I feel I should start this post off with a little housekeeping. It’s come to my attention that my blanket disclaimers to the effect that everything I say both here and on Twitter is my opinion and mine alone may no longer be quite enough. Apparently this needs to be reiterated. So let me be clear – I don’t speak for anyone but me. Highly relevant case in point: I talk about trans issues quite often, because many of those issues affect me personally, but I am well aware that I don’t speak for all trans people. I certainly don’t speak for trans men, or people who identify as genderqueer or gender-neutral. I have never been a part of the drag community, so I don’t speak for drag queens or kings (and very few of them speak for me, for that matter). I don’t speak for transvestites. I don’t speak for trans people of color, or for trans people outside of the United States of America. I don’t speak for transsexual separatists, as that particular movement repulses me on a primal, visceral level. I will never be a beauty queen, a fashion model, or generally drop-dead gorgeous, so I don’t speak for people like Jenna Talackova, Isis King or Janet Mock. At the same time, despite my horrible, awful voice which I hate with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, I somehow manage to pass most of the time, so I don’t speak for trans women who don’t pass at all. I am quite certain that I don’t even speak for all American diabetic geeky trans lesbian writers of Irish descent who pass fairly well but aren’t exactly supermodels, wear glasses, use makeup only on rare occasions, keep pink-maned unicorns and purring tribbles on their desk, and dye their hair increasingly vivid shades of red with each passing year.
I really don’t know how else to say this. Everything I say here, on Twitter, practically everywhere is my opinion. Period. It’s not me trying to speak for anyone else, even if I do think I’m in the majority on some of this stuff. It’s certainly not any attempt on my part to be some noble white knight in shining armor riding to the rescue of the defenseless. I talk about these things because they piss me off. Because they impact my life and my well-being. Because I want to live in a world that pisses me off a lot less. That’s it. My thoughts sometimes agree with high-minded ideals of what the world should be. Some people praise that. Some people think it’s bullshit. And as for me?
I’m not going to promise you nobility, wisdom, or even kindness. This is my oath: I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as I perceive it. I promise to offer my opinion couched in my own terms, and nothing more. I solemnly swear I am up to no good. That’s it.
So let’s talk about the latest thing that’s pissed me off.
As a writer, I am painfully aware of the power of words. This is why I prefer ‘heterosexual’ to ‘straight’ and ‘cisgender’ to ‘normal’ or ‘biologically male/female’ or ‘genetically male/female’ or whatever else. If you don’t like the words heterosexual or cisgender, or any attempt to label you as anything other than ‘normal,’ if these attempts make you feel alienated and marginalized, then perhaps you should stop and consider how the rest of us feel pretty much all the time. ‘Normal’ is a value judgment. Yes, it is also a cold, clean statistical term, but in a social context, it tends to be highly charged. More to the point: very few people are using these words as slurs. They’re using them simply as descriptors. I’m a transsexual lesbian. You’re a cisgender heterosexual man. Zie’s a genderqueer person who is generally attracted to men. And so on, almost literally ad infinitum.
Despite what your teachers or your parents told you, words can bludgeon. Words can cut. Words can wound. They can also be precursors to abuse and physical violence. As a survivor of bullying, I know this very, very well. And when these violent, horrible, threatening, demeaning, degrading words are used carelessly – even as a throwaway joke – it provokes fear. And then it provokes anger, and I think that anger is more than justified.
Here is my blunt, unvarnished opinion: cisgender people shouldn’t use the word tranny. Nor should they use shemale, or he-she, or whatever the hell else. Even if they’re ‘just’ telling a joke, it’s wrong. If they’re trying to reclaim it, well, it’s simply not their place. It is not my place as a white person to use the word n****r. It is not my place as someone who does not identify as a gay man to use the word f****t. If you’re not trans, it is not your place to use the slurs screamed at us as we’re beaten, or slapped on porn DVDs that exploit our bodies for your titillation, or turned into the punchlines of cheap jokes that rely solely on bigotry and shock value. (And I would argue that this is even true of drag performers who do not otherwise identify as trans – though they are generally grouped under the trans umbrella, there is a difference between wearing gender as a costume and actually experiencing the cognitive dissonance inherent to the trans experience. Then again, there certainly are drag queens and drag kings who also identify as trans in other respects.)
