This story just gets stranger and stranger. After administrators cited her “significant online business in pornography and related material” as the basis of uninviting Tristan Taormino from the Modern Sex conference, the replacement keynote speaker is Charlie Glickman, an employee of Good Vibrations (a porn store). Also, the university is encouraging conference organizers to put guests up in the local Hilton – a company that makes millions off of in-room on demand porn.
Now to be clear, Charlie Glickman is by all accounts a great addition to the conference. He was initially booked as the closing speaker and took over the opening slot as he describes in his blog. But as more and more contradictions come to light, it’s clear that Oregon State University administrators don’t have a problem with men who work at porn stores or with large corporations that make millions off of porn. It leads us to wonder if what they really have is a problem with women and feminists.
Tristan Taormino was scheduled to keynote the upcoming Modern Sex conference hosted by Oregon State University, with a talk entitled “Claiming Your Sexual Power.”This past Monday, January 17th, university administrators decided to refuse funding for her talk and the conference was forced to cancel her appearance – after she had already purchased airline tickets on the promise of being reimbursed, which presumably won’t be happening.
When the news hit the blogosphere the following day, the university was silent on their reasoning and have not yet released a statement regarding the cancellation. The university communications person I spoke with informed me that the appointed spokesperson was sent out of town for most of the day and when I did eventually get in touch with him he was not prepared to offer a response. I’ll update this post with a response when I receive one.
The only information from OSU has come from anonymous sources who Tristan reports having spoken to who oppose the decision but are afraid to say so publicly for fear of their job security. One of those sources did, however, state that the decision was because of her “website and resume.”
It leads me to question, if a resume of authoring seven books on sex and relationships, editing 18 anthologies, numerous television appearances, 75 university lectures, and a variety of awards for her writing, sex education, and filmmaking is cause for rejecting an already booked speaker, what kind of keynote was the university expecting for a conference about sex?
Back in 2007 Catherine Crouch made headlines for her blatently anti-trans short film “The Gendercator,” which due to the lack of trans inclusion on LGBTQ film festival selection committees, was included in several of them, and ultimately pulled from the San Francisco Frameline Festival.
In subsequent debates, she repeatedly explained that the film was designed to “spark dialog” and even if people disagreed with her, at least they were talking about it.
Well, I’ve decided to continue the dialog in a format that I believe the quality of the original film and dialog are most deserving of — a plot driven, political, porn film full of camp, humor, and cheap sci-fi special effects. See the trailer and more of my analysis of the issue under the cut.
Two years ago I wrote an article “Is Tranny Offensive?” which still gets cited and referenced. It’s a decent breakdown, but after two additional years of watching arguments unfold around the term, I’ve got a little more to say. This is part one of a three part series that went up on Bilerico. Here is the series in it’s entirety.
Part One – Meanings
To begin with, it’s important to recognize that “tranny,” like most slurs, is used to say more about someone than simply whether they are trans or not. Just as how “this homework is so gay” is less about identifying sexual attraction to other homework of its own gender and more about being generically bad. Similarly, being called a faggot or a dyke is often about being too feminine, a sissy, a manhater, or just being unwilling to accept sexual harassment.
So what’s the implication of being called a tranny? Let’s get to that under the cut.
Tastes like Misogyny
One of the most illuminating ways of understanding the use of “tranny” is to watch how it is used as a put down for cis women. Several people have pointed out this pattern. Plenty of examples focus around fashion and the message that a tranny is someone who is incapable of doing femininity correctly, whether you’re talking about the shoes that make you look like a tranny, insulting a cis woman’s “tranny makeup,” or the outfit that turns a cis woman into “a hot tranny mess.”
The slur also gets dragged out to put a woman in her place when she is acting too aggressively. To shame her for being too sexual – and even in some cases to shame her for not being sexual enough (i.e., she won’t let you in her pants because she has “something” to hide).
Famous cis women who have been repeatedly called a tranny include Brittney Spears, Anne Coulter, Sarah Palin, Cindy McCain, Hillary Clinton, Lady Gaga, Cher, Khloe Kardashian, and Janet Reno. Overwhelmingly you’ll notice that we’re talking about feminine women – their presentation is not what you would think of as gender deviant. If a woman were to be downright butch, she would more likely be called a bitch or a dyke. “Tranny” is reserved for those whose femininity is deemed fake, incorrect, or forced, those whose sexuality is either too brazen or too frigid, those who dare to take power and space and need to be knocked down a peg.
