RuPaul and The Problem With The Big 'Tranny' Debate

Living in this country, it’s already hard enough being a minority but it’s doubly problematic when your specific community is lumped together with other oppressed minority groups and you find these communities in conflict with each other. It’s a predicament that has plagued black people, brown people, women, people of various classes for many years. And now America is seeing it play out within the LGBTQIQA community (Seriously, that is too many groups lumped together) thanks to gay drag icon RuPaul’s ongoing battle with the transgender community over the use of terms like “tranny” and “she-male” in “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Just to give a recap, for several months now “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has come under fire from the transgender community for using words that were considered anti-trans slurs, like "tranny" and "she-male." The controversy grew so large that producers for the show apologized to the trans community and edited out a mini-challenge called “Female or She-male” from the season. They also pledged to stop using trans slurs as well.

Recently, RuPaul was asked how he feels about the controversy and he fired back at what he called a “fringe” group within the trans community who are simply looking to play victim and police others when it comes to language.

“Does the word ‘tranny’ bother me? No. I love the word ‘tranny,” RuPaul said.  “No, it is not the transsexual community. These are fringe people who are looking for story lines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we’re dealing with. It’s not the trans community, because most people who are trans have been through hell and high water and they know — they’ve looked behind the curtain at Oz and went, ‘Oh, this is all a fucking joke. But, some people haven’t … You know, if your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a fucking hard-ass road.”

“But don’t you dare tell me what I can do or say. It’s just words. Yeah, words do hurt … You know what? … You need to get stronger. You really do, because you know what, if you think, if you’re upset by something I said, you have bigger problems than you think,” he added.

Not so surprisingly, his words caused an uproar among the LGBT communities, and even some of his drag race alumni weighed in on the matter. Season 3 contestant and transgender superstar Carmen Carrera, who previously criticized the show for its use of trans slurs, slammed RuPaul for what she claimed was insensitivity to the trans community.

"This battle of respect is something very real to me," Carrera previously stated in a Facebook post. “I've watched my friends get called out in public for not being passable as female and hurt big time about it, I've watched my friends in the news that got murdered and never investigated, I've watched my friends believe all they can do in life for money is escort. I'm very passionate and believe that every time the LGBT community is featured in the media, people are learning about us. Now more than ever. My thing is, teach them the good of who we are that way it will cause a ripple effect and open the doors for respect and then ultimately lead to more people loving us."

However, Season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio fired back at Carrera and implied that the she should be silent and grateful that Ru gave her a platform to superstardom.

“There’s all this madness about shit we can say and shit we can’t say…it’s not that fucking serious. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t know who the fuck Carmen Carrera was if she didn’t fucking get on ‘Drag Race.’ Maybe she should stick what’s left of her dick and shove it in her mouth and shut the fuck up,” Del Rio said at a recent performance.

Ru was also supported by famous transgender activist Justin Bond, who argued in a Facebook post that “tranny” should be considered an empowered word of endearment in the LGBT community.

“In lieu of standing up to the haters who seek to diminish us and our accomplishments and standing UNITED IN PRIDE IN OUR DIVERSITY these thoughtless “word police” instead go on the attack and achieve easy victories by harassing, silencing and shaming members of their own community and the allies who are thoughtful and sensitive enough to the reasons and feelings behind their anger that they are willing to listen and -as usual, blame themselves and make the changes because it’s just EASIER to “evolve” back into silent, bullied shame. What they fail to recognize is that by banishing the use of the word TRANNY they will not be getting rid of the transphobia of those who use it in a negative way. What it does do is steal a joyous and hard-won identity from those of us who are and have been perfectly comfortable, if not delighted to BE TRANNIES, but the fact is WE ARE NOT GOING AWAY. In case you didn’t know it WE’RE TOUGH!”

And those three opinions exemplify the strong arguments that are being hurled across the board over the use of trans-focused words.

On one hand, it’s understandable why queens like RuPaul and Bianca feel such a strong ownership of the word “tranny.” Before the Western world even had an inkling of an understannding of what a trasngender person is, tranny was a word used to describe drag queens and anyone else dressed as the opposite sex. For some in the older generation, it became a word of pride, being used not only in conversation but also as a powerful descriptor when advertising for shows. 

But like the way many words change over time, the context and definition of tranny has changed as our society has opened its eyes and mind to the existence of transgender people. What was once just used as an umbrella term to describe anyone who used fashion to break gender norms has now been used, mainly in a comical or offensive way, to describe members of the transgender community. And although some in the LGBT world feel a sense of ambivalence or pride about the word and others like it, clearly there are those who are offended by it's use.