I am not, in theory, opposed to reclaiming slurs. I identify quite happily as queer (and I am indeed queer in many, many respects). I have, in the past, participated in the Boston Dyke March (though I don’t really use the word outside of that context, even when identifying myself). I’ve spoken before about my complicated relationship with the word bitch, and while I try to avoid gendered insults myself, I don’t really object to others applying it to me in a friendly or teasing sort of way. In practice…I find the slurs against trans people to be a bit too painful. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with them. I’m not alone in this. The conversation around the idea of reclaiming these words is a complicated one, and it’s full of internal politics that are frankly difficult to articulate to a general audience. But despite my discomfort, I’m not really going to object trans people using these words. (Though I would look askance at trans men using words like shemale, which have generally been applied to trans women…but now we’re edging close to those internal politics.) At the same time, I am going to object, strenuously, to cisgender people trying to ‘reclaim’ these words for us. It doesn’t matter what their intentions are. I’m sorry, but when you are part of a class that has systematically oppressed and assaulted a disadvantaged community, you don’t get to arbitrarily turn the tools of that oppression into compliments or friendly jibes. Imposing a new order from the outside is just another form of oppression.
And jokes using those slurs, or relying solely on the “She’s a MAN, baby!” brand of humor? They’re not harmless. Honestly, I don’t even think they’re remotely funny. As I said on Twitter the other day, they’re basically the equivalent of a three-year-old running up to you with an incoherent joke, finishing it with “POOP!” and running off while laughing hysterically. It’s cute when you’re three. It’s less cute when you’re a middle-aged self-styled comedy writer. And most of us would punish or at least chastise that three-year-old in a heartbeat if the punchline to their joke was, say, “N****R!” Humor relies upon a certain amount of shock value. But when shock value is all you have – when, in fact, the shock value is based on assumptions about your audience that may not even be true (such as the assumption that no one there is trans, or no one there has trans loved ones, or everyone there would find sex or even casual contact with a trans person disgusting) – then your so-called humor is fundamentally flawed.
But, also, at best these jokes amount to pointing and laughing at people who aren’t like you mainly because they aren’t like you, and that makes them weird and freaky. At worst, they denigrate people for something that’s not actually wrong, not their fault, maybe not even within their control. Or they even incite violence.
Do I need to say that using these slurs to hurt people is also wrong? I’d hope not. I doubt I’m going to reach the sort of people who would hurl ‘tranny’ at someone in anger. But it’s also wrong to throw those words at people who aren’t trans, as a way of mocking them. It doesn’t necessarily denigrate them. It does denigrate us. When you say that Ann Coulter totally looks like a tranny, the unspoken conclusion is ‘…and that’s terrible’. When you accuse a female athlete of being trans, you’re saying that ‘real’ women couldn’t achieve what they have, and incidentally saying that trans women aren’t real women. And when you use hateful, emotionally charged words like tranny, shemale, etc., you are compounding the insult.
Now, I should offer a few caveats. As a writer, you can certainly write bigoted or ignorant characters – characters who do use these words – without being a bigot yourself. As an actor, you can portray characters who use bigoted language without being a bigot yourself. And not everyone who uses bigoted language or espouses bigoted views is a bad person. They may be speaking out of ignorance or confusion. Those conditions can be remedied. I was very glad to see that Bill Corbett (whose tweets inspired this rant, as well as its precursor on Twitter) has come to understand how hurtful his comments were, and has promised to do better. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all say stupid things and do stupid shit. You pick yourself up, you learn from your mistakes, and you try to do better. That’s all anyone can ask. If you learn that you were wrong but refuse to accept it – if you choose to stay the course, knowing the needless pain and suffering you’re causing – then, yes, you are a bad person.
There is, as Zach Weiner has pointed out, no such thing as a perfect ethical law. But my mother raised me not to hurt people if I could avoid it. Slurs hurt people needlessly. These slurs, specifically, hurt me. I’m asking you all not to use them. That really shouldn’t be a controversial request.
But then, that’s just my opinion.