That’s why it’s frustrating to see cis women who can understand the utter horror and indignation of being called a tranny themselves but are completely willing to dismiss the negative implications when the term is used against trans women – because supposedly it’s just a factual statement that she is trans. Perhaps cis queers and straight allies would understand the issue better if people started saying “that’s so tranny.”
In my previous article, I pointed out that regardless of its origins, the term “tranny” has been used by the porn industry more than any other space, and as a result the porn industry holds incredible influence over how the term is understood and what is associated with it. Unfortunately I’ve heard some people repeat this fact along with the exclamation that “tranny” shouldn’t be used because it associates respectable transsexuals with porn actresses – often with very negative, hurtful, and sex worker phobic terms, even the word “shemale” – and I need to begin by condemning such an approach. Challenging stereotypes, including the assumption that all trans women are sex workers, is valid. However, it is inappropriate to attack, stigmatize, and condemn sex workers in the process.
The “tranny porn” industry caters to the fantasies of chasers, and in doing so sets up a number of specific assumptions – based on those fantasies – of what a tranny most often is. A tranny in this context is a trans woman. She is straight or bi and seeking validation from cis men, usually in the form of sex. To that end, she puts more work into her appearance and is often more feminine and more attractive than cis women and more willing to put up with sexism or abusive behavior. She, like most other women in straight men’s fantasies, is extremely sexual and desperately wants your cock. She’s willing to do all kinds of things your cis girlfriend might consider degrading. She probably has very little resources or money, few support structures, and little validation of her gender, all of which makes her desperate, with lower standards, and that much more easily manipulated or taken advantage of.
While based on certain realities of discrimination that trans women face, this is an exaggerated fantasy image. It is not okay to call out the use of this image and the term tranny as offensive, only to turn around and point at trans sex workers, claiming that they are the real “trannies” — the desperate cock-hungry perverts who transition just to fuck men. Trans sex workers may occasionally play the role for work, but as a sex worker with many trans sex working friends, I can say that it is still degrading to have folks assume they can treat you poorly because you’re a tranny whore.
This image certainly has moved beyond the porn industry. It’s commonly displayed on police detective tv shows, raunchy movies, and is arguably the most common media representation of trans women – or at least in the top three.
Understanding the meanings of this term when it is used as a slur is a very important first step in analyzing our community politics around it — both as a slur and through attempts to use it in a positive context. In the upcoming parts this series, explore several examples of those criticized for using the term and the debates of censorship around them, and finally how different context or who is speaking can change the implications of using the term and what kind of difference that makes.
Part Two – Media Criticisms
The thing about free speech is that people are free to say hurtful and offensive things, but everyone else is free to point out that it’s not okay and encourage people not to support it. In most cases, that’s what we’re talking about when people complain about censorship. But let’s be clear about something: it’s not just about the word people are complaining about, but what’s behind it.
The reality is that even though that one word is what tends to be focused on, in every case of protest, we’re talking about something much deeper going on. When the term is casually and irresponsibly thrown about that can certainly be offensive, but the real issue is that it is often an indicator of wider transphobia and misogyny.
When people complained about the term being uncritically used on Glee, the real issue is a pattern of insensitive and disrespectful treatment of trans people from a show that uses its reputation as gay friendly to deflect or ignore those criticisms. Glee is a show that has been celebrated for its empowering representations of resisting homophobia and its harsh criticism of anti-gay slurs.
It’s understandable that the trans community is upset at the uncritical praise and celebration from the LGb(t) community for the show when there are zero trans characters, issues of gender variance aren’t handled particularly well, and the only representation of trans issues is the use of our lives as insults that are simply accepted and unchallenged by a group of characters who would immediately speak out against similar treatment of gays or lesbians.
