“Tranny” and Subversivism: Re-reclaiming “Tranny” (or not) part 1

November 10, 2008

My jumping off point here is a conversation I took part in at Camp Trans 2007. I had, up until that point, been using the word “tranny” in its “reclaimed” sense, as a gender neutral signifier for trans people, with a connotation of rebellion, genderqueerness, and radical/”radical” politics. Specifically, my usage of it identified me with the subversivist, gender variant, queer/anarchist/punk scene in the West Bank & Seward neighborhoods in Minneapolis, and nationally with figures like Dean Spade, Leslie Fienberg, Patrick Califia–an identification that I used as a means of separating myself from what I perceived as a binary, medically-oriented, conservative, suburban, middle-aged, middle class, white trans women’s community, and such figures as Jennifer Finney Boylan and…well, I didn’t really know of any, other than an abstracted concatenation of the various other trans woman autobiography writers, and some horrid medical model contributions in anthologies and websites written in pink. Oh, dear god, pink? In a cursive font?

What I’m trying to make clear here is that rather than uniting the trans community under one banner (as it pretended to do), my and others’ “positive” use had just as much place in subversivism and trans misogyny as it did in “reclamation.” My political positioning, tied to my use of the term, was rooted in self-loathing. OMG pink indeed. I had even used it over other trans people’s–trans women’s–objections, and it was precisely through the intersection of subversivism and trans misogyny that I was able to do it–by constructing her as conservative, backward-, medical- & binary-thinking, I was able to push aside any concern about the specificities this term and pin her objection on a lack of understanding the concept of reclamation. In short, anyone–no, any woman–who wasn’t on board didn’t need to be listened to because they–she–could be immediately positioned as having bad politics. (A couple examples of this construction, not specifically about “tranny”: Califia’s treatment of Renee Richards in Sex Changes, as well as his selection of texts to analyze, large portions of Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw and a few parts of Wilchins’s Read My Lips, Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” “It’s a Long Way to the Top: Hierarchies of Legitimacy in Trans Communities,” by Alaina Hardie in Trans/Forming Feminisms: Transfeminist Voices Speak Out (the book I love to hate on), Koyama’s “The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate” & “The Transfeminist Manifesto,” (the “interchanges” she lists on her website are bad too.) and “The Story So Far,” Thaniel Chase in Bisexuality and Transgenderism: InterSEXions of the Others (Journal of Bisexuality, volume 3, n 3-4)) It’s worth noting that a lot of these pieces are by trans women, criticizing and denouncing other trans women. Some of these pieces, notably Hardie’s and Chase’s, construct trans women specifically in relation to trans men–that is, as inferior, politically as well as by gender. And these are just the articles by trans people–all the writing on the happily-now-defunct Questioning Transgender makes this construction as well.

This construction is powerful enough to override overwhelming evidence. First, obviously there’s the erasure of radical trans woman activists around the US (e.g. Diana Courvant, Michelle O’Brien, Angela Douglas as well as Wilchins, Bornstein, and Stone themselves; plus the discursive alienation of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson; none of this is counting the post Whipping Girl explosion), but I’m not going to go into that. When I’ve tried to tell non- trans woman* queer punks that I’m not already personal friends with to not to use “tranny” or “chicks with dicks”, they have frequently cast me into the position of politically-clueless-gender-binary-trans-woman and told me that I just didn’t understand the idea of language reclamation. In one case, I was dressed in genderfuck, gave both my names** with the instruction to alternate, said my pronoun was ‘ze,’ was publicly identifying as trans and as not-a-woman-trans-or-not, and was at a workshop on the intersections of kink and radical politics. It had to have taken five minutes or more to convince him that I wasn’t politically incompetent, and that I wasn’t just afraid of nonbinary gender and trying to pretend I wasn’t trans anymore, just a woman–that isn’t counting the making and discussing my point part. Seriously. The other time I remember well was after I had led chants in the Dyke March with Bash Back, and marched in the Radical Cheerleaders in protest of the Pride March. This person had called me her new best friend/favorite person, or somesuch, then not but a week later was treating me like I was clueless, stupid, kinkphobic, and sex-negative when I asked that she stop using “chicks with dicks” in one of the radical cheerleaders’ chants. She said specifically that she would use it, and the radical cheerleaders would continue to perform it, with no attention or consideration paid to my objections. There were no people I could identify as trans women there–a fact which they will certainly interpret as our conservatism, as opposed to their trans misogyny/subversivism.

