Etiquette for Using Slurs in a Post-Trannyshack World
Trannyshack flyer from 2010, redaction added
My everyday casual slur use was rocked with the recent name change of the drag club formerly known as Trannyshack. Wait, a word that so adorably rhymes with “granny” has negative associations and is considered part of the hate speech vernacular? It’s not okay for whitebread straight people to use that term? Because parenthetically, I would add that I still call gay guys “queens”, I still see events with the names Dyke March and Dykes on Bikes, and for years I used to go score bath salts at a thing called Fag Fridays.
So, do I need to throw out all of my favorite reappropriated slurs? Or is “tranny” just a one-off, because it wasn’t reclaimed by the same process as most reappropriated slurs? Or is there some calculus by which we can determine that some reclaimed terms are okay, others are not and still others that we should only use situationally? As a straight white male who mostly sits around watching sci-fi, I am very unqualified to make these determinations. So I spoke with a few local queer and trans superstars to get academic guidance on how to keep my fuckin’ foot out of my mouth.
The herstory of Trannyshack and the root word itself
I always figured Heklina just made that word up in the 1990s. Turns out I was full of shit. Transgender author/activist Kate Bornstein traces the term back to Australian gay culture in the early 1980s. “Tranny is not a reclamation,” she recently wrote on her blog. “Some trannies in Sydney, Australia came up with the term as an umbrella term to unite with love and as family the disparate communities transsexuals and drag queens.”
The late 90s success of Trannyshack (now known as T-Shack) coincided with the late 90s Internet boom, which of course was also a late 90s pornography boom. Niche porn became widely available online, without the need for a VHS rental store backroom. Just like “shemale”, the term “tranny” got co-opted into a certain genre of pornography featuring females with functioning dicks. The general public, unable to make distinctions between individual populations within the larger gay community, adopted “tranny” as a blanket insult term for anyone with an unconventional gender identity. Why? Because they saw that word in porno titles.
So the term is not new, and it didn’t go through the same reappropriation funnel as did most reclaimed words. It did the opposite, starting as a term of endearment within the community and then mutating out like Godzilla into a general use insult term.
But what’s wrong with saying ‘tranny’? You just said drag queens invented it.
The problem is not that drag queens have a painful history with this term, it’s that transgender people have a painful history with it. There has been a substantial and long-running debate within and between the drag and trans communities over use of the term, with complex political, emotional and semantic variables at play.
Legendary drag king and Whoa Nellies lead singer Leigh Crow has emceed several previous T-Shack events, but endorses the name change. “We just have to say to ourselves, that word has changed,” Leigh told BrokeAssStuart.com. “And we have to find ourselves new words.”
Because the words thrown at transgender people are a special kind of fucked up. “So many things have been said to me that are just horrifying,” says ‘James’, who has gender-transitioned and is now rocking a full male identity. “I’ve been told that I’m mentally ill for being trans. I have been told I should have never been born. I really hate it when people say, ‘You look just like a man.’ Umm, I am a man.”
Once ‘tranny’ became a modern-day insult term aimed at transgenders and genderqueers, use of the term alienated those communities. “Trans rights seem about 20 years or so behind the gay rights movement,” Heklina said quite eloquently in her SFist interview. “So, while the term ‘faggot’ seemed to have much more of a charged meaning 20 years ago, it may take 20 years before the word ‘tranny’ stops being the new N-word.”
If ‘tranny’ is the new N-word, that causes obvious problems for the Trannyshack Collection at the San Francisco Public Library’s Gay & Lesbian Center. The collection is a magnificent archive of flyers, photos and video media going all the way back to the founding of Trannyshack in 1996. But… it has that name.
“The announcement [of the T-Shack name change] did spark a little discussion among the librarians and archivists about whether and how to incorporate that information,” says Tim Long, librarian and archivist at the SFPL’s San Francisco History Center. “The library’s collection documents the club’s activities when it was known as Trannyshack. Therefore, we decided that the name of the collection will remain the same and we will add a note about the subsequent name change.”
But gay people say ‘dyke’, ‘queer’ and ‘fag’ all the time . Why can’t I say those words?
Once some woman screamed at me in a bar, “I may be a bitch, but I’m not your bitch!” before leaving in a huff. Her sentiment struck me as quite poignant, and I find it very instructive here.
What she was saying that she can call herself a bitch, but I don’t automatically get permission to call her that. It’s a level of comfort thing that you don’t automatically receive unless you’re “in the tribe”.
Dyke March and Dykes on Bikes have taken the word “dyke” into their official names, so non-lesbians do not have to go out of our way to say “Pink Saturday” or “Women’s motorcycle contingent”. But this does not equate to broader consent to call individual people a “dyke”.
“When it comes to a particular individual, though, I think ya gotta ask, to be respectful.” James told me.
And the asking permission thing is complicated, because each person has a different background and relationship with certain words. Glendon Hyde, former president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club but better known as Miss Trannyshack 2004 Anna Conda, has positive associations with many of the reclaimed terms forged in the early days of HIV/AIDS activism.
“In the 80s when I was coming out, we started Queer Nation and there was ACT UP,” Hyde said, referring to advocacy groups that favored a certain in-your-face form of activism. “It liberated us from the tyranny of fearing certain words.”
So it’s not like those terms are completely off the board, because many gay activists do still use them as an everyday form of activism. But you’d better be pretty goddamned careful and conscious about using those words if you’re a straight, heterosexual or cis person.
What the fuck does ‘cis person’ mean?
I know, it’s got an awful ring to it. It sounds like just “siss” or “sissy”, which many heterosexuals consider insult terms from grade school. I swear, somebody’s gonna get punched out at a gender identity conference when they call someone a “cis”.
Cis, cisgender and cissexual are academic terms for people who identify as the same gender they were born as. It comes from the Latin prefix cis-, which means “on this side of”. It’s used here because in Latin it’s the opposite of trans-, which means “on the other side of”. It’s the new trendy scholarly term for “people who are not transgender”.
Do I like that word? Not at all. I think straight people could use a way catchier nickname. But I don’t feel insulted by “cis”, and I realize that I now have to use that term if I want to respectfully participate in gender identity conversations with the gay, bi and trans communities.
“Straight people view gays as broken straight people, instead of realizing that we have our own culture,” Anna Conda says. Many of us straight people like to think of ourselves as big friends and advocates of the gay community. But if we’re going to be friends of the gay community, we have to defer to their perspectives on which words are and are not cool to use—not our own perspectives.
Though technically, you can still use the term “Trannyshack” as a proper noun to describe a particular nightclub for about three more weeks. The name change to “T-Shack” does not become official until the T-Shack Seattle Pride Edition on June 27 at Unicorn in Seattle.