As an even better example, look at the now infamously protested Ticked Off Trannies With Knives. Critics complained that the film capitalized on anti-trans violence, using examples of real life victims of anti-trans killings to build support for the gore full B horror revenge flick. The trans community and family members of those victims declared the marketing tactic insensitive and irresponsible. The trailer depicted a very narrow representation of trans women that conforms to the “tranny” role (as described in part one), where rape and violence against trans women is made to be humorous. And most damning, the director’s response to the criticism displayed further ignorance, insensitivity, and an unwillingness to engage with the trans community.
In both cases, defenders of the film and TV show quickly moved to argue the right to use the term “tranny,” held discussions on whether or not cis people should be allowed to use the term and whether or not the intention was to offend. Doing so, however, completely ignores the pattern of trans-negative representations that are the real offense. I guarantee you that if Susan Stryker’s groundbreaking documentary about trans activism and resistance to oppression in the 1960s had been titled “Screaming Trannies” rather than “Screaming Queens,” there would not be this same kind of response. Chances are, given the clear context to it, no one would bat an eye.
So if you really want to focus on community boycott, media criticism, and protest as a form of censorship, by all means we can have that conversation – so long as you understand it’s about boycotting, criticizing, and protesting transphobia and not just the utterance of a single word.
Let me be very clear here, as this was the number one misunderstanding about my last article on the topic, I am not going to tell you not to use the word tranny. I’m making no demands on you, I’m not the word police, and I’m not going to shout you down or anything else. What I am going to do is tell those of you who are not trans women that it’s probably going to be better if you don’t use the term. Not just better for other people, but better for you.
Regardless of whether or not you think people should be offended, the fact is the term has some very trans misogynistic associations and can easily trigger those who have been the target of that kind of trans misogyny.
If you are using the term over other people’s objections, then be prepared for the consequences. People may think you are ignorant or insensitive to the oppression of trans women. They may more closely examine your behavior for transphobia and/or misogyny. They may find it. They might not want to be exposed to your irresponsible use of term (or other transphobia and/or misogyny) and decide to avoid your events, your writing, or your film. They might tell their friends. So if you want to cultivate an audience that includes trans women and those who care about them, or even just a reputation as trans friendly, keep that in mind.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen plenty of cases where I’ve appreciated how the term was used. Where people who are culturally competent on trans women’s issues and often avoid the term but use it in contexts that are demonstrably conscious of and sensitive to the issues. It can be a difficult thing to do and involves knowing your own history with the term, that of those around you, the associated images of the term, and fitting all of that into the context.
How do you know if you’re doing it right? Chances are good that if you are no one will complain. If someone tells you they aren’t comfortable with how you are using the term, the best thing to do is apologize and then share your reasoning for using it in that context. If they aren’t buying your explanation, you might want to reconsider it yourself.
Ultimately, this is the same advice for using other derogatory slurs when creating media, especially when the creators don’t belong to that marginalized group. I’ve seen some arguments about using “tranny” where I have seriously doubted several points would have been made if we were talking about racial slurs, anti-Semitic slurs, ableistic slurs, sexist slurs, and so on. And that’s something to keep in mind.
In the upcoming final part of this series, I’ll discuss how the context of who’s speaking makes a difference as well as the different kinds of things someone might say.
Part Three – Context
This part examines the impact and consequences of using the term on a more individual level, including what types of context make a difference and what types of context may matter less than you think.
Context plays a big role, but as with any slur, the personal experience someone has as the target of the slur is a part of that context – and it makes a big difference. Part of why I say it would be fine to have had Stryker’s film be titled “Screaming Trannies” is because it’s a documentary examining transphobia and trans people’s activism created by a trans woman who’s significantly connected to trans community and regularly challenges trans misogyny. The context makes sense. Whereas when Michelangelo Signorile, a cis gay man, goes on tv and tells everyone that tranny isn’t a slur and he knows ’cause he’s a big homo, and “has some friends” who use the term (why didn’t they invite those friends on the show?) the context is pretty clearly insulting.
While breaking down who can and can’t use the term based on identity is an easy shorthand for some very complicated issues, it has downsides. One of the big downside is that it can cause an increase in policing the boundaries of trans and trans female/feminine identity. Can a drag queen use the term? A trans man? A genderqueer trans man? An uber feminine fag? Not to mention that it creates a situation that encourages judgment of how trans someone is or how valid a female identity is, which can leave transfeminine genderqueers in a difficult situation. The same goes for any trans woman who is misread as either not trans or not a woman. And such people who also happen to fit aspects of the stereotypically tranny image are left in an even more tenuous position. The downside of black and white rules is that you spend a lot of time parsing the gray areas and trying figure out how to put people in their place rather than evaluating the value of the rule in such situations.
