Tobi Hill-Meyer

Let's Talk about "Tranny" - Meanings

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | December 20, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: derogatory language, slurs, tranny

Two years ago I wrote an article "Is Tranny Offensive?" which still gets cited and referenced. khloe-kardashian.jpgIt's a decent breakdown, but after two additional years of watching arguments unfold around the term, I've got a little more to say. This is part one of a three part series.

To begin with, it's important to recognize that "tranny," like most slurs, is used to say more about someone than simply whether they are trans or not. Just as how "this homework is so gay" is less about identifying sexual attraction to other homework of its own gender and more about being generically bad. Similarly, being called a faggot or a dyke is often about being too feminine, a sissy, a manhater, or just being unwilling to accept sexual harassment.

So what's the implication of being called a tranny? Let's get to that under the cut.

Tastes like Misogyny

One of the most illuminating ways of understanding the use of "tranny" is to watch how it is used as a put down for cis women. Several people have pointed out this pattern. Plenty of examples focus around fashion and the message that a tranny is someone who is incapable of doing femininity correctly, whether you're talking about the shoes that make you look like a tranny, insulting a cis woman's "tranny makeup," or the outfit that turns a cis woman into "a hot tranny mess."

The slur also gets dragged out to put a woman in her place when she is acting too aggressively. To shame her for being too sexual - and even in some cases to shame her for not being sexual enough (i.e., she won't let you in her pants because she has "something" to hide).

Famous cis women who have been repeatedly called a tranny include Brittney Spears, Anne Coulter, Sarah Palin, Cindy McCain, Hillary Clinton, Lady Gaga, Cher, Khloe Kardashian, and Janet Reno. Overwhelmingly you'll notice that we're talking about feminine women - their presentation is not what you would think of as gender deviant. If a woman were to be downright butch, she would more likely be called a bitch or a dyke. "Tranny" is reserved for those whose femininity is deemed fake, incorrect, or forced, those whose sexuality is either too brazen or too frigid, those who dare to take power and space and need to be knocked down a peg.

That's why it's frustrating to see cis women who can understand the utter horror and indignation of being called a tranny themselves but are completely willing to dismiss the negative implications when the term is used against trans women - because supposedly it's just a factual statement that she is trans. Perhaps cis queers and straight allies would understand the issue better if people started saying "that's so tranny."

Tranny Porn

In my previous article, I pointed out that regardless of its origins, the term "tranny" has been used by the porn industry more than any other space, and as a result the porn industry holds incredible influence over how the term is understood and what is associated with it. Unfortunately I've heard some people repeat this fact along with the exclamation that "tranny" shouldn't be used because it associates respectable transsexuals with porn actresses - often with very negative, hurtful, and sex worker phobic terms, even the word "shemale" - and I need to begin by condemning such an approach. Challenging stereotypes, including the assumption that all trans women are sex workers, is valid. However, it is inappropriate to attack, stigmatize, and condemn sex workers in the process.

The "tranny porn" industry caters to the fantasies of chasers, and in doing so sets up a number of specific assumptions - based on those fantasies - of what a tranny most often is. A tranny in this context is a trans woman. She is straight or bi and seeking validation from cis men, usually in the form of sex. To that end, she puts more work into her appearance and is often more feminine and more attractive than cis women and more willing to put up with sexism or abusive behavior. She, like most other women in straight men's fantasies, is extremely sexual and desperately wants your cock. She's willing to do all kinds of things your cis girlfriend might consider degrading. She probably has very little resources or money, few support structures, and little validation of her gender, all of which makes her desperate, with lower standards, and that much more easily manipulated or taken advantage of.

While based on certain realities of discrimination that trans women face, this is an exaggerated fantasy image. It is not okay to call out the use of this image and the term tranny as offensive, only to turn around and point at trans sex workers, claiming that they are the real "trannies" -- the desperate cock-hungry perverts who transition just to fuck men. Trans sex workers may occasionally play the role for work, but as a sex worker with many trans sex working friends, I can say that it is still degrading to have folks assume they can treat you poorly because you're a tranny whore.

This image certainly has moved beyond the porn industry. It's commonly displayed on police detective tv shows, raunchy movies, and is arguably the most common media representation of trans women - or at least in the top three.

