By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Transwoman writer Parker Marie Molloy broke the queer corner of the internet recently with her Huffington Post article “Gay Dudes, Can You Just Not?” — wherein she said what’s on so many transwomen’s minds by calling on the drag queen and gay male communities to stop using the anti-trans slur “tr-nny.” Angry, funny, and encyclopedic in its reasoning, the article captures the tone of a long-suffering younger sibling finally saying “enough!” Example: “A common argument in favor of using ‘tranny’ is, ‘But that word is just part of drag culture!’ Here’s my rebuttal: I don’t care.”
You should definitely take the time to read her whole article (Google it). Before doing anything, though, try this experiment she invites readers to conduct in her piece. From her article: “a quick way to see why ‘tranny’ is a slur is to perform a few quick Google Image searches. First, search ‘transgender woman.’ Next, search ‘tranny.’ Notice the difference? Yeah, that’s why I’m not thrilled when someone calls a trans woman a ‘tranny.’”
Got that? Okay, here’s our interview:
PQ: In the transwoman communities I’m a part of, there’s long been grumbling about the drag queen community’s free use of the word “tr-nny.” It was exciting to see you voice this so unequivocally in the Huffington Post. I wonder what kind of feedback you’ve gotten from gay men or drag queens?
PMM: The response to that article has been without a doubt the most intense and divided I’ve ever experienced. The comments section was filled with strong opinions, both in agreement and strong dissent to what I wrote. A handful of gay men took the time to write me some very thoughtful emails, demonstrating a genuine curiosity and willingness to be educated on this topic. All-in-all, I feel as though the reaction was generally positive given that the piece itself accumulated thousands of likes and shares in the first few days alone.
PQ: You make the point that “tr-nny” is almost always uttered during violent hate crimes against transwomen, which to me is the most powerful argument against its use by anyone outside the community. Do you think the drag community and the subset of gay men who use the word are ignorant of that fact, or do you think that that fact itself makes its use “edgy,” and they’ve just found, so far, that they can get away with it?
PMM: Honestly, I can’t say why they use it, as I’m not them. What it seems like, however, is that many of them simply don’t care. I’m not sure whether it’s because they believe they get a free pass when it comes to using the word, or whether it’s simply ignorance on their part in regards to the word’s hateful history.
PQ: I love how you dissected “tr-nny” jokes to show that their premise is that transwomen are somehow “inherently hilarious.” It infuriates me that people like Jon Stewart or Louis CK, who wouldn’t be caught dead being homophobic, trade in that sort of “humor.” Do you think people like them have just never met transwomen, or just assume they can get cheap laughs with those sorts of dehumanizing “jokes”?
PMM: There’s this really amazing Tumblr called Your Moment of Hate that painstakingly highlights every single instance of transphobia on both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” What makes the type of transphobia so brutal is the fact that their use of transphobic language isn’t part of a joke, it is the joke. I watched the premiere of the “Michael J. Fox Show” when it first aired. In the second episode, there was a scene where MJF is talking with one of his co-workers about the wild times they used to have. One part of this scene talks through how MJF’s co-worker had one picked up a cocktail waitress from a bar only to find out that she was “really a man.” That was the entire joke: there is nothing more disgusting than “accidentally” sleeping with a trans woman. To then take it a step further and call a trans woman a “man” is blatantly transphobic.
I could go on for hours about television shows that employ this same technique for laughs. “How I Met Your Mother,” “Mike and Molly,” “Glee,” and “Saturday Night Live” are examples of shows that have made this same exact joke in multiple episodes. The important thing to note here is when these shows use the word “tranny,” they’re using it to describe a very specific kind of person. No, they’re almost never talking about drag queens or men who cross dress; they’re almost universally referring to transgender women/transsexual women like me.
I’m just really sick of being the butt of the joke.
If these people, the writers of these jokes, truly knew any real, live trans women, I bet it would be a lot harder to make these lazy jokes. Honestly, this is why I’ve decided to be so open about my experience as a transgender woman. The battle to be taken seriously as human beings (in my mind, we’re dehumanized) has to begin with an effort to win the hearts and the minds of the public, one at a time.