I don’t think that the “reclaimed” sense of “tranny” can truly be isolated from that context of trans misogyny & subversivism within queer, trans, and punk communities, at least not for me, and I find it almost as offensive as the original. It’s still a signifier of non- trans woman/cis supremacy–just this time it’s non- trans woman queers, as opposed to cis men.

The conversation I mentioned at the beginning of this post was about how “tranny” has, as a derogatory and/or ungendering term, referred primarily-to-exclusively to trans women, yet the people doing the reclaiming were predominantly trans men and FAAB genderqueers. As Tobi writes over at No Designation,

The issue of reclaiming the term is further complicated, though. You see, while I have been discussing the impact the term has had on trans people, the reality is that it is trans women who have most directly targeted by it. Trans men have been comparably invisible is the sex and porn industries, and the trans men porn that exists today is almost exclusively produced by trans men. Yet a significant portion, arguably a majority, of the effort to reclaim the term has been made by trans men. Usually by trans men who are not familiar with the negative history of the term, let alone having been subjected to it’s sting themselves.

It is difficult to know what to think about that gender breakdown. When I run into a group of trans men who frequently use the term, I am not sure whether to thank them for creating community use of a new and positive meaning behind the term, or to criticize them for their insensitivity and lack of awareness of how the term might hold a lot of trauma for those of us who have been the direct targets of its use.

The people most affected by the term are not the people leading the charge, and in fact they frequently oppose it. Given that language reclamation is supposed to be about getting agency and self determination back from the broader culture, demanding the right to define oneself rather than be defined by others, I find this “reclamation” profoundly counter-productive, alienating, and oppressive. Furthermore, it’s part of keeping trans women out of “radical” spaces, by demanding they accept the use of a slur against them. Obviously, much of I’m talking about here is really about a trans misogynistic culture pervasive in these spaces–but I find a rejection of the word is a good entry point for education.

One might say that I’m reclaiming not-saying-tranny. I’m reclaiming being a trans woman*** through rejecting “tranny”, by rejecting “tranny” I can expose the trans misogyny inherent in its use and endemic in these spaces, and I can throw the characterization of un-radical right back in their faces, making them look at their own trans misogyny–their own bad politics. Because that stereotype is about them, not about us.

I think it’s important to look at some more of the derogatory contexts it’s used in, and more about the specificity of language reclamation through camp. But that’s going to have to wait for a second post.

*That is, people who are not trans women, rather than women who aren’t trans.
**Cedar is one, the other I don’t use on the blogosphere.
*** This is me formally coming out as a woman, again. Still use ze/hir for me until further notice, though.

26 Responses to ““Tranny” and Subversivism: Re-reclaiming “Tranny” (or not) part 1”

  1. GallingGalla said

    You nailed it. This enforced “subversivism” and privileging of the non- trans women population is why I left the Philadelphia trans community behind. I got really tired of being the target of misogynist rants by trans men while cis lesbians sat there all googly-eyed, wowed by his “subversiveness” and not saying one word in defense of themselves or myself. Plus the lionization of Kate Bornstein et al.

    As my own identity is shifting to trans / genderqueer (at least for now), I have to be careful not to fall into the subversivist trap. It’s all too tempting, but it is a hivemind that I need to avoid.

  2. Elly Rouge said

    Hum, I don’t know what “subversivism” means exactly, and maybe I got what you said wrong, but personnally I’d tend to think that different variations of “identity” (and I don’t say “gender identity” because I think that it’s broader than just gender, but whatever) can have different words and vocabulary.

    I mean, I know some gay men who want to be reffered as gay men and would scream if you would use “fags”, and I know fags who want to be reffered as fags and would scream if you would use “gay men”; I think it can be the same for “tranny”.

    Of course I completely understand when someone or a group don’t want to be called “tranny” or any such term, but I also think there are other reasons to this choice than trans misogynia or willing to be subversive (personnaly I’d tend to prefer “tranny” to e.g. “trans woman” because I don’t fit in the trans women “category”, but I don’t think that means I am trans misogynist or “subversivism” – though maybe I am, but at least not specially because of this.)

    Now the problem with those kind of things is that it is very highly dependent on the context, and since I have quite a very different context (except for internet), maybe I should just shup up on this subject :x

  3. Imogen said

    Love it. I’m very, very slowly working on a zine on the subject, so I can just hand it to folks, instead of sparking a confrontation every time it happens. May I reprint?

