Should the Trans Community Stop Using the ‘T-Word’ or Reclaim It

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The t-word has been tossed around a lot lately, especially by celebrities in the media. But is the word really OK to say to a transgender person.

“I was called it once, and it was done lightly, but it still shocked me really hard,” said Brendon Lies, a 23-year-old Florida Atlantic University student who’s transitioning from female to male.

Everyone has had different experiences with the word.

“A friend of mine used to call me a tranny in Alabama, a good friend of mine,” said Reilly Clemens, a 27-year-old transgender University of Florida graduate student. “I asked him why he did that one day. He said he was trying to toughen me up because people would call me it all the time.”

Some people have been fortunate.

“I’ve only ever heard it once on a television show where people are transgender, and it was never mentioned again,” said Christine Preimesberger, a 19-year-old University of Southern California student who identifies as agender. “I’d be very insulted if someone called me that.”

The word Tranny, according to M to F trans activist Kate Bornstein, originated as a way for M to F transgender people and drag queens to be united under a common name. It came to include all in the trans community.

Cisgender (non-transgender) people quickly began to use it to group and target trans people.

“By being an ftm called this word, especially by cis people, its context generally echoes less so with a lack of understanding, but more with an attitude that we’re all grouped together as something less than human,” Lies said. “It’s become a key word used to look down on us, and that’s usually what I feel from it when it’s used towards me.”

RuPaul and other drag queens have recently created controversy because of their decision to use the word publicly despite protests.

“He [RuPaul] claims he’s coming from a place of love,” said Nicholas Cavallaro, 21-year-old drag queen and student at the University of Florida. “There’s a difference between intent and impact. I think Ru should take a step back and listen to what trans people are saying who have lived their everyday lives transitioned. Ru has been doing this every day of his life, but he goes home and takes that make-up off.”

For most transgender people, hearing the word can still be a painful experience as it is most often associated with violence.

“I’ve never been called tranny in a positive way, and I think what’s interesting is that it seems like people who identify as transgender, meaning that they are transitioning in their hormones or their body, that word is often used in a derogatory way and offers violence,” said Megan Rohrer, a 33-year-old transgender pastor.

But all agree that using the word in public should be avoided.

“Because that word is used to perpetuate violence, in public it might not be OK for anyone to use it,” said Rohrer. “When I hear it, I worry something violent will happen.”

If among close friends, people should first ask consent before using the word.

“It’s very important that the person they’re using it with be OK with it,” Clemens said. “If they’re going to call a friend of theirs a tranny or use the words in comments, as well, they need to be very aware of who they’re using it with because some people take an issue with it.”

Rohrer agrees, saying that just because someone uses the word, doesn’t mean they’re in the wrong.

“I think there are cases when tone of voice outweighs anything else, and so if someone is, for example, the cisgender person married to someone who’s trans that word might come out differently in loving conversation rather than just on the streets,” Rohrer said.

Famous transgender people like Laverne Cox, star of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” have recently started an empowerment movement to “reclaim” the word, so it can be difficult to tell who finds the word acceptable and who doesn’t. Asking can help clarify.

“Most people who are asking the right questions aren’t trying to be hurtful,” Clemens said. “I’m comfortable with being called that, but most people would be more comfortable with other terms like transgender or trans woman.”

It’s important to remember that some people do find it acceptable, and even empowering.

“I would see it as an empowering word,” Clemens said. “It incorporates our history, and people understand it to be a negatively connoted word. It sets us apart. It describes a way of being. I don’t think that’s inherently bad.”

But there’s also a flipside.

“If you’re with a close group of friends and you’ve embraced the word yourself, I’m not going to stop you from using it,” Lies said. “It’s more of a problem to me if you ignorantly call people that and you don’t know how they feel.”

Consent and context are the keys to using the word. Don’t be afraid to ask if you feel comfortable enough around that person.


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