“Tranny” & Cis Women: Re-Reclaiming Tranny (or not) part 2

January 8, 2009

I know I’ve been gone a long time, and I promised I’d post more in December. Oops. I suppose that was before the drama that made me go hide, though.

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

In the first post, I mostly talked about the function of the so-called reclaimed usage of “tranny.” In this one I want to talk about the original. Well, not exactly the original–un-reclaimed, yes, but I want to get at the center by looking at the edges.

When you look directly at a slur, used at its intended target, its derogatory meaning isn’t that clear, unless you know it from other contexts. “Faggot” refers to a gay man, the n-word refers to a black person. But “faggot” means a lot more than ‘man attracted to men’–otherwise, it wouldn’t get applied to straight men. It takes concepts associated with a referent, and applies them to a different referent; to be specific, calling a man a fag is more about aberration, effeminacy, affront-to-god, promiscuity, & perversion than about him being “gay” or “bi” or “homosexual” in any objective sense. That is, an epithet becomes an insult by way of the concepts it invokes, not just who it’s about. In this way, “fag” has been reclaimed not by changing the referent, not by it meaning “gay” in some objective, neutral way, but by changing the valuation placed on the concepts–sexually liberated, gender variant, anti-assimilationist, & non-conformist, to use the language we might use.

To translate that into academic jargon:

The history of the term ‘queer is most symptomatic of this. From homophobic epithet designating and reinforcing the other’s social abjection to self-declared maker of community pride, ‘queer’ was reclaimed precisely according to the transformative mechanisms of camp in which what has been devalued in the original becomes overvalued in the repetition.
Prosser, Jay. “Judith Butler: Queer Feminism, Transgender, and the Transubstantiation of Sex,” in Stryker & Whittle, eds. The Transgender Studies Reader. Routledge, 2006. 260. Also in Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: Body Narratives of Transsexuality.

Regardless of what you think about the word “overvalued”, the point is that language reclamation has to take the concepts a term starts with and either directly contradict them, or revalue/reinterpret them in a positive way. Any concepts left unaddressed will just bleed through into the new version. Certainly, it loses its power to heal and protect without that, given that there will still be people using it in its un-reclaimed form, drawing on those derogatory concepts through the word.

So, the question becomes, does the “reclaimed” use of “tranny” do this? If we were to want to *actually* reclaim “tranny”, how would a real reclamation differ from what’s happening now? What concepts would we have to contend with and confront?

Clearly, porn is a big one here. In that context, “tranny” refers to a trans woman, but as someone who isn’t a woman, or isn’t a “real” woman. As someone–or, something–that exists solely for straight cis men’s pleasure. As far as Craigslist is concerned, too. (What, you want a relationship? Sorry, head over to casual encounters, plz) That porn–and discourse that draws on that image of what a trans woman is–is incredibly objectifying and ungendering. And I mean objectifying in the sense of makes-you-feel-like-an-object.

But pr0n isn’t the only context the word is used in, even in its un-“reclaimed” form. Lucy of Catspaw writes:

Michael Seltzman wrote at the Huffington Post a column titled “Sarah Palin Naked” which starts off just as sexist and misogynistic as it sounds. In talking about wanting to have sex with Sarah Palin, because obviously that’s an appropriate thing for political discourse, he offers the following:

My wife is cool with this if I promise to “first wipe off Palin’s tranny makeup.” I married well.

Haha. I’m laughing so hard. A real comedian there, his wife. Transphobia is so funny. Especially when it’s also expressing lookism at the same time. Because I find it hard to believe that she’s complimenting Palin on her gender presentation. Instead, it’s fairly clear she expressing the stereotypical view that transwomen use makeup poorly. She’s calling into question Palin’s womanhood.

Down the same alley, we have a cis woman describing her five worst mistakes with makeup in a post called “The Nights I Looked Like a Tranny; My 5 Biggest Makeup Regrets. What’s even better? When a trans woman calls her out and tells her not to use “tranny”, another cis woman jumps in with the you-don’t-understand trope mentioned last time, using the fact that some trans people think the word tranny is ok to excuse blatant trans misogyny:

I also know transgendered people who DON’T take offense to it. As distasteful as it might be to you, it’s become a part of slang like “retarded,” or “gay.” Preaching really won’t change anything, because although it’s understood that the word might be deemed offensive by SOME, when used in certain contexts it’s clearly not meant to be negative.

