Isn’t Oppression Bad and Calling it Out Good?

Or did I get it backwards.

In an LGBT online support community I participate in a few participants were purposefully using the wrong pronouns for a trans person in the media who they did not like. When several people pointed out that that’s a very transphobic tactic and the discussion got heated the moderator stepped in – and told to stop throwing around “transphobic” because it is an ad hominem attack that only derails conversation.

It’s a tactic of shifting focus and blame in a lot of places. It’s the kind of logic that allows people to claim that calling someone racist is a “low blow” and off limits. Considering how often it is employed, this tactic deserves a little more attention.

The thinking behind this tactic relies on a world view where we are “past all that.” Whatever “ism” you’re looking at is no longer institutional, structural, or societal – if it ever was – and is only an issue of individual prejudices. From this supposedly even ground we are starting on, prejudices against minority and majority groups have equal weight.

A perfect example of this occurred in the comments section of a Bilerico reposting of an open letter addressing racist post-prop-8 behavior of white gay and lesbian activists. The letter writer, Alette Kendrick, complained about racist statements made at a post-prop-8 rally and all the white activists there who cheered for it. Instead of recognizing the power, pain, and impact that such a situation has on people of color in this movement, several commenters decided to focus on a statement that “dumb white people at large” could benefit from listening to this experience.

Several people suggested that calling white people dumb was the exact same (racist) thing that she was complaining about. That her acknowledgment of a widespread lack of awareness and understanding of racism in white populations was the equivalent of the rally speaker who ranted about the horrible African-American community and “all but outrightly called Black people ignorant and foolish.” Yet when we remove the central assumptions of this tactic, the argument falls apart.

First off, issues of racism are more than just prejudice. You don’t have to burn crosses or wear a white hood in order to be racist. Too often people who don’t want to deal with racism relegate it to the realm of the fantastic. It’s what those horrible people do, I’m not a horrible person, so it has nothing to do with me. Yet we all live in a racist society. We all hear racist messages our whole lives. We all internalize it to some degree. It’s impossible not to let it influence your behavior in at least minor ways. Claiming that most, if not all, white people are influenced by racism is not a baseless attack on white people, it’s not prejudicial generalization, it’s a fact supported by academia, sociology, not to mention the collective personal experiences of people of color.

Secondly, we’re not starting on equal ground here. It’s not just the prejudical statement that hurts, but the societal validation of that statement that gives it weight. Claiming that people of color are uneducated, that women are bitchy, that gays flaunt their sexuality, that trans folk are irrational and instable, that poor people steal, can have real impact on people’s lives. But no one will take you seriously if you say the reverse. Claiming that whites are uneducated won’t cost someone a job, claiming that men are bitchy won’t get someone’s perspective dismissed, claiming that straights flaunt their sexuality won’t get someone fired. Claiming that cis folk are irrational won’t get someone assaulted. Claiming that the rich steal won’t get cab drivers to refuse to go to wall street. That, incidentally, is why reverse discrimination doesn’t work.

It’s true that in liberal circles with a general anti-oppression value, labels like racist, homophobe, or transphobe, can tarnish your reputation. But it’s clear that this tactic is more about reputation than reality. Those who buy into this world view will get up in arms about an accusation of oppressive behavior and turn the focus of the discussion from the inappropriate behavior to the “inappropriate” accusations they face.

In the recent clamor around Julie Bindel, one of her main tactics was to refocus the issue around all the mean and angry trannies* who are unfairly calling her transphobic — as if calling her transphobic was a low blow as bad or worse than anything she had done. She might as well have been saying “I called you mutilated freaks and you called me transphobic, I suppose we’re even now.”

I’m sorry, but being called transphobic, sexist, homophobic, racist, etc may hurt but it’s nothing like the impact that sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic, etc behavior can have. The discomfort of being called out for oppressive behavior does not make up for the pain that behavior caused. Being called out for an ism is not about revenge, punishment, or public shaming. The purpose of calling someone out is to interrupt and change the behavior, and in the best case scenarios, become an opportunity for educating others to be more careful and aware of their behavior. That’s where the discussion needs to be, and that’s what we need to be doing more of.

