04/20/2012 10:51 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016


I work in words. I write music, too, but the words almost always come first for me. Sometimes they come in the shape of phrases or titles, and sometimes I find myself possessed by a general idea, the expression of which requires me to find the words through a painful, drawn-out process that feels a lot like mining a whole mountain for a nugget of gold. Finding the right word is especially important in a song, where you have only three to five minutes to send your emotional arrow to its target. Each one counts: the sound of it, the feel of it in your mouth, its intent, its meaning, and all the baggage it carries with it. When my son revealed to me that he is transgender, the subject of words came up almost immediately in our talks -- long, heartfelt talks in which our roles were suddenly reversed and he was guiding me, ever gently, through an often bewildering world.

First there were pronouns. The words "he" and "she" are deceptively simple, but they carry tremendous weight. Getting the pronouns right with a trans person is a matter of respect, an acknowledgment of his or her most basic identity. I saw this in the joy and relief in my own son's face the first time I referred to him as "him." Those tiny two- and three-letter words say, "I see you as you see yourself." At best, the wrong pronoun can cause a transgender person to have feelings of dysphoria and anxiety; at worst, it can put him or her in immediate danger.

Beyond the pronouns lies a minefield of words, some coined by the transgender community itself; some, like "queer," reclaimed from their former status as slurs; and some that, in the words of my son, "hit a visceral, traumatized place in the person at whom they are directed." It wasn't always obvious to me which words were painful and which were respectful. Clearly, I needed an education, and my son was my teacher.

Having been thus sensitized, I was startled by an acquaintance's recent use of the word "tranny." This was not a close friend, not someone who knew my son's story. It was a misguided attempt at humor, not a hateful rant. And yet. I longed to find some way to tell her how painful this word is to so many people. Kelly Osbourne found herself publicly reprimanded for using the same word recently, and she subsequently published an apology on The Huffington Post. A similar misstep produced a similar response from Lance Bass, who is gay and therefore, in the minds of many, ought to know better. But this particular word, it seems, is only now coming out of the closet.

Recently I wrote a song called "Idlewild," in which I used another, similarly incendiary word, known in decent company as the "n-word." It is, I hope, unnecessary for me to add that my use of this word in a song was undertaken after much thought. Like "tranny," it's an ugly word. Unlike "tranny," it's one everyone knows is offensive.

There are good arguments to be made for the use, or prohibition from use, of either of these words, depending on who's saying them. Such a word begs reclamation by its victims as an act of empowerment. Some would say that only its victims have the right to use it, and some would argue that point vehemently. I don't pretend to have the moral authority to enter into such an argument. As an artist I chose the "n-word" because in the context of the song (a song about inner and outer worlds I inhabited as a child in the mid-1960s, when the murder of leaders in the civil rights movement seemed to be happening on an almost weekly basis) there was no other word to use. The '60s were many things, but they were violent and racially explosive. To use any other word would have been a lie. But it would also be a lie to say it didn't haunt me.

I anticipated some repercussions, but on the whole it seemed to be accepted in the artistic context in which it was used. One critic described it as a "depth charge," which is, I suppose, how it was intended: to arrive at the listener's ear and detonate with all the brutality it carries, the omniscient child-narrator of the song singing it as un-self-consciously as the other words in the same line ("we shoot the commies, and the niggers, and the Viet Cong"). And that's exactly the point: to shock. Because how else do we really remember the harsh reality of the 1960s? How else do we tell the truth about it?

I haven't yet found a way to tell my acquaintance how hurtful her comment was. I suppose I'm writing this blog partly to try to make amends. And as a writer, I'm not in favor of banning any words. They exist, and to pretend that they don't is to bury our heads in the sand. I'm even in favor, cautiously, of using those words that inflame when the context demands that we acknowledge their power to hurt. Glossing over the truth is dangerous business and only leads us back to repeating a dark past. But we can and should put to rest the argument that words are all created equal and fall under some sort of protective umbrella of free speech that gives us license to use them without regard to context. We have an inherent responsibility to consider that what seems benign or academic to us may be traumatic or even dangerous to another. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves. Every word counts.