I can’t count how many times trans men have complained of being “invisible,” or where they (or, admittedly, transphobic cis women) justified paying more or exclusive attention to trans men’s issues because of their “lack of visibility,” or implied that my “visibility” as a trans woman was a form of privilege.

But “(in)visibility” is an incoherent idea. One is not simply “visible” or “invisible” like Harry Potter putting on his cloak–invisibility cloaks don’t exist, some people can see you even if you are wearing one, and one is always standing on the other side of a wall/behind a tree relative to someone, and the near side of the wall/in front of the tree relative to someone else. What “invisibility” universally fails to ask is: to whom is one visible, and why? Under what circumstances, and in what light? Am I visible to the friend looking out hir window for a houseguest, through the binoculars of a peeping tom, or within the crosshairs of a sniper rifle? The concept “invisibility” implies that these things are all linearly correlated, so that as my chances of being harassed on the street go up, so do my chances of finding a partner who will know about and be sensitive to my issues and be a fierce advocate for me, and the fact that trans men don’t get murdered at anything approaching the same rate as trans women, drag queens, and crossdressers is something that will change as they get more spots on Oprah.*


These things are only weakly correlated:

  • Trans women are the targets of the large majority (though by no means all) of cis feminist transphobia, and almost all pathologizing/objectifying/fetishizing/misgendering/transphobic/non-feminist sociological, psychological, sexological, and anthropological research, while trans men and (conflatedly) FAAB genderqueers get the bulk of positive, sympathetic (though not necessarily trans-positive) feminist research (MAAB genderqueers, in this scheme, are subsumed into drag queens/crossdressers/trans women).

  • Trans women have the overwhelming edge on number of autobiographies–the surviving ones, for some weird reason, are all (with two mid-90’s trans-woman-bashing-smash-the-gender-binary exceptions) of the disempowered, desexualized, pity-me medical model variety, despite empowered trans woman writers of the period like Susan Stryker, Sandy Stone, and Angela Douglass (who did, in fact, write an unpublished autobiography) and several (also problematic) pornographic autobiographies no longer extant (see Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 198-202)–but trans men’s books have, on the whole, taken a much more empowered line, with sexuality discussed on their own terms in a non fetishizing way. As Serano writes in Whipping Girl, these were the only stories of trans women’s lives that were allowed to be told. (Some might say better something problematic than nothing, and while there’s limited truth to that up until sometime in the 1990s, there’s no room for argument in 2009.)

  • And though with Serano’s book there is a public and empowered voice for white trans women’s issues, and films such as Still Black attempt to broadcast the admittedly under-publicized lives, voices, and issues of trans men of color, our women of color’s self-advocacy has never or almost never been amplified by publishing or filmmaking institutions–yet trans women of color are all over self-published media (the blogosphere)–and murder reports and fetishizing/exploitative media articles, that almost universally omit their voices and ideas. (see my 2008 post about this phenomenon.) The closest thing to an exception would be Paris is Burning–and if you’ve read Butler and Prosser on the subject, you’ll likely agree that it’s not really an exception (though it is a highly enjoyable film).

To oversimplify: trans women are visible: as a sexual threat, as sex objects, as objects of derision and hate, and as objects of pity. Trans men are visible: as potential partners, as activists and revolutionaries, as an “invisible” group that deserves your advocacy, and (recently) as parents. The Thomas Beatie case is the exception that proves the rule–the unusually degrading media treatment that drew totally justified anger and analysis happened only in response to his pregnancy and open defiance of cisnormativity and transphobic eugenics, where that kind of media coverage is par for the course for trans women regardless of what they do, and doesn’t get that kind of attention, analysis, and anger simply because it is so common. And, you know, because fewer people and institutions care. That many trans men victim-blamed Beatie for this coverage and were angry about this making them “look bad” represents a tacit understanding that “visibility” isn’t inherently good or bad, but only good or bad relative to specific circumstances and situations.

Let’s dump “visibility”–and start thinking about to whom, as what, under what circumstances, when, why, to what end, and at what cost.

*(A bit of a tangent: Related is the idea that trans men pass better either a)because people don’t think about trans men or b)because testosterone is powerful, manly, and dominant while estrogen is submissive and weak, rather than being related to a)the ways in which masculinity is seen as natural and femininity as artificial and suspect (see Whipping Girl) and b)male as default (see Kessler and McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach chapter 6 “Toward a Theory of Gender, also anthologized in The Transgender Studies Reader, Stryker and Whittle, eds. See the overlay study in particular, which talks about how “male” gender cues count *much* more strongly toward gender attribution than “female” gender cues.)

EDIT 3:20 AM– General Note: For about half an hour after a post is first published, I’m revising it, generally without “edit” notations. I always intend it to be done before it’s published, but it never is/HTML doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, etc. The substance stays the same, (this time it was trying to get the spaces in between the bullet pointed paragraphs plus “to oversimplify”) but if you’re wondering “did something just change?” …it might have. After half an hour, though, I generally include a note. and my half hour’s up.

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.


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

What the title said. From their email:

The Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference committee is currently seeking workshop, panel, and symposium proposals for its 2009 conference. Providers Day [June 11, 2009] programming seeks to provide medical providers, mental health workers, social workers, clergy and educators with the tools that they need to provide inclusive services to transgender individuals and their families. Community Days [June 12-13, 2009] programming seeks to provide community members, families, partners and allies with the tools that they need to succeed and thrive within our community and within their daily lives.

We are committed to providing comprehensive and diverse programming. Our 2009 theme is “Different Paths… One Journey.” In an effort to enhance our offerings at Providers Day this year, we would like to host at minimum two symposiums and two panel discussions.

* Symposiums are geared towards individuals who would like to present information about their relevant research projects. The type of research presented can include: dissertation studies, bachelor/master level theses, need assessments, NIH funded projects, etc.

* Panel discussions are more general in nature and consist of individuals with experience both personal and professional who would like to explore an open dialogue about their experiences, ideas and perspectives with others.

Provider’s Day workshops are two hours in length.

Community Days workshops are 75 or 90 minutes in length.

Now, some of you may remember me complaining about the conference this year (before this blog was started). I can go on, at length, about last year’s trans misogyny, and I know multiple people who girlcott it/have done so in the past. I find a number of the organizers obnoxious, and for all that it has going for it, the organizers have more than their fair share of trans misogyny and racism.

That said, the people who go are amazing, and if there’s any trans space that’s ripe for revolution, it’s this one. I’d never met a non- trans woman1 who had more of a chip on hir shoulder than me about trans misogyny before. The conference is free, AND they’ll try to set you up with free community housing if you need it, so all you have to pay for is food and transportation. So, submit your workshops against racism, trans misogyny, assimilation, medical model bullshit–whatever–and if they fuck with us we’ll fuck shit up.

1: I mean a person who’s not a trans woman, (hence the space) but apparently even when I specify this people go right back to assuming I mean cis woman–I DON’T. Is there a better way to make that clear?

Form available here.

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.