By Ryan Graham
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law
Lance Bass recently apologized in the Huffington Post for using the word “tranny” on live television. As a self-proclaimed adherent to the Oprah Winfrey philosophy that bigoted pejoratives cannot be reclaimed, I found it difficult to square my association of the t-word with empowerment and my discovery of its use as a transgender slur. Like many, Lance Bass and I associate the t-word with the “flamboyant and hilarious drag queens” who “play on Christopher Street in New York City, some of whom I even call friends.” Lance Bass’ myopic flub demonstrates a larger problem in the LGBT movement: fighting the overrepresentation of gay males at the expense of lesbians, bisexuals, and the trans community.
Many accept the t-word, including musicians and nightlife performers. A self-proclaimed “Super Tranny” rapper named Heaven, in an eponymously named song, sings: “Look b****, I’m a tranny. T-R-A-N-N-Y.” Gay clubs are almost uniformly emceed by drag queens. Some drag queens only dress as women to perform, some live as women, and some chose their gender expression by situation. Many drag queens even conjoin the t-word to make other phrases: “tranny fierce,” a compliment on one’s appearance; or “tranny hot mess,” an insult to one’s appearance. But these uses generally stop at the velvet rope; it would be indefensible to call a transgendered person the t-word at work, at a Starbucks, or walking down the sidewalk midday.
In various times and cities, bars and nightclubs were escapes for people who could not manifest their true identities publicly for fear of harm. The importance of a nighttime community for people feeling alone and abused cannot be understated, but neither should it be overstated. Television and movies have popularized gay nightlife in a manner leading to an over-association in our social consciousness of the LGBT community to gay males who go to clubs in big cities: guys like Lance Bass. Today our community has a stronger voice than ever, but we will be severely handicapped if we allow the stereotyped safe havens of yesteryear to personify our movement and invite people to take our goals less seriously.
Even if the t-word was inoffensive, the varying combinations of gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and biological sex leave the it incapable of identifying anybody except certain drag queens and the occasional Super Tranny rapper. Again, I think Oprah has it right. If a word has been historically pejorative and is associated with the systematic abuse of a community, it has no place in polite conversation. In a debate with Oprah, rapper Jay-Z defended his use of the n-word as having power to remove the pain associated with it. But I believe this is misguided. There should be no such removal, because the pain of those who suffered prejudicial violence by people using those words should not be forgotten; and allowing those words to pass quietly into our vernacular sends an improper signal that we are ready to forget.