We could all improve the quality of our communication by learning better ally skills here. Everyone one of us has privilege in one area or another, and people who we could be better allies to. Being able to be called out gracefully, internalize the criticism you are getting, and learn from the experience without getting defensive is one of the best ally skills to learn. Because being called out might feel like being attacked, but in reality it’s a gift. When someone says something perpetuating the oppression about a community we belong too, we don’t have to say anything about it. Often getting involved in the drama around calling out oppression is itself laborious and frustrating. And usually, the more frustrating the experience, the less tact and civility people are willing to put into their attempts to call someone out.

When people are willing to tell you how you screwed up and what you should have done — especially when they do so in a calm and respectful manner, but even when they don’t — try to restrain the defensive knee-jerk reaction. Because they are spending effort that they don’t have to in the hope that you (or others around) might be able to listen, learn, and grow. The best thing you can do is just that.

* Considering that I wrote an article that goes into detail about the derogatory use of the word “tranny”, I feel I should comment on my use of it here. This is an example of the rare circumstances where I personally use the term — as a way to reference transphobic attitudes. You can read my article to see more about why I think it can be useful in this circumstance. Note that this is different from an attempt to reclaim the term.

Is ‘Tranny’ Offensive?

In several different LGBTQ blogs I’ve noticed arguments over whether or not the use of the term ‘tranny’ is offensive.  Usually this occurs when a cisgender person using the term gets called out for it.  In each case, they seem to have trans friends who are cool with them using the term and don’t understand why others don’t like it.

It might appear to be a benign act of adding a “y” on the end to make the term more informal and cutesy (notice a similar transformation when changing “cute” to “cutesy”). From this perspective, why would it matter?  No one will tell you “fag” or “faggot” are okay but “faggy” and “fagotry” aren’t.  However, there is a whole historical context to the term that isn’t all that well known, but is a huge part about what makes the term less appealing.

The term itself was first widely used within the porn industry.  And while I’ll be the last one to denigrate sexuality and pornography, the fact is that “tranny porn” is about as representative of trans people’s sexuality as “girl-on-girl porn” is representative of lesbian sexuality.  The usual context that it has been used in porn is to highlight how trans women are not really women, while also painting us as more exotic and sexually available.

So when the industry popularized the term “tranny”, it became a useful way to get a sense of someone’s background with the community.  If a cisgender person used the term “tranny” it probably meant that they got most of their knowledge of (or at least intro to) the trans community from the porn and sex industries, and perhaps didn’t have your best interests at heart.  This is also probably related to the creation of the term “tranny-chaser” as a way for the trans community to identify people who might take advantage of a trans person’s relative vulnerability or see trans people only as a sexual commodity.

This use of language has stuck.  For example, 6 out of the top 10 google results for the term “tranny” are porn sites.  And five years ago it was probably 9 or 10.  Compare that to a google search for “transgender” which gives you 10 out of 10 resource and support sites.  Also, searching for terms like “tranny activist” and “tranny politics” results in only a few hits — 194 and 157 respectively.  Yet searching for the term “tranny sex” provides 1,470,000 hits — that’s a 10,000 fold increase.  Even now, after many people are reclaiming the term, the vast majority of it’s use is about sexualizing and objectifying trans people.  It’s true the term is being reclaimed, but instead of comparing it to how terms like “queer,” “dyke,” and “fag” are used today, I think it’s more appropriate to compare it to the use of the term “faggot” about a decade ago, or “queer” almost two decades ago.

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 in 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.

Regardless, it is true that I also try to reclaim the term myself.  But as with all reclaimed terms, context is the key.  I recently had to educate a colleague of mine as to how his saying “I met a really hot tranny last weekend” was not a very appropriate place to use the term, even if it was a positive attribute he was commenting on (for the record, I would have been a lot more comfortable with “I met a trans woman last weekend, she was really hot”).

Personally, I’m not comfortable using the term to refer to anyone but myself or friends who have similarly used it.  And if I wasn’t trans, I wouldn’t want to use it at all.  I might use it to draw upon it’s history, such as if I were to call myself “Another tranny rebelling against patriarchy,” or to underscore someone else’s transphobia as in “You just don’t care what the dirty tranny thinks, do you?”  And I suppose I might use it to refer to trans people in general, such as “Trannies unite!” or “I wish there were more trannies here.”  I generally appreciate use of the term that links it to trans women’s sexual autonomy and trans-positivity — the exact opposite of it’s derogatory use.

I’m not going to lay down any rules for how you might use it though, especially if you’ve been the target of it’s derogatory use yourself.  All I ask is that you think about how you use it.  And be able to explain yourself if someone wants to question you about it.