Ultimately, the important question is not just if, but how does the term get used against a person? It’s pretty common for straight men to be called faggot, but that doesn’t mean it’s an anti-straight slur. Trans men occasionally are called tranny, but that doesn’t erase the fact that the slur specifically attacks one’s femininity as fake or a failure, as if they are a man in a dress who’s trying too hard – as explained in part one. I know a few sissy, femme, and/or crossdressing trans men, and I can understand how they feel they have some ownership over the term, but it’s because they are sissy/femme/crossdressing, not because they are trans men.
For example, consider the various “women and trans” events and spaces that are conspicuously lacking representation of trans women. It’s almost always due to trans misogyny, historically and/or currently. Trans women are more likely than trans men to have traumatic experiences with the term and be triggered by it. When trans men use the term in such spaces – as commonly is the case – it contributes to the dynamic keeping trans women out, regardless of whether or not it is their intention.
Similarly, I’ve heard people suggest that because of the overlap in the trans feminine spectrum between trans women, drag queens, and sissy faggots, that gay men should therefore be free to toss the slur around without being criticized. I can understand the point if you’re a gay man who walks the streets in drag, facing harassment, being called a tranny, and getting profiled by police for walking while trans. However, that doesn’t give all normatively gendered gay men carte blanche to rebuke any criticism for using the term just because they went to a few drag shows. That doesn’t give all gay men carte blanche. It certainly is no excuse for OUT magazine the justification to claim that the term is powerful and liberating just because they (predominantly cis men) are the ones saying it.
But all this identity parsing is really secondary to how you use the term – and I don’t mean simply using it “positively” without taking into account how that can still hurt and alienate people is not how you do that. Using it sensitively while referencing the transphobic context it is often interpreted in is much more important. And even being a trans woman does not mean that no one will ever be uncomfortable or react negatively with how you use the term.
Kate Bornstein has been using the word in ways that have made a lot of trans women uncomfortable. Quinnae Moongazer explained exactly why in an open letter to her. Kate responded, temporarily apologizing and pledging not to use the term any more but later recanted. (For more details see what I wrote specifically about the incident).
I don’t think anyone is saying that Kate shouldn’t be allowed to use the term for herself and her consenting friends and family. It becomes a problem when she: a) uses the term generically for other people who don’t consent to it, and b) tells others (particularly those who aren’t trans women) that there are no consequences to using the term uncritically. While personal experience as a target of the slur certainly matters, ultimately respect, consciousness, and the ability to address the power dynamics surrounding it are what’s important. If anyone refuses to do that, their identity will not make them immune to criticism.
Speaking for myself, the term is growing on me. I’m finding more and more places where it feels appropriate to use. However, I don’t like simply reclaiming it as a positive. I can’t simply erase the context that the word conjures up for so many including myself. Instead, I’ll use it specifically to highlight that context. If someone is condescendingly dismissing trans women’s concerns, I might exclaim that they just want the trannies to shut up and go home. If someone argues that trans people deserve rights, except for non-op women, overly sexual women, or sex workers, I’ll tell them that they are playing a game of “good tranny, bad tranny,” and building their case for rights by taking away other people’s rights. In such cases the usage doesn’t seem okay to me despite the negative connotation, but because of it. I’m not reclaiming, I’m repurposing.
Even being a trans woman and having a strong reasoning behind when and how I use the term, I’m still going to be extremely careful about how I do so. I will likely avoid the term altogether in public settings, explaining my use when I do use it, and I certainly won’t use it to name my business or for a generic trans event. Because avoiding offending others is not just a way to be politically correct. It’s not hard to predict that some people may take offense or be triggered by the term. Accusing them of trying to silence you, minimizing and dismissing the negative impact, and trying to badger them out of being offended will only make the situation worse. Whether you’re performing, writing an article, speaking to an audience, making a film, or just networking and meeting new friends, using the term without a great deal of care or even at all, can have significant impact on how effective you will be.