  4. Cedar said

    Totally, so long as you credit me and provide a URL for the blog. Also you might want to include the second, upcoming post as well, though it will be much more reliant on links and citation.

    And I’d love a copy, thanks for putting that together! (If you wanted, I could make it available through here, put up a page or somesuch.)
    :)

  5. Cedar said

    Elly,

    You’re perpetrating one of the dynamics I’m talking about in this piece, by casting my non-acceptance of this term as a matter of not understanding language reclamation. I do.

    I mean, I know some gay men who want to be reffered as gay men and would scream if you would use “fags”, and I know fags who want to be reffered as fags and would scream if you would use “gay men”; I think it can be the same for “tranny”.

    Frankly I’m offended that you reduced my post to the inevitable “fag” comparison–a false comparison.

  6. Elly Rouge said

    You’re perpetrating one of the dynamics I’m talking about in this piece, by casting my non-acceptance of this term as a matter of not understanding language reclamation. I do.

    Well maybe you understand, now I don’t know if *I* understand, and I certainly don’t know if we understand it the same way. What I know is that when I read «by rejecting “tranny” I can expose the trans misogyny inherent in its use» it triggers some kind of “don’t take my ‘tranny’ from me”, because if it’s inherent I don’t see how my use would be different.

    But maybe I got that wrong, or maybe I am indeed wrong to use it, it wouldn’t be the first time.

    Frankly I’m offended that you reduced my post to the inevitable “fag” comparison–a false comparison.

    Well, sorry if you are offended but it’s a comparison, like, an example, it’s not supposed to be the exact same thing. And maybe a comparison with lesbians would have been better: I know some who will be offended if you say they are not women ; and I know some lesbians who will be offended if you say they are.

    I think it’s a bit the same thing for trans mt* people. And well, I can accept to be sometimes assimilated to “trans women” whether I want it or not, but if I also have to drop the term I use to define myself precisely because I am a non-trans woman so it is offensive to trans women…

    … well, honestly, I’ll do it, because it’s (unfortunately) not my tongue and you are all better qualified than me to say whether a word sucks or not, but well, sorry, but I just don’t get it.

  7. GallingGalla said

    Elly, I’m not quite sure what is so confusing. Can’t you just respect a person’s stated gender identity? It really comes down to that, and when you start throwing around the “‘tranny’ is more subversive, can’t you be more subversive?” crap, you are denying or delegitimizing the other person’s stated and felt identity.

    I personally find that word offensive and misogynistic in the extreme. The fact that some people think the word is cool makes my offense no less legitimate.

  8. Cedar said

    Elly,

    I have problems with the word, period. I think it *can* be reclaimed, but who’s reclaiming it and what it’s being reclaimed to mean matters. To alter your metaphor, it’s about the fact that straight men can’t “reclaim” fag; trans men & cissexual FAAB genderqueers can’t “reclaim” tranny (nor, for that matter, can cis gay men like Christian Siriano).

    From Tobi’s post, quoted above:

    The issue of reclaiming the term is further complicated, though. You see, while I have been discussing the impact the term has had on trans people, the reality is that it is trans women who have most directly targeted by it. Trans men have been comparably invisible is the sex and porn industries, and the trans men porn that exists today is almost exclusively produced by trans men. Yet a significant portion, arguably a majority, of the effort to reclaim the term has been made by trans men. Usually by trans men who are not familiar with the negative history of the term, let alone having been subjected to it’s sting themselves.

    In my next post I’ll be talking more about what tranny means in its “original”, “unreclaimed” derogatory meaning, but the point is that it’s a word and an oppression that non-( trans female spectrum) people are trying to appropriate for themselves in ways that end up oppressing trans women / trans female spectrum people more (through subversivism).

  9. Cedar said

    oh shit, I’d meant to include: Elly, I think that it *is* a word *you* can choose to reclaim or not, but that you have to remain accountable to other tfs folks while you do so, and reclaim it in a non-oppressive manner–which trans men can’t do. In my next post I’m going to talk about what that might look like.

  10. Elly Rouge said

    Cedar: ok, sorry I got it wrong then.

    And I agree it’s a bad thing when the one who reclaim the term are not the one who were (at least the most) targeted by it. Actually I realize I had the same problem with some gay men “reclaiming” sexist terms that were derogatory to women.

