Show respect to trans community
My name is Donna Rose and I am a fairly well-known speaker, educator, and advocate on transgender issues. I have long been a very strong proponent of the bridge that spans GLB and T as a single community, and my efforts as a past or current board member for the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD and the NGLCC are examples of both the visibility of my work, the credibility of my words, and the extent of my involvement.
Your recent story, headlined "RuPaul approves ‘tranny’" (Dallas Voice, Jan. 30), is, in and of itself, offensive to many transpeople. The fact that you go to him as your sole source for an opinion on this very sensitive topic implies that you knew what you wanted to hear so you went someplace where you felt comfortable you’d get it.
A far more sensitive way to handle this would have been to acknowledge that these terms are considered offensive to many as pejorative, degrading and dehumanizing, and to have elicited a broad range of opinions rather than to treat it in such an off-handed, mocking way based on one person’s opinion. Your story does a disservice to you, your publication and transgender people in general.
The visual that comes tomy mind when I hear you claim that, "We’re already there," in terms of reclaiming the terms "tranny" and "drag queen" is the huge banner saying "Mission Accomplished!" hanging on an aircraft carrier behind George Bush when he claimed victory and an end to major combat operations in Iraq way back in 2003. In both cases, nothing could be farther from the truth and, in fact, we have a long way to go. To imply otherwise is to misinform.
To limitthose who object to both the tone and the content of your story to transgender "activists" would also be wrong and highlights why so many in the trans community feel so distant from our LGB brothers and sisters. For many of us, this is personal. It’s about respect and dignity. The "N" word is still forbidden for African-Americans unless you’re African-American and talking about other African-Americans. "Faggot" is not appropriate in any context. And "tranny" is no different.
It’s true that some may feel free to use those words inside the boundaries of our own community, but to imply that that word as a label is generally OK regardless of context is both wrong and unfortunate. As far as I’m concerned the thing it demonstrates most isn’t that you’re transphobic or that you exhibited poor judgment on this (as did your editors) although both may be true. It demonstrates ignorance of sensitivities on issues that still need to be handled delicately.
Words matter. Labels matter. As a writer you, better than anyone, should know that. Those of us who advocate for "marriage" over "civil unions" for same-sex couples are well aware of the social and cultural weight that words can carry and the strong emotions that they can generate.
You don’t hear transpeople telling others to get over their sensitivities and grow up, or of dismissing the importance of these things to others. Many of us respect these sensitivities simply because we recognize the importance. I’d urge that you demonstrate that same level of respect in how you handle sensitive issues about the transgender community. The way you handled it this time smacks of disrespect.
Contrary to what some would believe, those of us who self-identify as transgender arenot simply a collection of confused victims, loud whiners and needy complainers. Our voice and our sense of dignity is no less worthy of respect simply because we’re a minority within other minorities or that some would identify us as historically easy targets.
Transgender is a community of communities with a wide variety of opinions, ideas, comforts, discomforts, needs, goals and labels we use todescribe ourselves. Our diversity is not something any of us need to apologize for. Indeed, it’s something about which many of us are proud. I recommend that you to make an effort to actually get to know us before you try to define us.
As a writer in a public forum your words and the embedded implications within them carry weight. To be sensitive to that is not to limit your right of free speech, or my right to express an opinion that might be different. I strongly urge you to be more aware of your words, your topics and your treatment of sensitive subjects in the future. That’s called accountability and I hope that, if nothing else, this has been a learning opportunity in that regard.
Reclaiming ‘tranny’: Who gets to decide?
To the Life+Style editor of a gay newspaper petulantly defending his right to call people "trannies":
Dear Faggot: Now, I know you won’t be offended by me, a hetero crossdresser who also does drag, calling you that, since after all we’re all about reclaiming terms, right? Just like you getting RuPaul to "rule" that it’s OK to call trans people "trannies" ("RuPaul approves "tranny," Dallas Voice, Jan. 30).
The thing is, as far as I know, RuPaul identifies as a gay man, so asking his/her opinion on this issue is a bit like asking a white person whether it’s OK for other white people to call black people … . Well, you know the term I mean.
The thing is, reclaiming an epithet is something that only gets to be done by the people who’ve been targeted by it. It’s one thing when members of a stigmatized group reclaiming a term as a way of saying, "Yeah I am a (insert derogatory term here). Wanna make something of it?" And it’s quite another when someone outside that group decides to fling that term around carelessly. And no, we’re not "already there" in reclaiming tranny as a cuddly term of endearment — Christian Siriano’s catchphrase "hot tranny mess" was clearly meant as a putdown in exactly the same way as clueless straight kids use "That’s so gay."
