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.