I'm not a transgender person and I've not done drag enough times to call myself anyones drag superstar (I was quite BEAT though), so I'll never fully understand what it feels like to be in their shoes or be called a tranny. But as a black gay man, I look at a word like tranny and the way it is dividing communities of people and it reminds me of the impact that words like "faggot" and "nigger/nigga" have had on my own respective communities. 

As minorities, or rather oppressed groups, we know that those words were born from hate and used to brainwash us into thinking we were less than human, less than worthy of life, love and knowledge. And for many of our ancestors, and, sadly, for many of our friends and family, those words were that last that many of us heard as we were brutally victimized in hate crimes and lynchings. 

Unlike most other offensive words in the English language, those two are drenched in the blood of millions. They're so scarlet stained that even though both the black and gay communities, more so the black community, have taken their respective words of hate and tried to turn them into terms of endearment, they still bring about feelings of pain, frustration and loss when said in the wrong way, or by someone of the wrong race, or to a little black or gay child who undoubtedly will have that word forced upon them, even by his or her own people.

I understand the reasoning behind wanting to reclaim a word of hate and I also understand the reasoning behind wanting to ban it as well. I even understand the reasoning behind wanting to take power away from all of those words and focus on the forces behind them. I think that everyone must choose to handle those words in the way that works best for their own spirit.

But what I have trouble understanding is how a person, especially a minority, can tell people of another minority group that they're weak for being angry about hearing a word used to sometimes degrade and dehumanize them. 

I believe that RuPaul has done a lot to improve the lives of the LGBT community especially when it comes to giving us representation in the mainstream world, and superstars like Carrera have many reasons to praise RuPaul for that. But just like I don't owe any other black person my silence about the word "nigger/nigga", or any other gay person about the word "faggot", and I especially don't owe anyone outside of those two communities my silence, no transgender person owes anyone their silence about the word tranny and how it makes them feel.

I think that, as minorities, we often forget that we don't all sit equally on the bottom of the social totem pole. There's a privilege to being a biological man or woman, especially a man, and being able to play in gender and revert back to your biologicial form at will when you take off the clothes, the fake dicks, the wigs and the makeup. It's easier to shrug off painful words when they don't have to apply to you at all times. But it's a hell of a lot harder when there is no drag, no mask, no act and you are simply transgender. There is no easy escape or solace then. You have to actively and willfully find strength and power in yourself everyday to rise above the hateful words and actions of others, all while trying not to succumb to the self-hate and esteem issues that such attacks will inevitably cause. And while that doesn't sound too different from the lives of every other minority group, like all of them, there are nuances to that struggle that can only be fully understood if you live it.

And I'm not the only one who shares that sentiment. Of all of the responses to the "Drag Race" controversy, I think the one we can all take to heart is that of Season 6 runner up Courtney Act, respectfully challenged Ru’s words in a Facebook post and explained that we should spend less time fighting each other and more time trying to love each other and end oppression.

“I’m a little surprised by @rupauls recent reaction to trans issues. I understand and apply in my own life the logic about not giving other people power over how I feel, but I am not 1 in 12 trans people in America who will be murdered. As Ghandi said “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” so why doesn’t everybody say “Love?”

If you’re gay, how do you feel about straight people in the media using the word f—-t? If you’re black, how do you feel about white people using the word N#@$^? At some point we agreed that those words are not acceptable, I can’t even type the “N-word,” so much as say it out loud. Why are we so flippant about tranny? I don’t agree with polarizing the argument either way, but I do think we need to overcome the ego, coming from both sides, and have some compassion and consultation so we can move forward. Let’s change the way we are looking at this argument, cause when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

What would be energy better spent right now is focusing on helping trans people improve their quality of life.  Here are some facts I'm sure we all can agree are not acceptable and that we need to come together and bring about positive change:

Transgender facts

1 in 12 transgender people in America is murdered. (This one fact alone is more than enough)

Although social acceptance for transgender people is growing, parents continue to abandon youth with gender-identity issues when their children need them most, advocates say.

49 per cent of transgender people attempt suicide.

Transgender youth account for 18 per cent of homeless people in cities such as Chicago, but researchers estimate fewer than 1 in 1,000 people is transgender.

Transgender youth whose parents pressure them to conform to their anatomical gender report higher levels of depression, illegal drug use, suicide attempts and unsafe sex than peers who receive little or no pressure from parents.

Sources: Guidelines for Transgender Care (2006), Gender Spectrum Education and Training, Families in TRANSition (2008).”

 

Nicholas Harbor

Freelance Journalist, storyteller and blogger for 50 Shades of BLACK

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