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Anti-Trans Slurs and Drag: Who Exactly Is Transgender, and Does It Matter?

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With Michigan soon becoming the latest state to provide marriage equality, and with 54 percent of the American population now living in states where such rights are or soon will be available, the issue of sexual orientation is becoming banal, which is as it should be. Allowing persons to marry someone of the same sex is part of the normalization of gay persons; far from being radical progress, it's actually quite conservative, buttressing a highly conservative social institution.

Within the LGBT community's activist sphere, marriage is also becoming increasingly boring, with few debates or arguments arising on the topic. Where the fireworks exist and are expanding is on the issue of gender: gender identity, gender expression, and gender roles. The more fundamental issues of sex and gender are now the locus of debate, and sides are being taken that are exposing increasingly contentious ideological positions.

This arose last week on one of my lists, where it was mentioned that RuPaul was using the slurs "tranny" and "shemale." RuPaul is the drag queen and host of RuPaul's Drag Race, and he identifies as a gay man. According to folk etymology, "drag" is an acronym for "dressed as girl," though there have long been drag kings as well as drag queens. And while there have been trans women who have performed drag, either as a form of self-expression and self-actualization or as a means of making a living in a hostile world (or both), most trans women have spent little time with and do not live within the gay male drag culture -- or so I thought, until it was pointed out to me that trans persons of color often do partake deeply in such culture. While I knew of the balls of years past, I didn't know that ball culture had persisted and flourished.

While many trans women take offense at the words "tranny" and "shemale," there is a generational divide on this issue, as well as a racial one, with some younger trans people embracing the terms as a form of empowerment. This is analogous to the long-standing debate about the "N" word in the black community and the signals that its use sends to the outside world.

I've discussed this before and concluded that because I believe in self-determination, I should support the right of anyone to define themselves in any way that they like. They can use any language they choose. I expanded on this when talking about Facebook's consideration of multiple gender identities. However, just as freedom of speech in this country is generally construed very broadly, it is not absolute and is not acceptable when it impinges on the rights of others. The problem arises when that language is broadcast publicly, as it is with RuPaul, and then creates a perception among those in the general public who might be ignorant of the nuances and subtleties that are considered dangerous by many who are so defined.

The schism that is uncovered by this debate is between the gay male and trans female communities. It arose very recently in the wake of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor being given to Jared Leto for what was viewed by many as a very drag-queen-like portrayal of a trans woman, Rayon, in Dallas Buyers Club. These communities have never really been politically comfortable with one another, and some of that discomfort is now erupting publicly. It's evident in my campaign for the Maryland State Senate, and it is evident on these LGBT lists. Unfortunately, the drive for marriage equality has papered over this problem, because the campaign for marriage equality ignores the issue of gender expression in all but its most basic terms. Yes, conservatives often ask, with a sneer, "Well, who is the man, and who is the woman?" Oftentimes the marriages are between two people who present identically, gender-wise. Regardless, we don't talk about it, but on a very basic level being gay is much more than simply about who you love; it is about who you are as well.

This is why the current debate on the medical and psychological treatment of young trans girls is so emotionally fraught. Experience shows that most female-presenting children who had been assigned male at birth and appear for treatment ultimately grow up to be gay male adults. Studies are only now beginning to follow these children longitudinally to help us distinguish the trans girls from the gay boys. However, the fact that this is an issue highlights the fact that being gay is as much an issue of gender expression as it is one of sexual orientation. Most homophobia is directed at the gender nonconformity of gay people, whether or not that nonconformity is manifesting in a relationship or personal expression. And much of it is rooted in misogyny.

Here is where it gets very difficult and complicated. Many people, trans and cisgender alike, view drag performance as misogynistic, but gay men who present more femininely are simply expressing themselves to the world as they see fit. Too many gay men still dismiss trans women -- who are women, and have always been women -- as failed gay men. (See Jim Fouratt and Janice Raymond.) Even those gay men who don't dismiss trans women often fear being associated with trans women because they've internalized Fouratt and imagine that the straight population views them as it does trans women. What gay man wants to be perceived as a woman without the courage to proceed through transition? That's the flip side of imposing Fouratt's philosophy on trans women, denigrating an elemental sense of gender identity by projecting it as a cover for self-loathing homophobia.

Many trans persons are not completely secure, and that's no wonder, what with the very high rates of unemployment, homelessness, assault and multiple other forms of discrimination experienced in the trans community. Yet many gay men (and women) are still just as insecure, because marriage equality, while profoundly changing the culture, has yet to percolate down to the lived reality of so many, particularly those who are gender-nonconforming.

The challenge will be to reconcile these now-erupting self-expressions to enable us to create a world where we all treat each other with respect. One interesting suggestion I've heard would be a convening of a diverse group of drag queens and members of the trans female community to get to know one another and discuss these issues. And, for starters, it might help for someone to talk with RuPaul and explain how many trans women really don't want to overcome their distaste for the slurs "tranny" and "shemale." As one who was slurred as a cover girl for the extremist Traditional Values Coalition back in 2008, I join in asking for simple respect and civility.