PQ: Transwomen grow up in an incredibly transmisogynist culture, where we receive relentlessly negative messages about our identities, balanced by almost no positive representation. It makes coming out and affirming ourselves difficult. This is even true of entertainment produced by members of supposed ally groups, like Ryan Murphy’s “Glee” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” as you pointed out. That imbalance, to me, is why these things need to be called out, and why we shouldn’t just “have a sense of humor” about them. What’s your response to people who say we should just “learn to take a joke” because all subcultures are made fun of?
PMM: It’s one thing to be self-deprecating, it’s another to be on the receiving end of near-constant bullying. It’s not the single “joke” that hurts, but rather, the inability to escape the jokes. People watch television and go to the movies as a way to decompress. For those minutes or hours you’re watching something, you’re supposed to be able to put your own worries away, forget about your troubles.
There’s no escaping it. Turn on “Nip/Tuck” and watch a scene featuring what some would consider to be a justifiable beating of a trans woman. Later in the show’s run, there will be a plot line about a mentally unstable trans woman who only transitioned because she wanted to be able to sleep with straight men. Turn on “How I Met Your Mother” and observe Neil Patrick Harris’ character tell someone with a deep voice that they “sound like a shemale.” Watch “South Park” to see transitioning genders compared to someone “thinking that they’re really a dolphin.” Look to “Mike & Molly” to see someone make a disgusted face as someone says “you slept with a tranny!” Turn on MTV’s “Awkward” to hear a character console his friend over the prospect of dating a girl with flaws by saying, “It’s not like she has a dick, right?” (Because dating a trans woman is clearly the most flawed state a human could find themselves).
Watch “Glee” to see a trans woman being denied access to the restroom, and only given access to a private restroom away from the other students (which is not a positive outcome for any trans person) under the conditions that the other students stop twerking. The character on “Glee” (created by multiple GLAAD Award nominee Ryan Murphy, the same man responsible for those abhorrent story lines on “Nip/Tuck”) has been called the following names: he/she, him slash her, Tina Stomach-Turner, Lady Boy, Precious Based on the Novel Barf by Sapphire, and God’s Mistake. All this in addition to being called “tranny” by characters on the show without the same treatment given to those who have used homophobic slurs (homophobic slurs are always called out by other characters).
When you make those jokes, which again, only exist under the premise that trans women are inherently disgusting and therefore hilarious, you’re not “laughing with us.” There is laughter, and it is loud, and directed squarely at us.
PQ: While transwomen and drag queens are often linked and confused in the public imagination, in my experience there’s very little overlap between the two communities. This would seem to make it hard to have a dialogue and education around drag queens’ use of the “t” word. The result is that some people, including gay men, seem to feel a license to use it out of their affinity for drag queens. Do you have any idea how, besides writing great articles like yours, this issue can be resolved moving forward?
PMM: Honestly, I don’t know. I can shout from the rooftops that it’s not okay to call someone a tranny, but the trans population is relatively small. Without the help of others, and as long as gay men like Ryan Murphy feel comfortable defaming us in mainstream entertainment, it’s an uphill battle.
What we need are people who have our backs. We need people willing to call people out when they hear someone say “tranny.” It’s not okay, and as is the case in the above examples, it’s almost universally directed at us in the media.
It’s not a gay man’s word, nor is it a drag queen’s. (Yes, I know, some drag queens are trans, but they’re not by definition. Some lawyers and doctors are trans, too. Profession/hobbies and personal identity are different). Would these gay men be just as accepting if sitcoms all referred to them as the homophobic f-word? No, rightfully so. They proved this last week when Alec Baldwin got caught using that word, costing him his job.
I’m not calling for Ryan Murphy, Neil Patrick Harris, or Dan Savage to lose their job. What I am doing is simply a asking them to be as considerate to trans people as they’d like straight people to be to the gay community.