Understanding the meanings of this term when it is used as a slur is a very important first step in analyzing our community politics around it -- both as a slur and through attempts to use it in a positive context. In the upcoming parts this series, explore several examples of those criticized for using the term and the debates of censorship around them, and finally how different context or who is speaking can change the implications of using the term and what kind of difference that makes.

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I have a question for you that is kinda off-topic to your main point, but is related to the info you use for context.

I once spent a lot of time looking for trans women in porn to see what they looked like naked, to have an idea of what was possible for me, for what my future held. However, I don't think I found a single woman who had been through SRS, they all still had penises. Really, that seemed to be the whole allure, the 'chicks with dicks'/'shemale' perspective.

It seemed that what the vids were providing was this 'creature' who had tits that could be played with up top like a girl(the 'she' aspect), and dick that could be sucked and an asshole that could be fucked down below like a guy (the 'male' part).

Overall, I was glad that the trans women could find work, but I found the whole thing annoying on most levels. Most importantly to me, where the hell were the trans women like me, who had been through SRS and saw themselves just as women, not as trans women? I couldn't find any porn with these women and guys, though I did find a couple of photo series of them in lesbian porn with women. This met my intial purpose, but left me wondering why they weren't in porn with men. Is this some kind of taboo for ppl who watch porn, is just no market for it? Or are trans women only seen as useful for portraying 'strange and unusual' sex objects, by behaving partially like str8 women and partially like gay men?

I realize some, maybe even a lot, of what I say here may be offensive, but my motivation isn't at all to attack or demean anyone, or to partition some ways of being trans off from others as legitimate or not legitimate, I just want to learn more about this area, and you seem to perhaps be able to help me with that. Please feel free to call me out on anything I have said or implied that *is* offensive, as I always want to understand and grow wehre possible.


Carol :)

"where the hell were the trans women like me, who had been through SRS and saw themselves just as women, not as trans women?"

I'm guessing that if they're doing porn, presenting as cis women, then you're not going to know they're trans and they're not going to out themselves as trans.
No brainer much?

Thanks for asking, Carol. To begin with, if you're interested I do have a scene between two post op women in my film Doing it Ourselves (On sale this month!). But yes, in the mainstream tranny porn industry, getting SRS is often considered a career killer. Certainly some trans women continue to get jobs, but at a much reduced pace. Some of the larger websites have a tiny little post-op corner. Some post-op trans women have gotten work in cis porn, but most production companies would not allow it if they knew.

There's a lot of reasons why that is the case, but mostly it is that trans people in porn are exotified as novelties. And if trans women look just like cis women, then there is nothing novel or exotic.

Where will your movie be available, Tobi?

It sucks that trans women who have had SRS can't just fuck and be fucked in porn like non-trans women.

Oh, and I hate the word tranny, too. Rightly or wrongly, to me it means transvestite, which means non-trans str8 men dressing up as women to get off and gay men dressing up as women to work in the sex trade. If that is their bag, fine, but I don't like being placed in that category, because that is not what I am about at all.

Hmm, I tried to make a link in that comment but it came out weird. Anyway, it's available now at my website Also at a handful of feminist sex shops across the continent. If you're local feminist sex shop doesn't carry it, suggest that they do (and mention it to me so I can follow up with them).

Thanks for the reference Tobi! :)

Your mention of 'feminist sex shop' about caused me to fall out of my chair, though! This phrase brought several thoughts to mind for me.

First, that where I live, we seem to have about the same number of feminists as sex shops, perhaps half a dozen, so of course none of the sex shops are remotely female focused.

Second, also related to this being a really hick area, we don't even have a queer bookstore anymore.

The main thing that shocked me, though, was the idea that a feminist sex shop would have anything related to trans women. The cognitive dissonace was heightened by having read the current issue of Bitch at lunch yesterday (I read it every once in a while, sometime well after I have completely forgotten the last time I read it, see 'Feminist Take on Pop Culture' on the cover, and buy it again).

In that issue, there was an article about the new magazine for 'post-op' trans men (I set this off in scare quotes b/c I personally don't like 'pre-op' and 'post-op' labels for trans ppl, not b/c I am trying to invalidate anything they have done or stand for), which was very suportive and positive. The article even referred to them as guys and men, but really didn't seem to make the connection as to why they were spotlighting men in Bitch (I made my own interpretations of course).

