was yelling at me over some misbehavior. This adult did sometimes strike me. On this occasion, we were in a narrow hallway, his face was right up in mine, shouting. My right arm went up to protect my face and hovered there. The adult asked me why my arm was up. I replied that he was going to hit me. He yelled that he wasn’t going to hit me and to lower my arm right now! I didn’t move. He yelled it again, louder and closer to my ear. I tried to lower my arm, but it had stopped obeying me and wasn’t going anywhere. Frightened, I used my left arm to force my right arm down and away from my face. When my arm was at my side, the adult slapped me hard upside my head.

Proposal: It’s obvious that the word “tranny” used to be a playful, positive term and many are trying to reclaim it as such. The problem with that – as with banning the word entirely – is we need the word. We need it to be a bad, impolite, taboo word. We have experiences that need to be expressed. If I say to a friend, “Oh, I never meet anyone on that dating site except guys who want to see the tranny,” I am not calling anyone names. I am communicating my own experience as an object of curiosity and contempt, an experience that is still common and demands expression and communication.

People who are trans still suffer at the hands of those who think of us as less-than-human, sideshow freaks, twisted, mutilated, laughable, ill, and pitiable: these are the people who call us “trannies.” The word lets us talk about how we deal with those people. The very distastefulness of the word is crucial to our being able to convey this experience. If we can’t communicate this, then how can we ever change this state of affairs? The only way to make the case that trans people are human beings, that we are as entitled as anyone else to safety and respect is to acknowledge that we are currently treated as less-than. Words that convey that should spark outrage. Let them widen eyes and inspire scowls from one end of the English-speaking world to the other!

When there is less need for outrage, “tranny” may be reclaimed one day. This trans Quaker who cheers for the Yankees hopes so.* But don’t rush things so fast – we still need this word as a bad word. We need the words that bite to talk about realities that still bite, that still need fixing. The history of the word does not redeem it, nor should it. We have work to do as the attacks on us redouble. We are still waging our own civil rights movement. And those who will not listen, who use the word without regard for its having become the site on which we are expressing our fear are doing us a favor. Using this word gives very clear notice that they are not listening, they are not interested in our perspective, they do not work for our well-being, they are not our allies, they are not our friends. What they want is for us to lower our arms so they can get at us all the more easily.

* Once upon a time, “Quaker” was a religious slur and “Yankee” an ethnic one. (And don’t yell at me for cheering on the Yankees – the niceties of sportsball are beyond me. My dad rooted for them and I miss my dad. It’s as simple as that.)

This is a guest post by Das Janssen. Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections or requests for clarification, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@gmail.com. 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X