Mercedes Allen

'Tranny,' Paths of Pain, and the Ownership of Language

Filed By Mercedes Allen | June 23, 2014 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Transgender & Intersex
Tags: labels, language, RuPaul, sex work, tranny, trans, transgender, word police, words matter

language-police.jpgMarc Maron recently ran a follow-up interview with fellow comedian Todd Glass, who had come out as gay on Marc's podcast, WTF. Marc's podcast has often been strikingly introspective, and a moment came up that epitomized this. Glass started talking about language, the way that words can be weaponized, and the way he's experienced this since coming out as gay:

Glass (at 20:12): "But for me, I want to keep evolving. I don't want to be the type of person who drops one word out of my act and then the other word and then goes 'oh my god, when's it gonna stop? I'm done evolving!' Don't f***ing brag about that... 'Cause... you know, the reason those words -- I realize it with the word 'gay' -- the reason people think it's not bad is they don't see the path of pain where it leads back to..."

That sticks out in my mind as important, as it speaks almost directly to the controversy that happened when Marc interviewed RuPaul Charles in the previous podcast, as part of RuPaul's ongoing string of controversies over language.

Here's how that went:

RuPaul (at 1:16:41): "No no no, it's not the transsexual community who's saying that. These are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we're dealing with. It's not the trans community, because most people who are trans have been through hell and high water and they know -- they've looked behind the curtain at Oz and went, 'Oh, this is all a f***ing joke. But, some people haven't, and they've used their victimhood to create a situation...

"If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a f***ing hard-ass road. Because the ego would have you think... that is a trap that the ego will have you... it gets you every time...

"My 32-year career speaks for itself. I dance to a different drummer. I believe that everybody, you can be whatever the hell you wanna be. I ain't stopping you. But don't you dare tell me what I can do or say. It's just words. Yeah, words [mocking] 'you... your words hurt me...' You know what? Bitch, you need to get stronger. You really do, because you know what, if you're upset by something I said, you have bigger problems than you think. I'm telling you this."

The sad thing about that is, earlier in the interview, RuPaul had some interesting but challenging things to say about building social movements around identity and about deconstructing "the matrix" of social illusions that people have. While I don't really agree with him on all points, it does provoke some thought and provide some insight about where he's coming from. "Identity" is a vague enough concept that it deserves to be questioned and picked apart from time to time, and that's what RuPaul does.

Of course, language is also the means that people use to become self-aware, communicate that self to the world, and build common cause... so your mileage on that will vary.

The Spirit of It

Now, I don't like playing word police. I've done it a few times, and I recognize the importance of words and the evolution of language. The effect that has on both forming social movements and shoring up one's sense of self-respect (if not pride) is admittedly significant. But the bigger issue is often the spirit with which something is said or intended, so my overall thoughts on language are mixed.

Sometimes we only have the language we're given. We've only relatively recently coined "cisgender" and "cissexual" (words to mean "not transgender" and "not transsexual," sort of like "heterosexual" is to "homosexual") because using "normal" drips with judgment and condemnation, and "genetic" is not scientifically accurate or verifiable.

We still fight over terms like transgender, transsexual, trans* (with or without the asterisk), etc. Depending on where you are, sometimes you need to be keeping a bloody scorecard. In one group, people prefer "transgender" because it doesn't imply that being trans is about sex; another group will prefer "transsexual" because it's always been the term they knew, or because for them, it is about changing the physical sex; yet another group will totally reject "transsexual" because it was coined by the medical community and they want to reject the mental health stigma or the clinical abuses that people have faced in the years prior.

The words changed over time, too. It wasn't that long ago that people embraced "tranny," and sometimes even accepted the word "transvestite," however inappropriate that might have been -- either because they didn't realize the implications of the word, or because it was the only label available in a drop-down menu, in one of those rare spaces we were welcome, at the time. Although there's a relatively consistent aversion to "tranny" and "shemale" now -- aside from a few people who still use them to describe themselves -- it hasn't always been that way, and the labels each come with a plethora of nuances and occasional people who embrace the terms for themselves.

rupaul-2014.jpgI tend to prefer trans (or trans*), because it's open-ended. It's supposed to be an adjective, not a straitjacket. Personally, I'd hate to ever find myself parsing a descriptor so narrowly and precisely that it starts to define me, rather than the other way around. But I really don't blame people for getting a little peeved about there being a minefield of language.

If you're thinking that this kind of fight over language is just particular to trans* people, then keep in mind that decades later, LGBT people still have divisions over whether they want to retake or banish the word "queer." Divides exist in other communities as well, such as the split over the terms "First Nations," "native," "indigenous," "aboriginal," "Native American," etc.:

"But lately, I question if we are empowered or disempowered by this term and this assigned title --and if it permeates and weakens our identity.

"Not the term in itself, but by all matters, machinery, and meaning (explicitly and implicitly) implied by the assignment of the title onto us by Canada, the acceptance of it on our part, and all that comes with such uncritical acceptance and internalization..."

The above passage almost looks as though it were plucked right out of an article on trans*-related language, doesn't it?