As far as using "drag queen," I’ve got no problem with using that term to describe people who are actually drag queens, i.e. people who are crossdressing for performance, some of whom may also be trans.
But using it to describe trans people off the stage is implying their gender identity is just for show, akin to straight people who tell you that you’re not really gay, you just haven’t found the right woman yet. Think I’m kidding? I’ve seen gay men tell trans women: "No really, what’s your real (i.e. male) name."
I do agree with RuPaul that one does need to take intent into account. I’ve got gay friends who’ve thrown around "tranny." But when I’ve gently mentioned that it’s a term that a lot of trans people find problematic when used by people who aren’t trans (or friends and allies), guess what. They stopped using it. But no, you had to go pissily justify your right to use the term and accuse people who complain of "Nazi-like" rigidity. That’s hardly "coming from a place of love and respect," now is it? The place that comes to mind is: asshat-ism. Because bottom-line, if you have to ask yourself whether a term you’re using is offensive, that’s a pretty good clue that it’s not a good idea to use it. Words may never hurt me, but they can piss me off. And I think RuPaul might also have something to say about the folly of getting on the wrong side of an angry drag queen.
I saw in Dallas Voice’s Instant Tea blog comments where senior editor Tammye Nash pointed out that the Life+Style department often writes about people who self-identify as "tranny" and preferred to be called by that term. Fair enough, and I don’t have any problems with using the term under those circumstances (though you might spare yourself some grief by making clear that’s their choice to use it).
The folks at Planettrangender.blogspot.com may a bit heavy on the rhetoric, but it is a bit enraging to be patronizingly patted on the head and told, "You’re taking this waaay too seriously" (which is a phase usually heard from straight guys defending their right to catcall women or from Republicans defending their right to throw around "Barack the Magic Negro").
Frankly it comes across like you haven’t even bothered to listen, let alone try to understand why people might be upset. Which just makes you look like a tool instead of edgy.
Now just to be absolutely clear: I fully realize that despite efforts to reclaim it, "faggot" is typically used by straights as a vile, hateful insult. That usage is one that I’m all too familiar with. I was taunted with it as a boy who wasn’t sufficiently manly for the school bullies. I’ve heard it muttered at me when I’ve been out en femme and in drag. I’ve had it screamed at me by potential gay bashers.
That is why I didn’t use it lightly. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve used it in more than 30 years (the last time was back when I was a school kid who didn’t know any better). Why? Because I’ve lost patience with (some) gay and lesbian writers, editors and celebrities who, when asked to stop using a term that a number of trans people find equally problematic when used by non-trans people, not only continue to use it, but then go on to arrogantly proclaim their right to decide what’s offensive to others and belittle those who asked them to stop as being "overly sensitive." My use of the term was a shock tactic intended to goad these folks into thinking about what they’re saying, using a stark example that’s close to home for them, since they’ve been utterly unwilling to put themselves in other people’s shoes.
Perhaps I could’ve more clearly posed it as a hypothetical, i.e. "How would you like it if I called you a faggot?" But unfortunately, the experience of myself and others is that subtler arguments made in the past have just been blown off by these folks. So sometimes it takes a 2×4 between the eyes to get people’s attention. Snap! Snap!
Words can hurt us
Everyday we as trans people are marginalized and degraded by the press, ignorant people who have unfounded fears, and even people who use us in ways they think funny. Much of it is by perhaps well-meaning (or not) gays who put on "hag drag" and give the public a terrible misconception of who we are.
Names do not hurt people — at least that is what we are led to believe. But those names lead other people to hurt us, beat us, bash us and even kill us.
This may not mean anything to others, but when you have three guys attack you, then it means a lot. When you have bruising that stares back at you every morning in the mirror, it builds rage.
When the police treat it like a joke, the rage becomes a cause. When, a couple of days later, a truck comes out of the dark and attempts to run you off of the road and follows you to the door of your employer, racing across the parking lot at over 60 mph to interdict your entry, it exceeds rage and brings terror.
At night, you jump at every noise, and reach for safety; it is followed by a passion to end its terror and control. You are told by the social worker that you should leave town, and so do others who work in the county courthouse. In the silence, listening to your own heart beat, you turn rage and terror into conviction. Oh yes, that is how you deal with it. You get protection and carry it wherever you need to feel safe. You carry it when you drive; you sleep with it, and you are always evaluating and looking. You cannot help it. Sticks and stones? Names do not break bones?
Well, I have some experience in the matter and some skill. And the next time, it is a matter of me or them. No tolerance, no thought, nothing but what I am trained to do. That’s all.
Estelle R. LeClaire
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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 6, 2009.
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