Once upon a time, Projectors Drew Cordes and Wintersong Tashlin had the idea to have some conversations about some prickly subjects related to sexuality and gender with the goal of promoting discussion and understanding. After the two hug-sealed their plans for a discussion date, Drew said, "We are going to piss off sooooo many people with this." Winter replied, "I guess that's part of the problem though! How the heck do you have these sorts of dialogue without pissing off or disenfranchising someone out there?" With the sensitivity of such subject matter and the volatility of Internet dialogue in mind, Drew and Winter would like to stress at the outset: These are opinions. Theory. Not law. Many of the "answers" are only arrived at through the process of talking them out. Others surely will disagree on some points. The goal of this dialogue is not to decide or cement any principles, but rather to promote the civil discussion these important subjects deserve.
Drew: I talked about this awhile back with a cis female friend of mine who's dating a trans male friend. She went back and forth between identifying as a lesbian and as queer. Obviously, "lesbian" doesn't quite fit when you're a woman dating a trans guy, and "bi" might not be so accurate either, but she had issues with the history "queer" has as hate speech.
Winter: Ah, not a fan of reclaiming words? I encounter that a lot when I identify as queer, particularly from gay men.
Drew: Resistance to reclamation words?
Drew: Yet gay men use "fag" all the time! At least ones that I know.
Winter: It varies. It's funny, I'm much more comfortable with gay men using "fag" than "faggot" but I couldn't tell you why.
Drew: I'm the other way. "Fag" still hurts a bit, even if said by a queer friend or lover. "Faggot" ... actually turns me on. (Laughs)
Winter: But I'm really uncomfortable with the number of cis women who use "fag" as a self-descriptor. Much the way I think some trans* women are uncomfortable with trans* men using "tranny."
Drew: Yeah, "tranny" bothers me regardless of who says it. I hate that word. I can't even speak it. I despise even typing it. This is actually leading to the point my friend was making about her discomfort identifying as queer: Can you "reclaim" a word that hasn't been used against you? E.g., trans men and "tranny," cis women and "fag?"
Winter: Huh, that's a good one. My gut says no. That's just "claiming."
Drew: BUT! Have you ever been called "queer" derisively? Has it been used to hurt you? I haven't ever heard it directed at me as such. (Mostly because bashers had better, more hateful words by then.)
Winter: Sure, I grew up gay in the '90s after all. But I'll admit, it hasn't been used all that much. Of course, as I discussed in the essay about my Tourette's on Bilerico, there were way more exciting things to go after me for than my sexual orientation, so I'm a shitty guide.
Winter: It's a weird comment on my life that "retard" and "dog-boy" are way more hurtful to me than "queer" or "faggot." But I think that the generation just ahead of mine did a lot of the legwork of reclaiming both queer and fag for me.
Drew: So, would you say I have the right to identify as queer?
Winter: Sure I would.
Drew: "Queer" has never been used against me, personally, but plenty of other terms have. Does that experience cross over?
Winter: How so?
Drew: Well, I've never been called "queer" with the intent of harassment. I have been called fag, faggot, gay, sick, etc., with that intent, though. Do I get to reclaim "queer" via some that's-close-enough policy? Is it the intent of the torment? They are targeting me because my sexual or gender identity, therefore all epithets that might possibly fit me under that heading are mine to reclaim?
Winter: I'd say not because of a "close enough" policy, but because the queers, fags and LGBT people who came before you fought to make that word yours as their heir. Just like we haven't had to riot in the streets of New York or San Francisco to earn our equal place in society.
Winter: There are some epithets that are distinct to a segment of our population. Hence why I think "queer" belongs to everyone, while I don't like cis women using fag.
Drew: Right, because "fag" denotes "male" identity. And admittedly, it makes me a little uncomfortable to say women can't appropriate the "male" term. But if you flip it -- a cis man identifying as a dyke? I don't think women would like that.
Winter: I feel like it'd be super weird for me as a cis guy to say that I had a right to "dyke."
Drew: Exactly. Though, with this argument we're also going to get into patriarchy and male privilege; and women have more a license to claim male things than men do female things, because men still have (most of) the power.
Winter: There's something to that, but I feel like there's a point where that becomes unfair (says the guy with male privilege).
Drew: So a cis woman using "fag" bothers you, but does it offend you? As a gay man?
Winter: Hmm, I'm not sure if it does or not. ... I suppose it does a bit at that. Although I should note that in the last two months I've become extremely uncomfortable being identified as a "gay" man.