Clearly not meant to be negative. Really.

Calling a cis woman trans is a pretty wide-ranging insult, turns out. Apparently, being transsexual means being ugly, slutty/a sex worker, and a bad dancer: “The only thing that’s certain is that Britney looked kinda Tranny, danced slower than the other dancers, and didn’t wear much. “That ain’t no comeback,” commented one friend of Jewcy. Well said.” See here also.

Another trait that get you labeled ‘tranny’ or trans (particularly with the s-word): being too aggressive/assertive– (Ann Coulter comes to mind, and Debbie Schlussel uses the s-word this way against WNBA players (in addition to appearance stuff discussed below).

But this is the article that takes the cake. (warning: potentially rage/depression inducing.) Apparently both Alyson Hannigan and Sarah Michelle Gellar–Willow and Buffy, respectively, if you’re getting rusty with your Joss Whedon fandom–are trans. I wish. There’s also the usual trans-women-can’t-walk-in-high-heels/are over-dramatic bullshit. But what’s worse? Resisting sexual assault? You’re trans. Like anal sex? You’re trans.

Coyness

If you reach for “her” you-know-what and “she” snatches your hand away, it’s probably because “her” package isn’t what you’d expect a lady to have “down there.” If they prefer backdoor sex after a bit of fellatio, as Sarah Michelle Gellar reportedly does, that’s another tip that your “girlfriend” might be a boyfriend.

Trans misogynistic stigma–which the article uses “tranny” to invoke (in reference to Hannigan)–is used to regulate female sexuality, on both sides of the prude/slut dichotomy. Later, the article claims that trans women are obsessed with hard cock & sex-right-now, again regulating (cis and trans) female sexuality. It’s also central to regulating appearance–your breasts can’t be too big or too small, your shoulders too wide, your feet too big, etc. (Hey trans misogynistic cis womyn: what’s that about how no one is free while others are oppressed?) The article abounds with speculation about which cis female celebs are “really” trans, so you can be sure not to sleep with one of us, zomg. Again, tranny = filthy perversion you can’t even touch–“If all else fails, tell “her” that “she” looks like your Uncle Marty or ask “her” if “she” forgot to shave. Tell “her” this even if “her” skin is the smoothest, sleekest, most satiny epidermis you’ve ever laid eyes (but never hands!) on, and “her” complexion puts even Marilyn Monroe’s to shame. “She” may scratch your eyes out, but, otherwise, “she’s” sure to leave you the hell alone.”

So, from all these references that aren’t really about trans women, we can gather the following picture of what “tranny” is supposed to represent: sexually polluted, perverted/slutty/sex-obsessed/promiscuous, ugly, bitchy, really-male, exist only for sex, fake, doing femininity wrong/badly/not feminine enough/hyperfeminine.

What, pray tell, does the “gender neutral” “reclaimed” version of “tranny” do to reclaim or reject these concepts? It gets some of them, ok. But it doesn’t hit the most common theme running throughout its use against cis women–doing femininity badly. It doesn’t even come close. For trans men, there’s some work on claiming being sexually desirable, but much of this work explicitly excludes trans women. What does this idea of “tranny” do to this idea that we are cis straight men’s sexual objects, to do with as they please and then throw away? What does this idea of “tranny” do about the conception of us as a sexual threat, as ritually impure and literally untouchable? It’s not just because we’re “freaks” (a concept it does reclaim, to its credit). The ‘reclaimed’ version, situated in anti-assimilationism, rejects the idea that we should have to be “real” men or women, which is good, and important, and a valuable thing to reclaim out of this word. But it leaves women open to trans panic, and by not specifically taking on hatred of femininity, it fails to serve us there, either–we’re still ‘fake’, because our femininity is still suspect, and our masculinity is “real” because masculinity is always real.

The “reclaimed” version of “tranny” only deals with transphobia as it affects trans men and FAAB genderqueers, and leaves the rest of us out in the cold. Many of the pejorative meanings laden in the first version of the term are still there, lurking, and when we hear the “reclaimed” version, we still hear those meanings because no one’s bothered to purge them. We’re still subject to those meanings, and we either have to kill the word or adopt it as a shield.

If you want to reclaim “tranny”–and I think that’s a valid position for trans female and/or feminine spectrum people to take–you have to contend with how the word actually acts, not just as a generic trans signifier. So if you try to reclaim “tranny” from its current “reclaimers” as well as the dominant culture, do it right this time. And tell me how you want to use it to reclaim it this way.