There also was a book review of Kate Bornstein's new Gender Outlaw anthology. The reviewer was extremely enthusiastic about the book, and detailed a couple of the stories to give a flavor of the book; need less to say, these were trans masculine stories. The impression I got from reading the review was that the whole book was about the trans masculine genderqueer experience. Knowing about Kate Bornstein, I felt this was pretty unlikely, so I went to Amazon to get a better idea about the book, which actually presents stories across the genderqueer spectrum. And maybe it would have been redundant, as Kate is pretty famous, but there was no mention that she was born male, not female.

Finally, there was a multi-page cartoon article about comic artists being misgendered, including trans artists. They didn't specifically say they meant trans masculine or trans men, but from the context and the codewords, which were the same as those used by anti-trans women readical feminsits, it seemed pretty clear. I had a bias in my interpretation, of course, was looking for something, but there was certainly nothing in the article to give any idea that they included trans women.

So the notion of a feminist sex shop that carries porn with trans women is hard for me to wrap my brian around....

Yes, I do encounter that kind of thing a lot -- that's a lot of what my This is What Transmisogyny Looks Like piece was about.

But on the optimistic side, I do have several feminist sex shops interested in the film. More than one approached me, saying they had been looking for something like this for years, especially to balance the fact that they have multiple films made by and featuring trans men. One place even asked for advice on other products or items that they could carry for trans women (as they already were carrying binders and soft packs).

But anyway, if you've got no feminist sex shops in your area, the sale in my site for the rest of the month is free shipping on this film. So it would cost you the same as getting it from a local source.

Patricia Harlow Patricia Harlow | December 21, 2010 5:21 PM

Ahhh yes, the classic feminist contradiction: FTM = Female, MTF = Male.

Straight up denying everyone...

Anyways, tranny, it's a word. Doesn't bother me in the bit. Maybe I've only ever heard it in polite/friendly context, but whatever.

Thanks for the article. I look forward to the other parts. :)

I don't see the contradiction? They basically accept everyone as their assigned gender at birth only, whether male or female.

This is a great article, I look forward to the others. (Also, sharing via

Are you considering cis male drag performers that are called trannies or use the term, to be sex workers, or are you going to discuss that use of tranny seperately?

The tranny sex worker archetype has a lot of overlap with cis male drag performers, but I wouldn't call cis male drag performers sex workers unless of course they were sex workers. But I will discuss them a bit in part three, the section focusing on the context of who is speaking.

Tobi - I'm looking forward to the other two articles. It's been a huge conversation that tends to make lots of people angry. I agree that, for me, the worst part has been the "tranny porn" portion of the discussion. I think that it's far to easy to marginalize trans sex workers or trans women who aren't immediately surgery-tracked in this discussion.

I'm also curious about trans male use of the word. I have my opinions, but I'm curious about how you feel about it.

Yes, far too often I've heard people try to define tranny (or shemale) in such a way as to marginalize some sub-set of trans people who for whatever reason aren't as legitimate as them. It's really not cool.

As for trans male use of the word, I'll get to that in part three.

Tobi said:

"Yes, far too often I've heard people try to define tranny (or shemale) in such a way as to marginalize some sub-set of trans people who for whatever reason aren't as legitimate as them. It's really not cool."


Everyone is commenting on the Tranny Porn section. I'm more interested in the Tastes Like Misogyny section. You've nailed it beautifully. Looking forward to the next two parts.

It's always been my assumption that "tranny porn" is for men who are interested in dicks, but can't acknowledge to themselves they're gay. Not their assumptions about what the women are like sexually or socio-economically. It's hard for me to imagine that they give the person they're watching that much thought.

Tranny porn is almost entirely for straight men, maybe some bi men too, but gay men -- even closeted gay men -- are not a part of the target audience at all.

See, it's only tangentially about what the consumer is thinking about. It's much more what the producer is thinking about. They make it for chasers and chaser-curious folks who have a lot wrapped up in a straight identity. Cock is prominently displayed, but they are heavily invested in female (or at least not-male) identity. Most chasers are quite into cock, but not at all on men.