Words are important to us. They're inevitably used to define us, so it's natural for us to want to be the ones who determine what those words say... ecept that we can't. Abolishing a word isn't going to erase the pain that went with it, nor will it change the attitudes of the people who wield the word as a weapon.

There can indeed be a path of pain associated with "tranny." Because it's often the word used whenever a person is attacked, disrespected, disowned, denied services, threatened, refused entry, humiliated, or more, it becomes a foci of microaggression, where any one incident can seem surmountable or even trivial, but when multiplied by thousands, it becomes monumental.

Perhaps RuPaul had the luck or privilege to escape a lot of that -- he is, after all, able to take off the wig, makeup, and sequins when it gets to be too much -- or perhaps he found the rare strength to power through it all without it eroding his spirit, but trans* people at large aren't always able to do the same. Words have power.

What we can do in the discussion about language is assert our right to be respected, and to be dignified as the people we say we are. We are only ever entitled to speak for ourselves. We never were empowered to label everyone who's trans*.

RuPaul, of course, is speaking for himself, and that's cool. But the whole word debate arises because he is speaking for himself, and trans* people -- and just about everyone else, for that matter -- also assume that he's labeling trans* people. If there were a way to achieve clarity on this, it wouldn't matter what terminology he embraces and throws around.

But where RuPaul Charles derails is not from pointing out the inevitable failure of communal self-identification (because we are not some homogenous collective Borg hive -- I get that), but by invalidating those who are targeted by said language, and validating the ways the words are used to target them. "Grow up, get a spine" is not helpful, and it minimizes another's pain.

While we're busy trying to turn that "victimhood" into empowerment, RuPaul is there to act like there wouldn't be any pain at all, if we only had more spine. That's not helpful, and it's quite inelegant at that.

The language debate became an argument over the willingness to respect. Does one surrender the use of the word out of a willingness to listen to what someone has to say about who they are, what they need, and what their life experiences mean... or do they instead extend a big middle finger to them and declare that they know better, and that -- whether anyone likes it or not -- they're appointing themself the arbiter of another person's reality?

Not One-Sided

But that respect goes both ways.

Something that always bothered me about this discussion was that often it became an angry shouting match about who trans* people are not. Most often, this has to do with people distancing themselves from drag queens. Now I'll admit, it's difficult to change the impression that the public has, when society routinely conflates trans* with drag. Virtually every newspaper story you see on trans* issues is illustrated with a photo of drag queens in a Pride parade (okay to be fair, some are finally starting to know the difference).

Drag isn't the same thing as trans*, although some trans* people find drag a safe space to explore and/or come out, so there can be some overlap. Trans*, though, is different -- not better, but different.

Clarity would be nice. But what happens is that instead of calling for clarity, people slip into the same bigoted stereotypes and assumptions about others that they don't want applied to themselves. Denigrating someone else in order to elevate oneself is very low.

The new argument is that "drag is trans* blackface." But drag was never meant to lampoon trans* people -- it lampoons gender itself, both masculinity and femininity simultaneously. It's quite likely that drag is becoming an art that's past its time, because of the effect it has on intersecting groups and issues -- i.e. that regardless of the original intent, trans* people are lampooned in the current context -- and the buttons that it now pushes.

But I'm not going to start that discussion here, nor will I malign the integrity and motives of the people who engage in drag, some of whom set out to challenge gender as much as anyone who is genderqueer, but simply took a different avenue and during a different time. It's a conversation that's looming, but not one that trans* people can have arbitrarily and unilaterally -- at least not if you believe in decolonizing activism.

There's also another group of people that are often taken issue with, in the discussion about the word "tranny."

verbal_abuse.jpgWhile composing this article, I ended up getting into a heated exchange in probably the worst venue to have an intelligent conversation: Facebook. One follower had been pushing me to write on the subject and decided to elaborate on why she felt words like "tranny" are offensive: she associated the word with the porn industry and prostitution, and didn't like the implication of being associated with such "sleazy," "freakish," and "deluded" people. (Because apparently, doing sex work means that one must not be really trans*.)

People like me.

I don't do sex work now, mind you. I did at two points in my life, though: once when I first left home at 18, and again later when I transitioned and was more or less dropped off the payroll by my employer. I was outed on this point a couple years ago and haven't written about it much here -- but I've been having to discuss it a lot more recently because of legislative issues in Canada. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not ashamed of it either.

I didn't use words like "tranny" or "shemale" then, mind you, unless it was part of a date's fantasy (at which point one inevitably has to put up with it). And currently, things are fading far enough into the rear-view mirror that it would make as much sense to call me a tranny as it would to call me a soup can. So I have no vested interest in defending the words themselves.

But the words used are no longer relevant, because the question of intent goes both ways. What I was really being told on Facebook was that my conversant's pain stemmed from having to be associated with what they felt was a lesser form of person.

Your path of pain does not entitle you to create more pain by bulldozing through me.

And from this point forward, I am no longer interested in this argument about language -- or at least not until we have a good, solid discussion about intent. Because while I recognize that there is genuinely a path of pain that some people have regarding the word "tranny," sometimes it's really about disdain.

Crossposted to DentedBlueMercedes.


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