EDIT: A couple more great examples

19 Responses to ““Tranny” & Cis Women: Re-Reclaiming Tranny (or not) part 2”

  1. ShanaRose said

    I don’t have an answer, but I’m going to be listening to the questions you and your references laid out more closely from now on.

    Is it too soon to reclaim “tranny”? Does more important progress need to be made first? By progress I mean (currently) that we should encourage (and start) more open discussion and acceptance of trans-women as valuable, good, right, equal people in the culture at large. How long was it before queer culture reclaimed “fag”? Had gay cis men (in particular) reclaimed “fag” before the cis world?

    Did I screw up any of my terminologies?

  2. Maureen said

    Cedar, thanks for this (and good to see you back).

    I think you’re absolutely right about the dynamics of reclamation: if the underlying referentiality of the signifier is not deconstructed or purged, then the reclaimed use of that signifier — it’s new meaning — can only ever be, at best, partially successful because it will always contain the trace of the (constructed) original.

    Geez, I sound like Butler and Prosser (is that a bad thing?).

    Anyways, great analysis and very thought provoking.

  3. Maureen said

    umm, “its.” Learn to grammar.

  4. Rebecca said

    Yes, yes, yes. This essay needs to be read, and *widely*.

  5. Sophia K said

    Thanks for this. That was me who got told to shutup over the “Day I Looked Like” article. The guy who wrote the literotica.com article was clearly taking out his shame and self-loathing over his own (misplaced) desires onto the objects of them, given the dozens of hilariously bad (but still potentially triggering) erotic stories and poems(!) he has up on that site.

  6. Elly Rouge said

    “And tell me how you want to use it to reclaim it this way.”

    I don’t know if that’s reclaiming, but I liked “tranny” because I saw it as more including than “trans” or other identity, precisely because it was insulting and derogatory: you’re called a tranny, so you’re a tranny, easy. I mean, I can’t count the number of people who told me I wasn’t woman or wasn’t trans, but nobody either told me I wasn’t a tranny.

    I also liked the “bad feminity” aspect, because I was tired of all nice people wanting to fix me so I have a respectable feminity, which pissed me off, because I liked my feminity as it was, thank you very much.

  7. Mira said

    “If you want to reclaim “tranny”–and I think that’s a valid position for trans female and/or feminine spectrum people to take–you have to contend with how the word actually acts, not just as a generic trans signifier.”

    My question after reading these essays is this: where is this inoffensive ‘generic trans signifier’? Because I would certainly like one, but I’m not sure that’s even possible at this point. Every term I know of for trans is routinely used in derogatory ways, whether it was designed to objectify or has been used to do the same work. “Tranny” isn’t unique in its capacity to be used as a slur against trans women.

    To my ears, telling someone that they look like a tranny usually has the same negative connotations as telling them that they look like a transsexual or a shemale or a trans woman. Such speech acts are symptomatic as well as constitutive of one stereotype of trans misogyny, what you call ‘doing femininity badly.’ But this isn’t the word’s fault. I can’t think of a single word for trans that could be swapped in for “tranny” that would make such expressions positive, and even if I could it wouldn’t mean that “tranny” needed to be shunned and abandoned.

    Any successful project to change this situation for the better is necessarily going to require the linguistic suturing of terms for “good” and for “trans”. You tacitly recognize this as a possibility in your question about what conceptual work reclaiming “tranny” does and whether that is sufficient to justify its reclamation and use. But this question follows from your statement that “language reclamation has to take the concepts a term starts with and either directly contradict them, or revalue/reinterpret them in a positive way. Any concepts left unaddressed will just bleed through into the new version.”

    I don’t think this is true, and more importantly the evidence doesn’t support your ideas. Language change simply doesn’t work the way that you imply. While separate usages of a word are in dialogue with one another, meanings don’t “bleed,” override, or contaminate one another. If they did, “positive” usages would also infect “negative” ones. Terms carry multiple meanings at all times; the relative use of one or multiple meanings may increase or decrease with time, but only very rarely and after a great deal of time does any meaning disappear completely.