But as for the tranny archetype they are selling, it's about fitting into chaser expectations and desires. Trannies are hotter, more sexual, and/or more subservient because those are the excuses chasers often site for why they're into trans women. It's the Madonna-whore complex along cis/trans lines.

"Trannies are hotter, more sexual, and/or more subservient because those are the excuses chasers often site for why they're into trans women."

My own blog was inspired by my time trying to figure out the men who date "gals like me". This is exactly what I came across as their justifications/ reasons ("trannies are more 'feminine'/ try harder than cis women"). These are also some of the exact same reasons cited by some branches of feminism to shame or denigrate trans women.

Yes, but at it's core, it means an artificial fail at expressing womanhood. When it comes down to it, it's a sexed-up form of dude in a dress. Which is also an important part of trans porn because it's about one group having power over another group.

Cyndi Richards | December 21, 2010 4:38 AM

Thanks for all the time and research into this arguably "hot-button" topic, Tobi.

Having been "out" to one degree or another since the mid 80's, I find that my reaction to the slang term "tranny" has a lot to do with the source and the context, not necessarily in that order.

Gal-pals and/or G&L buds out and about?

No worries.

Strangers from "outside the bubble"?

Not so much.

I'm just sayin'...

Looking forward to the next installment.

Rock on from the mostly trans-friendly tundra of Chicago.

Looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

I am sickened by the word 'tranny' especially when used by the pornographic industry. Everyday Cis and trans woman from the former Soviet bloc are told they have hope if they seek a new life in the west.

Everyday these woman are ripped of there humanity by immoral profiteers in the porn industry. Everyday a porno pusher offers his meat drugs to deaden the pain. Everyday these woman just disappear because they were here illegally and really, no body cared if they lived or died.

The same is true for the American trans woman. Does the fact we are transgender and a 'tranny' make selling our bodies more acceptable because it's our only choice?

Everyday trans woman who resort to prostitution after been used up by the porno industry are found lifeless there bodies mutilated and cold in some desolate field.

Who were they really? Did they know love? Who would they have become given half a chance?

Call me the 't' word and you will get a slap sending you into next week. Sound sexy chasers? Sound like a new fetish? Nope, thats real pain. I did'nt think so.

Empower this.

Well Kelli, call me a "transgender" and I'll break the nose and kick the offender in the nuts they no doubt still have.... really really hard.

And since my wishes have never been acknowledged in 15 years on this, anyone who uses transgender as an umbrella term deserves no consideration from me on what they wish to be called. It's that simple. You give no respect you have no right to expect it.

Patricia Harlow Patricia Harlow | December 21, 2010 5:23 PM

"Yes, far too often I've heard people try to define tranny (or shemale) in such a way as to marginalize some sub-set of trans people who for whatever reason aren't as legitimate as them. It's really not cool."


If you want some real run, click her screen name and take a look at Rad's blog. :)

You don't like it? Are you a Right Wing Repugnican Christianist or something?

No, I am not a right-wing anything, and I despise religious fundamentalists as much as you do.

However, your response is pretty representative of what I don't like about your site. Personally, I find it gleefully mean-spirited, provoking, and denigrating in tone overall. To me, it's crude, rigid, dehumanizing, self-pitying, close-minded, slanted, and hyperbolic.

In short, it's just like an extremist right-wing conservative site. It's always amazed me how that the people on opposite extremes don't see how much they have in common with each other in terms of personal;ity and approach.

But really, I wasn't making a point about your site per se, I was more making the point that Linda was wasting her time making that statement to you, because calling ppl 'trannies', 'transgendereds', and 'crossdressers' is your stock in trade, and you use them for the very reason the statement contratdicts, so calling you out isn't going to make any difference.

won't engage you in a battle of wits because it's unfair to take on someone half armed.

You do seem to be incapable of understanding that I started using those words specifically because the total lack of respect for my own feelings about the use of a word I detest, that demeans my own womanhood and attempts to thrust me into a third gender category....."transgender" A word coined by one of the most rabid anti-transsexual crossdressers ever to draw breath. This total lack of respect was first started when I was devoting all my free time and energy to fighting for all trans civil rights btw. Janice Raymond was right.

