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01 May 2014

Some observations on the tranny word

There have recently been two well-worth-reading articles on the word by Cristan Williams and Julia Serano. This is by the way of a supplement re aspects not mentioned.

Kate Bornstein has previously attributed the origin of 'tranny' to drag queens and transsexuals working together in Sydney in the 1960s. Maybe. I don't know an alternate origin claim. I came across the term in the 1970s when it existed in two forms: tranny and transy. People tended to opt for one or the other. I was in the latter camp on grounds of euphonics, that both transvestite and transsexual contained an 's' and that in the 1960s a trannie was the word for a transistor radio.

Today people talk in terms of umbrella words. I always felt that it was a matter of indeterminacy. I met people who were apparently transy some way or another, but it was rude to ask about genitals, and I had no way of knowing if the person was post-op, intended to become so or chose not to be. This was even more so when there was a transy in a film – probably because the part was underscripted. The one distinction that was immediate in my mind was between transvestites and drag queens: the former hated being read while the latter revelled in it. However both types were quite likely to progress to going full-time and becoming post-op.

Both tranny and transy are deeply embedded in our history. Tranny Roadshow, Trannyshack, Tranny Crew, Tranny Granny, Transy House, and in the biographies of our older sisters and brothers.

In the last few years there have been a few developments:
  1. tranny and transy have both transmogrified into 'trans' or 'trans*'. However it is still the same word and concept.
  2. In schoolyards and on the street the repressed meanies, the ones who who are terrified that they themselves should be seduced by homoeroticism or gender variance, the ones who previously put down others by shouting 'pouf' or 'fag' found that those they feared had created words for themselves: gay and tranny. So they thought it clever to take those words and use them as insults. The gay and trans communities have had completely different responses.
  3. The gays use irony and cleverness to counter the meanies, but there is no question of surrendering the word.
  4. A small but loud minority of trans persons decided to surrender the word 'tranny' to the meanies. This is a defeat, and a temporary withdrawal. The meanies use the internet also and will be using trans, transgender, transsexual (even HBS were it to enter common usage) in the same tone of voice.*
  5. Strangely the repressed meanies have not picked up on the word 'autogynephile': it is the bullies within our own community who use that word for trans women whom they do not like. The soi-disant autogynephiles, like the gays, have stuck with their own choice of word despite others using it as an insult.
  6. Having had a bad experience with the meanies, rather than use irony or cleverness, or stand up to them, the minority of trans women sought an easier target: their elder sisters. Many trans women have been using tranny or transy as a positive word of self identification – in some cases for over four decades. These older trans women were told that they could no longer use their preferred word for themselves because of interactions elsewhere that did not involve them. This is impertinent at best. Some would say that it is rude and insensitive.
  7. For some reason, those who demand that tranny be expunged from history and discourse say nothing about a similar expungement of transy and trans. Probably because their agenda is derived from the meanies, not from intra-community discourse.

Those who demand that a word be no longer used do not understand how language works.  The attempt to ban a word gives it extra force and makes it attractive, not just to repressed meanies, but also to satirists, performers, historians and wordsmiths.   After not using the tranny variant for four decades, I have found myself using it in recent years.

For all of my life trans liberation has been struggling, with success, against the dogma that gender variation is a pathology.   Much of the demand that certain words not be used, even within the community, is also a dogma.   Are we building a new prison?    Let those who want say tranny or transy or trans or trans*.   It is not the word that ever hurts - it is the tone of voice.   Those who hate us can avoid any specific word and still be hateful.   It is our loss to lose the word.   It is not a loss to those who hate us.

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*There is, of course that delightful scene in It's Pat - The Movie where Pat encounters a bunch of street thugs.   One of the thugs pulls out a battered copy of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae and says: "Yes, that is what you are: you're androgynous".  

4 comments:

  1. The word Tranny does not offend me in the least. When I am out and about in a dress and people use that word I run to it rather than away from it. We still live in a time when a male presenting as a woman is not something that everyone encounters every day. I think it is important as we go forward and acceptance continues to evolve that we face the world with strength and humor. Creating a sense of outrage would seem to run contrary to creating a sense of acceptance.
    Pat

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  2. I'd like to confirm what Kate Bornstein said. I met a number of the Sydney women in 1979 when they were touring in London with the Playgirl revue. Subsequently a couple of friends went out to Sydney and lived in that sub-culture. The use of 'tranny' - which I'd come across in queer and trans culture in the UK occasionally - had a very specific use in Sydney in that period - the point was that it was a levelling word which enabled people to just get along without arguing over who was transexual, who a transvestite and who 'just' a drag queen' without anyone feeling better than anyone else. By the same reasoning, everyone went on the stroll and turned tricks and everyone shared drugs - or so I was told, Alas, that community was hit hard by the epidemic in the early to mid-80s.

    I think you're too hard on the people who want to suppress it - it did slide into common parlance and become something that got associated wtih transphobic violence. For a lot of younger people, it's become a word they think offensive and sure it's possible to regret that but sometimes that is what happens to language. I have no great attachment to the word, but I will insist on honouring the memory of those Sydney women I only met a few times.

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    Replies
    1. So to ask group B not to be hard on group C is to be "too hard" on group B. Surely that is a demand for special privilege, and thus a restriction on everyone else.

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  3. "Those who demand that a word be no longer used do not understand how language works." - Zagria

    Amen to that!

    And if I may vent my opinion… I think they are quite mad; the revolution they espouse is already clearly the kind that "eats its own."

    Sincerely,
    - bonzie anne

    PS: I'm as close to being a free-speech absolutist as a reasonable person can be; those, like me, who share this sentiment in response to the insistence that language be strictly policed - in the hackneyed, trite, and altogether realistic phrase beloved by Libertarians, "at the point of a gun" - are condemned as fools or traitors, no matter how committed we are to the liberation of trans folk from oppression, no matter how severely affected by trans* conditions we might be, and no matter what our individual political orientation might be?

    This is insanity, "a madness of crowds," not a rational policy initiative…

    I'm a poet: you lecture me on the use of language at your own risk.

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