  11. This is a very insightful post for me, for various reasons. Great job, Cedar.

    I just have one question. Pardon my ignorance, but what does FAAB mean?

  12. Elly Rouge said

    Ariel Silvera: FAAB = Female Assigned At Birth

  13. I know I’m on a commenting binge, but I’ve spent at least all month struggling to articulate my extreme discomfort with the use of “tranny” and the way my trans-masculine spectrum friends and many cissexual queer folks in my community throw it around so casually. I’ve been sitting on the edge of figuring out what the dynamic was, really wrestling with it, and you hit the nail on the head with this.
    So thanks.

  14. Cedar said

    LL,

    thank you for all your supportive comments today! don’t ever apologize for that, or minimize it. …hearing this is what keeps me going.

    And don’t forget there’s a part two in the works!
    :)

  15. [...] Anyways, here I’m continuing a post I made almost two months ago, “Tranny” and Subversivism: Re-reclaiming “Tranny” (or not) part 1. [...]

  16. [...] “Tranny” and Subversivism: Re-reclaiming “Tranny” (or not) part 1 [...]

  17. [...] that all transgender people, particularly transwomen, are happy about reclaiming, are discussed here, here and here. The wider issues raised by those responses are valid for all kinds of offensive [...]

  18. [...] problems in the “reclamation” argument in favor of using “tranny” in parts one and two of hir essays on the subject, so rather than try to restate them and fail I will simply [...]

  19. a. rose said

    I’m really intrigued( I don’t know if that’s the right word) by this post. It brings up a very interesting point. when it comes to different oppressions all I can do is try to look into the things that oppress me, to find a commonality for a basis of understanding. as a persyn with a female assigned body, person of color of mixed race(white & black) I’ve found the way I identify racially was definitaly a grounds to be able to articulate how I felt about my gender. being a POC and having a female assigned body a few oppresive words come to mind, “bitch” and “nigger” or “nigga”. It’s really complcated for me on the matter of the reclamation of words. while being oppressed by the word bitch, as a persyn that doesn’t identify as female, I don’t know if it’s a word I can reclaim. I use it seldomly, and sometimes bite my tongue. the latter term I feel is a much more complex thing to me. While the history of the word and current use is rooted in white supremacy, it has also been going through a strange proccess of reclamation by the adding of the ‘a’ alongside it’s use in black communties as a derrigatory term directed towards poor black folks. while I don’t have the class priveledge, my lighter skin is definately one.

    Here’s my question I guess. am I less entitled to reclaim a term that has a personal history of oppression within my life, despite whether it’s use has been directed at others more?

    while I won’t use the term ‘tranny’. I’ve defintely heard it used agressively against transmen. while the most common word I’ve heard in reference to transmen is dyke, is that honestly a word that they could appropriately reclaim?

    this is honestly really interesting to me, bcause it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while

    Very open to hearing thoughts, and want to further this discussion

  20. [...] a fascinating essay about gender-linked factors in reclaiming the word “Tranny”. Part one. Part [...]

  21. harriet said

    Thanks for this post. I *think* I understood it. I have a question, and I hope you can help me. I’m a cis bisexual woman, who is trying to be a trans ally and I have a friend who is a trans man, who uses the word “tranny” to refer to all trans people (I think all transgender people, not just transsexual people). How do I, with my cis priviledge, bring up this issue?

    • Cedar said

      Harriet,

      Though I think a lot of it depends on what your relationship is and how much credibility you have with him, in a more general frame:

      a)He’s not a part of the oppressed group in question, even if he thinks he is.
      b)Trans women are advocating for ourselves, so you’re not just coming in from outside and saying shit, you’re supporting us. and you can point to us (to this piece, to Part 2, to the various discussions on LJ or elsewhere that got you here) after saying that there are many of us who feel that that use/reclamation of the word is oppressive…

      • harriet said

        Thanks for the advice. I’ll see what I can do. I’ve still got a lot to learn, especially with dealing with priviledge, but I know staying silent on the topic won’t really help anyone.

  22. [...] mechanics can’t use ‘tranny’ now?” as if transmissions have any relation to “tranny” in the sense of trans maabs (and a troll ignoring the history of ‘tranny’ to say ‘cis’ is offensive). [...]

  23. [...] mechanics can’t use ‘tranny’ now?” as if transmissions have any relation to “tranny” in the sense of trans maabs (and a troll ignoring the history of ‘tranny’ to say ‘cis’ is offensive). [...]

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