That's fine, I don't want to fight either. Personally, I'd rather be happy than right. :)

I do find it funny that I wasn't talking to you in the first place, was talking to Patricia, and I didn't even attack your website--I just told her to go look at it to get perspective on how you would take her response to you. Really, I thought it was pretty funny that she tried that statement with you, knowing your opinions and intentions.

Take cares! I hope you have a peaceful, happy holiday! :)

Oh, and I truly *am* sorry that you feel attacked and persecuted, oppressed, marginalized, and degendered (NOT sarcasm!).

If you read my comments above about how I perceive most feminists and lesbians, particularly separatist lesbians, feel about trans women, you can see that I feel some of those same things myself, and so I know it hurts. And despite your positive experience with the radical lesbians, I get the idea that in general they inlcude transsexual women in that, even those who consider themselves primarily women whose bodies had to be corrected (of which I am one) rather than identifying as and taking pride in being trans (of whom I am not one).

Although you have mentioned the troubles you have had in the past, I wasn't there, so I have a hard time grasping how bad it was for you, and how much damage you suffered. I will try harder at that. However, it is obvious that you are still dealing with that, and I wish you the best.

Carol :)

Well Patricia, in order to be talking about a "sub set" you'd have to be a member of a larger set. I'm just plain a woman, a feminist one who will respond to attacks on that womanhood and the out and out gynophobia and mysogyny that almost always accompanies it.

I know you will not understand this but that is how it is and the DSM V revision makes it legally so as well. You be a trans-whatever, I am not. Trans people gave up the right to just being a part of the binary when they started separating themselves from it with the use of "cis" as a way of defining themselves out of the binary......but logic was never a trans strong suit was it?

"Well Kelli, call me a "transgender" and I'll break the nose and kick the offender in the nuts they no doubt still have.... really really hard."

Threatening physical violence over a verbal slight, unintended or otherwise, is the act of a bully. Bullies cannot be tolerated, lest they run roughshod over everyone in their midst.

Rory, did you miss the part I was answering from Kelli about hitting people for using the word tranny? Can you actually be a bully when you are the one who has had her life threatened, her mail interferred with, been turned in as a terrorist to homeland security or attempts made to leave you homeless when you were taking in newly transitioned women?

"cannot be tolerated" sounds very threat like to me, are you threatening me? Are you a PC bully? Or just incapable of rational thought processes?

Grow up Rory.......put the man pants on dear.


which culminates in HBSS (Harry Benjamin Syndrome Syndrome)... have to BE trans to be transier.

Logic really isn't a trans strong suit is it?

Tobi Hill-Meyer
Thank you for doing this!

ScarUponTheSky | December 22, 2010 8:48 PM

I enjoyed the "Tastes Like Misogyny" part and wish you had written it before I wrote a final paper on trans-anatomy in my Gender and Popular Culture class. I could have definitely cited some of your points. In addition, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessments in that entire subsection of this piece. I'm off to read part two and can't wait for part three.

And on one side note, I know I was not being talked to but I felt insulted as a transqueer person for the assumption that "logic isn't a trans strong suit." I'm highly logical, in many areas and the entire conversation that has been going on has made me feel like shit. I'm trans just as much as the next transperson.

We transpeople need to stick together and show a united front, not bicker over semantics and viewpoints.

We transpeople need to stick together and show a united front, not bicker over semantics and viewpoints.

And here is the lack of keep thinking you have the right to decide if someone else is "trans" or not when they don't buy FOR THEMSELVES your gender deconstructionist bull.

Does not compute and I personally don't give a wet handful of whatever if that offends you.

Deconstruct your own gender to your heart's content, do it to mine and I will oppose everything you stand for to the death.

ScarUponTheSky | December 31, 2010 12:05 AM

I haven't once thought at all I have the right to decide if people are "trans" or not. That decision is for the individual alone to make. I don't like that you're making a huge assumption that I am based off one statement.

Additionally, all I was stating is that "transpeople" should stick together instead of bickering (and this can include all sorts of variant types of people who might fit under the "trans" umbrella.)

I don't give two shakes if you ID as "trans" in any way or not. If you don't, then OBVIOUSLY that general thought doesn't apply to you in anyway, so you're basically wasting thoughts that might be better suited for something else.