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A stronger community, not stronger words
by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

It is seductively easy to use the slurs that one might otherwise fear being called, isn't it?

Like a seemingly endless string of hard right-wing, anti-gay politicians and preachers being forced out of their closets, it takes little work to find transgender people trying to denigrate one another using the same sort of language one might view as hate speech if it wasn't another example of horizontal hostility.

While I'm sure that any community can point to its own examples, I oftentimes feel that the transgender community is particularly susceptible to this and other forms of self-sabotage. In the world of identity politics, it is very common for us to eat our own.

Take for example the recent dustup over the term "tranny." A term that originally came out of drag circles as a slightly-skewed form of endearment, the term is now bandied about as hate speech rivaling the "N" word. Transgender groups and individuals have spoken out about its use, and GLAAD has gone so far as to asterisk out letters less anyone accuse them of being bigoted.

One of the concerns I have with this ongoing issue is simple: by censoring it out of our speech, hiding letters, and building the term into the worst thing since Mark Fuhrman spoke at the O.J. Simpson trial, we give the word power. We only serve to make it worse than it ever should be, and far beyond what it was ever intended to be.

Now I'm not going to champion the use of the term. Language evolves, and while the original uses and meanings of the word have merit - and people still use these terms in the same way today - I also know there are people who have faced the word "tranny" spoken in hate.

Perhaps some day it will be reclaimed much like "queer" was in recent years - or maybe it will become as antiquated as phrases like "autogynephile" is today.

Yet in the midst of the kerfuffle about the use of "tranny," I've also seen transgender people out others, using language meant to hurt.

Misgendering is a common tactic, particularly if one wants to somehow claim they're more "man" or "woman" than another. Transsexuals get labeled as crossdressers in an attempt to deride their lives and identities. The word "pervert" gets bandied about, again to try and claim that one's choice of identity is somehow inferior and twisted compared to another's.

It's as if all these good people, after so many years of being attacked for their own identity choices, have decided that the only way to beat 'em is to join 'em. Rather than being strong in their own identity, they're opting to buoy themselves up on the shoulders of those they tear down.

Yet - like Audre Lorde said about racism in the feminist movement – "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." When one attempts to strip another transgender person's identity from them, or opts to cast doubt on their "realness," all you have succeeded in doing is aiding those who would seek to do the same to you. You've said that it is somehow acceptable to question anyone's gender identity -- including your own.

I mean, it's easy to toss around pejoratives, especially onto people you don't know personally. Maybe, for a moment, you can feel smug - yet in the end, those same pejoratives still hang over you, dripping their venom.

Like I said above, we are in danger of turning one term into something much worse, and much stronger, that it was ever intended. By the same token, attacking ourselves, misgendering each other, and attacking our gay and lesbian allies for their own gender presentations will only serve to make such attacks stronger.

The key here is not to learn to "use the master's tools." Rather than turning around and using the words you fear and hate, let those words hold no power over you.

I'm not going to simplify this down to the level of "sticks and stones." The level of pain and rage that has grown out of the arguments about the use of "tranny" tell me that there are people out there for whom names do indeed hurt them. That said, one could learn and grow, and end up in a place where that term - or any other - does not sting.

It's not easy. I know that - particularly when one is just edging out of the closet door - even the slightest glance can feel like a mortal wound. We're not supposed to stay at that stage though.

At the end of the day, each person needs to deal with their own demons, and every time we tear down someone else with the words they themselves fear, all one accomplishes is feeding their own demons.  

Just don't do it: face your demons instead. Rob them of their power to harm.

In the end, the only people who can police one's identity are themselves. We should never feel we have the power to claim that some other person is not "man" or "woman" enough, or call into question their identity or expression. That should be obvious - doubly so if you expect others to accept your own expression or identity at face value.

In the end, it boils down to basic civility. As we reach the end of this year, and head into the seasonal holiday festivities, perhaps this is a good time to remember this. It will make you a stronger person, and help build a stronger community.

Gwen Smith never thought she'd put Audre Lorde and Mark Furhman in the same column. You can find her on the web at


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