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I Guess I Should Stop Letting People Call Me 'Tranny'

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Nana Kofi Acquah via Getty Images

There's a tendency among my friends and others who see me in my element to refer to me as a "tranny," one of the words that have recently been banished from the gay lexicon (the others being "she-male," "he-she," and "ladyboy"). For some background, I don't identify as transgender but as a cisgender gay man. That said, I happen to be most comfortable while sporting a pair of 5-inch heels, makeup, and some sort of gender-neutral outfit. I've often enjoyed my male identity, but from a young age I've reveled in my femininity, quietly enjoying any time I'm referred to as "she," either by accident or on purpose.

Personally, I've always regarded being called a "tranny" not as a slur but as a term of endearment. Growing up in Philadelphia, close to the origin of the ball and house scenes, it wasn't that strange to hear words like "tranny," "she-male," and "he-she" being used in that way within the queer community of color. It was especially popular with the predominantly black and Latino kids at the Attic Youth Center. You could also hear it from the older trans matrons who worked the community tables at Outfest and Pridefest, and even occasionally from the trans sex workers you'd pass while walking home from the Gayborhood. Out of all the lingo, it's "tranny" that I remember most vividly. It wasn't just a word but a cultural moniker celebrating a certain type of effeminacy. Though I never sought it, I wore it as a badge of pride. It was coded speech between queer people of color that few white LGBT people noticed or even understood at the time. It was part of an underground language that also included words like "shade" and "reading," which have since gone mainstream.

Even then, "tranny" was a bit special. Like "she-male," it felt like a word that belonged specifically to my community, much like "nigga" for the black community. All three are contentious words that are policed heavily and breed confusion about who is and isn't allowed to use them. It's probably easier to look at "tranny" and "she-male" next to words like "queer" and "faggot." All four have been used by bigots and hatemongers to dehumanize LGBT people. But over time, the adjective form of "queer" has been embraced by academia (as in "queer studies," a major academic field) and from there our larger culture (as in "Queerty.com"), to the point that "queer community" may eventually replace "LGBT community" as the preferred umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities. It still has a lingering sting, but the gradual reclaiming process has made it more bearable.

Meanwhile, "faggot" hasn't had the same luck. For many, it's still too raw and triggering for political, let alone casual, use. And over the past several weeks, many people have expressed similar sentiments about "tranny" and "she-male," culminating in last week's decision by the producers of RuPaul's Drag Race to eliminate the use of these words on the show. I'm not sure I completely agree with their decision, but I can understand it. I can empathize with the hurt and frustration that viewers might have felt seeing the show casually use words that many consider to be anti-transgender slurs. It must be like the unsettling feeling I experienced when I saw Madonna use the word "nigga" -- and then when I saw white gay men coming to her defense. (The larger gay community, including GLAAD, was silent on that controversy, by the way. I guess they thought it was outside their wheelhouse.)

The queer community is its very own cultural melting pot, a hodgepodge of people of different races, classes, sexual orientations and gender identities. And we're expected to all just get along? That's absurd. This nearly endless diversity can make our community fantastic, but it can also make it dangerous to try to take a one-size-fits-all approach to anything. Over the last couple of weeks, I couldn't help but notice that the dialogue around Drag Race and "tranny" has been dominated by a few very specific voices, voices coming from people who don't look like me or any of the trans people I grew up with. Now, that doesn't make their voices wrong, just different. But if we're going to have a conversation about the queer community, let's have everyone at the table.

Moving forward, there's plenty to examine and consider when it comes to the recent Drag Race decision, including the fact that after six years, the show has truly gone from underground to mainstream, and there might be a host of business incentives that we aren't privy to that encourage the producers to want to avoid offending anyone. This decision is a reminder that as queer culture continues to be integrated into the larger culture (largely as a result of the growing acceptance of gay marriage), it will inevitably lose some of the more subversive idiosyncrasies that have made it so unique.

Moreover, it's important to be conscious of when we are cherry-picking issues and avoiding larger initiatives in favor of small, hollow victories -- like toppling a Mozilla CEO. There are loud voices in our community that say that these campaigns against the more "unseemly" or "unconventional" facets of our community are a way toward broader social acceptance. It's not. It's the way toward even more infighting, fragmentation and ultimately dissolution. It empowers those who truly demean and threaten our community. I believe that when we're faced with those kinds of threats, there are smarter battles to be fought than a media campaign against a word that has given many disenfranchised trans people a way to create community and show solidarity. #Tranny