    Words are sort of like Dremel motor tools. By themselves they’re just motors, but you can add attachments and do all sorts of things with them: connotations, usages, you can even change them from verbs to nouns and vice versa. Words are malleable. But they resist *losing* these attachments, especially to the extent that they are charged with political/cultural/social meaning. “Tranny” doesn’t necessarily “act” any specific way at all, but right now it only has one commonly used application (pejorative speciation and stereotyping.) We can’t supplant this usage by using “tranny” to mean positive or neutral things. Words can’t be emptied of all meaning, especially by refusing to use them when others continue to do so in hurtful ways. The best we can do is to resignify by adding meanings and usages. This is why it’s a worthy project to add positive connotations to a term that is currently being used mostly in negative ways.

    Sometimes I need to be able to name trans people I love and admire as such to signify that their trans-ness (whether experience or identity, etc) is part of what I admire in them. I think this is especially important for me because awesome trans women are way underrepresented as such.
    This is part of the problem, but certainly not all of it. Positive associations and usages of terms that mean “being trans” are culturally unavailable and underdeveloped. In such an environment there’s nothing to challenge negative stereotypes, no way for negative and positive connotations to compete because there very simply are no positive connotations. For this reason, any term for trans (whether generated as a slur or otherwise) is available to be used as a weapon.

    But, at the risk of cliche, every weapon is a tool if you hold it right. Our task should be to use our words positively, not to fear using them. Your argument here isn’t to totally avoid certain words, it’s more complicated than that. But I don’t know that I accept the demand that I defend my use of language.

    One of the most amazing things about being trans is the opportunity to name ourselves as we see fit and to expect that those around us honor our names. I won’t surrender that ability on command. Language is always policed and negotiated by language users, and it’s not that negotiation I take issue with. On the contrary, I think it’s especially important for trans people to hear and respect each other’s voices and opinions. Part of that is calling each other what we want to be called, and not calling each other what we don’t want to be called. But I do resist the idea that, as a tranny, I’m especially accountable for the impact of my trans vocabulary on those of us who can only hear my name as an insult.

  8. Cedar said

    Mira,

    Thanks for the response. I’ll need to read it a couple times before I can respond to it all, but I will say that I hear “I’m proud of looking like a tranny” and “It makes me happy that people sometimes mistake me for a trans woman” very differently. Part of it is the word and part of it is the intent behind it, and how the two are most frequently correlated…

    I’m not sure to what extent you’re saddling me with the “you’re not embracing being trans/you’re a gender binarist who’s internalized the idea that transsexual = less valid and that’s why you don’t want to be identified as trans and thus why you don’t want to be called tranny” trope–where little could be further from the truth. On the contrary, I’m pretty strongly invested both in my transsexuality and in my own non-binary-gendered-ness, and I do a lot of work toward undermining definitions of ‘man’ & ‘woman’ that center cissexual/non-intersex experience–an enterprise that does have potential to undo the correlation between cis and real, trans and fake… etc.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the phrase “resist the idea that, as a tranny, I’m especially accountable for the impact of my trans vocabulary.”

  9. Mira said

    I don’t feel like I’m saddling you with anything, Cedar. I’m directing your attention to some trans misogyny issues that I know you’re very familiar with and some linguistic structures that you might not be as familiar with. My basic argument is actually a linguistic one. But on the distinction between “I’m proud of looking like a tranny” and “it makes me happy that people sometimes mistake me for a trans woman,” I’d be curious to know which of those sounds harsher to your ear. For myself, I’d need to know who was saying either and in what context.

  10. Cedar said

    Mira,

    Cool. I said I wasn’t really sure; that’s the way text works. Anyways, let me get back to you.

  11. […] “Tranny” & Cis Women: Re-Reclaiming Tranny (or not) part 2 […]

  12. […] 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 labels […]

  13. […] From Cedar (part 1, and part 2) […]

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

  15. […] Reading the comments thread there, was pointed towards a fascinating essay about gender-linked factors in reclaiming the word “Tranny”. Part one. Part two. […]

  16. […] reclaiming “tranny” (which I have now found some incredibly insightful and well defined rants on) and more against NYT’s lacking debate skills. I would have sat and talked about it with […]

  17. What’s In a Name?…

    My friend Trannysaurus originally turned me on to this issue in his post about it a few months ago, in which he responded to a post by Cedar questioning the “tranny” reclamation project….

  18. […] with having it in the name of my podcast. However, as a trans man, I am responding to the many people who have expressed cogent doubts that trans men and masculine-identified genderqueer people have […]

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