THE BLOG
09/20/2013 10:45 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The 'T' Word

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Hey, can we have a conversation about the word "tranny"?

It's a word that is generally considered dehumanizing and offensive when referring to transgender people, like the "N" word for a person of color, or the "F" word for a gay man. But there it was in headlines last week in the story about DJ Mister Cee, who'd been outed as having had sex with a transgender prostitute (see "Is That You Boo? Mister Cee DRAGGED Out The Closet By Alleged Tranny Lover Who Taped Their Encounter??? [Video]"). There it was in a Daily Beast interview with actor Jared Leto about his performance as a transsexual woman in the new movie Dallas Buyers Club. (Writer Marlow Stern's first question: "How did you summon your inner tranny for this role?") And there it was, virtually everywhere, when Chelsea Manning came out as trans last month, causing editors from The Huffington Post to NPR to go running to their copies of the AP Stylebook for help. Politico's Dylan Byers actually wrote a smart article about the challenge, titled "Manning Switch Challenges Style Editors," which you'll have to admit was putting it mildly.

Still, even among folks who ought to know better, the "T" word still gets plenty of use. There are a lot of reasons that this is the case, but I suspect that the core of the issue is that many simply people fail to take trans men's and women's humanity very seriously. As a result, in the hearts of such people, there's not much of a sense that insulting us comes at any particular cost.

But it does come at a cost. It's a word thrown around with careless disregard in order to belittle people, as in the egregious phrase "hot tranny mess," a coinage popularized by designer Christian Siriano in 2008. And while Siriano later claimed he meant no harm, it's inconceivable that anyone would say, for instance, "hot ['N' word] mess" or "hot ['F' word] mess."

I have been on the receiving end of the word, and I can tell you that its capacity to wound is profound. In 2007, for instance, when I played myself on several episodes of a popular ABC soap opera, a conservative Christian publication titled their derisive story, "All My Tranny Children," a phrase I am pretty sure they did not intend as a compliment.

That hurt takes place even when writers mean no harm. Gawker titled its coverage of Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner's transition "Tranny Sportswriter Lookin' Good!" Penner committed suicide two years later, in 2009, not in direct response to this article, of course, but surely in part because his transition, in such a hostile culture, proved unendurable.

The use of the word is made more complicated by the fact that some people in the transgender community use the word themselves, in a manner reminiscent, perhaps, of the way the "N" word is used by some African Americans. Younger people, in my experience, as well as people in the drag community, are more comfortable using it than transsexuals. For some trans folks, it's an attempt to reclaim a slur and redefine it with pride and ownership. RuPaul, America's most famous drag queen, uses it with abandon; so does Kate Bornstein, our most respected genderqueer activist.

Actor Lance Bass landed himself in hot water in 2011 after using the term on an episode of Access Hollywood Live; in apologizing for his use of the term later, he said he'd had no idea that it was a slur, in part because he'd heard the term used not only by RuPaul but by Christian Siriano as well.

But there's a difference between a member of a marginalized group reclaiming a term and others using it to hurt those same individuals. As our knowledge of transgender experience grows and trans men and women take on a more public presence, it's less and less forgivable for people to say they had no idea.

Americans have a good track record on their ability to change the way we refer to minority groups. I grew up in the 1960s hearing a wide range of phrases that most people would avoid today. That's one of our strengths as a nation: our ability, over time, to include more and more Americans into the fabric of our culture. A big way that happens is by changing the language we use to refer to other people.

Nomenclature concerning transgender men and women can be confusing, though, because the acceptable discourse for talking about us is still evolving. "Transgender" itself is meant to be an umbrella term that includes a wide variety of gender-variant individuals, including (depending on whom you ask) transsexuals, cross dressers, drag queens and genderqueer people, just to name a few. Some people bristle at the term "transgender," though, feeling that referring to such a wide range of identities through a single descriptor does more harm than good and creates more confusion than clarity. Trying to keep track of the many nuances of trans identity can make cisgender allies throw up their hands in confusion. (You knew that "cisgender" is the opposite of "transgender," didn't you, just as "straight" is the opposite of "gay"?)

There's time to work all that out. In the meantime, though, I tend to follow the rule my mother taught me: Call people by the names they prefer, as a sign of both respect and humility. That means that unless you're a member of the transgender community, the only time the word "tranny" should cross your lips is when referring to the thing under the hood of your car that might be creating torque converter problems.

Once, early in transition, I found myself wandering around L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine, wearing a wig that would have been better off used as a home for red squirrels. If you didn't know better, you might well have called me some kind of a "hot mess." I still remember the huge eyes with which a small child, holding her mother's hand, viewed me as I drew near. "Mommy," said the child. "Who is that?"

To this day I am grateful for the mother's reply. "That," she said, "is a human being."

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