Solution to ‘Tranny’ Debate: Stop Using the Word

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These days, one of the easiest and quickest ways to anger a room full of queers is to bring up the subject of legendary drag queen and television star RuPaul Charles.

Greg Kabel

RuPaul first came under fire earlier this year for using the word “she-male” in a challenge on his Logo TV show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” called “Female or She-Male.” In it, contestants were shown photographs and had to guess whether the subject was born biologically female or previously appeared on the show. Many transgender advocates objected, pointing out that “she-male” is a term that is frequently used to degrade and demean trans people. They also took issue with a recurring segment titled “You’ve Got She-Mail” for the same reason.

In response, Logo apologized, pulled the episode that contained the challenge, and removed the “You’ve Got She-Mail” segment.

But RuPaul himself didn’t apologize. Instead he doubled down, vigorously defending his use of another problematic word, “tranny.” In an interview with Marc Maron, RuPaul said:

"Does the word 'tranny' bother me? No. I love the word 'tranny.' ... It's not the transsexual community who's saying that. These are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we are dealing with. It's not the trans community. 'Cause most people who are trans have been through hell and high water… But some people haven't and they've used their victimhood to create a situation where, 'No! You look at me! I want you to see me the way you're supposed to see me!' You know, if your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a fucking hard-ass road...

"I dance to the beat of a different drummer. I believe everybody -- you can be whatever the hell you wanna be, I ain't stopping you. But don't you dare tell me what I can do or what I can't -- say or can't do. It's just words, like, 'Yeah, you hurt me!' Bitch, you need to get stronger. If you're upset by something I said you have bigger problems than you think."

In the controversy over RuPaul and language, especially as regards to the word “tranny,” the arguments essentially boil down to this: on one side you have many members of the trans community and their allies, who find the term highly offensive and abusive, especially because it’s frequently used in violent attacks on trans people.

On the other side is the drag community, which has a long history of satire and word reclamation, largely rejects the idea that the term “tranny” is inherently offensive, and bristles at what they perceive as language policing. Drag culture also has a long and important history within the gay community, which leads many gay men — and also many older trans women, who grew up in a world where drag culture was often one of their only safe spaces — to vociferously defend it.

I wonder, though, whether those who defend RuPaul — and yes, in my experience they’re mostly gay men — would similarly defend a non-gay person who insists on using the word “faggot.” Like “tranny,” many people find “faggot” highly offensive, and for many victims of anti-gay violence, “faggot” is the last thing they hear before they lose consciousness — and sometimes even their life. Fellow gays, would you take kindly to some non-gay person telling you how you should react to an anti-gay slur? I’m guessing not.

Furthermore, the charges of “word policing” are silly — not because our culture doesn’t police words, but precisely because it does... all the time. Think about it: can you say “fire” in a crowded theater? Not without consequence. The Federal Communications Commission determines which words can be said on television, and the Motion Picture Association of America “polices” language in movies through its ratings system — the more potentially offensive the film’s language, the more restrictive its rating.

And groups from across the political and ideological spectrum, from GLAAD to the Anti-Defamation League to the (viciously homophobic) Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights frequently call out and demand apologies for perceived slurs and misrepresentations in the media. So why is it that only when trans people raise objections to a word or phrase do those kinds of objections suddenly become “word policing?”

For me, the bottom line is this: the trans community, by and large, says that words like “tranny” are offensive, derogatory slurs. We owe it to them to respectfully listen and modify our vocabularies accordingly. Ours is a wide and varied language. Surely we can find many words with which to express ourselves that don’t belittle or humiliate our trans siblings.


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