Drew: I spent about 10 years of my life as a gay man, and even more than that being perceived as a gay man, so most of the hate speech directed at me was of the "faggot" variety, so if I can get back in touch with my inner gay man here ...
Winter: Go for it.
Drew: As someone who used to get called a fag, cis women identifying as "fag" doesn't offend me or make me upset. It just sort of furrows my brow. I wouldn't really understand the why of it, and I'd want to have a conversation with her and see where she's coming from. I'd question its validity, but I don't think I'd dismiss it as invalid or misapplied until I talked with her.
Winter: A fair enough point. I see it a lot as a term used by cis women who play with gender through drag or as another form of dyke identity.
Drew: There's a large contingent of people who think you have to right to identify as whatever the hell you want, without taking the social component into account. Identity almost always must have a social component. It's extremely personal, but identity is also social. (I will be writing about this in a future Bilerico post.)
Winter: I'm inclined to agree with you. I guess for me, identity has a tribal element.
Drew: Going from your example, I'd say drag is a legitimate gender expression. It plays a huge role for some people. So, that actually makes sense to me. "Oh, the cis woman does drag a lot and identifies as a fag while she does it? Gotcha! Makes sense!"
Winter: OK, what about in the case of butch cis women?
Drew: In everyday life you mean?
Winter: Yeah. It's super whiny and privileged, but it doesn't seem fair for women to get dyke and fag! (Pouts like a child.)
Drew: (Laughs) Maybe "fag" has to be linked with masculinity for me. So, to me, it feels misappropriated with femme cis women. But butch cis women, who are harassed for their masculinity -- both in having it and not having it enough to "equal" a man -- it makes more sense.
Winter: And now to play devil's advocate for a moment: Using that argument, how come it isn't OK for male-identified drag queens to use "tranny?" (Although, I don't think it is.) Because the argument you just made does apply in my hypothetical. Cis men who do drag are harassed using that word.
Drew: I will need a second to ponder that one. ... I think it's twofold -- 1.) Again, it's the social component of identity. Drag happens on stage, not on the street. They're not living across gender battle lines 24/7, in the workplace, with family, friends, etc. They are not radically changing their expected appearance in daily life. They are not changing pronouns or their names and dealing with the consequences of that. Their gender expression might be a little femme, like gay men sometimes are, but that is not connected to 2.) their body. For trans people, it's about the body. Some of us are non-op, yes, but dysphoria regarding the body is always there. All the drag queen needs is duct tape at showtime.
Winter: True, but you opened the door when you said, "Oh, the cis woman does drag a lot and identifies as a fag while she does it?" I know cis women who ID as fags in everyday life, based on the fact that they do stage drag and have some fluidity to their gender sense, if not their presentation. But I do agree that the comparison to trans* experience starts to break down.
Drew: It's difficult for me to be objective on the subject of "tranny." I'd prefer nobody use it. Ever. But that's me.
Winter: And it's equally difficult for me to have an opinion with any real weight to it, as someone who is cis. It's not my word to use or hate.
Drew: But that gives you some objectivity that I lack, which is good.
Winter: I hadn't thought about it that way. ... It's funny, I know trans* people who embrace that word, but if someone called my partner that in front of me, I know I'd be upset.
Drew: You know, I think I'd actually be OK with a cis man who was a butch drag queen identifying as dyke in reference to that aspect of himself. But "tranny ..." I'm trying to think of a scenario where cis appropriation wouldn't bother me. Well, actually, a recent friend I made identifies as a cis gay man and a drag queen, but he was very confused for years, and thought he might be trans. He ended up living as a woman for three years, but never went through any physical transition. Before I knew about that part of his life, he used the word "tranny" one night (apparently that's what the Transylvanians in Rocky Horror productions call themselves sometimes) and I asked him not to use it and said that it was offensive, etc. He complied. But now that I have some emotional distance when I ponder it, I think he has a right to claim that word if he wants.
Winter: I will admit I use "tranny" in an automotive context, because that's where I first heard it. I've been told that I need to stop, but I find that kinda silly.
Drew: Yeah, I remember once soon after I started living as female I took my car in for an oil change and went over the other stuff that had to be done with the mechanic, then right after we were done, he leaned out the door to the people working on my car and YELLED, "Tranny on lift 3!"
Winter: Oh my! (Laughs)
Drew: I tried not to laugh. So yeah, mechanics can have that word, too, if they want.