Transmissions: Tranny, Ban it or own it?

By |2018-01-16T03:31:59-05:00April 29th, 2010|Opinions|

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

A film gets released at the Tribeca film festival, and controversy ensues. A lot of it swirls around the filmmaker’s attempts to put a legitimate veneer over what is best described as a low-budget “transploitation” revenge film – but more anger is leveled over the title: “Ticked-off trannies with knives.”
The filmmaker, openly gay Israel Luna, claims that he asked many about the title, including people who were transgender amongst the films cast and crew. he indicated that no one really had an issue with it. Meanwhile, members of the transgender community point out that “tranny” is a pejorative leveled at them, and any film that uses it in its title is automatically going to be viewed with suspicion at best, anger and revulsion at worse.
Yet this isn’t about the movie, at least not directly. It’s about that one word.
I think I first heard the word “tranny” in reference to transgender people – as opposed to the car part that sits between the transfer case and the drive shaft – sometime in the early 1990s. To be fair, I think i first heard “transy,” which hails from down under, but “tranny” came not long later.
Since then, the word has gained a sort of queer power. It has become the transgender equivalent of “dyke,” “faggot” and – to some – even as reviled as the N-word. It has become such a negative term that using it in the title of a film – amongst other very serious errors on the part of the filmmaker – will lead to calls for bans and boycotts.
Further, some suggest that we should take the term “tranny” out of the hands of those who would seek to oppress us, and take strength from it. Much the same case has been made for “queer,” and “dyke,” amongst others.
Now here’s where things get muddy. I asked around recently amongst both close transgender friends and others within the transgender community at large. I asked if anyone had been called “tranny” in a pejorative manner. I asked if they themselves had used the term to describe themselves and others in the community. I asked if they considered the word to be as bad as many said it was, or if there were worse things out there. I also joined this with my own experience with the word.
As it turned out, only a couple of the folks who I asked had been called a “tranny” in a negative fashion – and even amongst those who had, other terms were more vile to them. Being called a “he-she” or a she-male, for example, or being deliberately referred to by inappropriate pronouns or incorrect names. Many noted being called a “faggot” or other gay pejoratives, or being referred to as a freak. Also, one of the biggies, being assigned the non-pronoun “it.”
Many also claimed to have used the word themselves. Some use it in a self-deprecating manner – something I am very guilty of, I should note, while others might use it amongst friends as a casual but toothless put down.
So this leaves me in a quandary: Can the term be so reviled, while other terms are considered more hurtful and likely far more common? Can it be as bad as it is when we ourselves opt to use it?

More than this, I wonder if – unlike terms like “queer” or the infamous N-word – “trannies” will end up being adopted as a negative term not simply because it had been used in hate speech to begin with, but because people heard over time that it was a bad word and started to use it? Will we now end up being called “trannies” in light of our offense at the term, rather than because of a clearer history of use by those who would mean us harm?
But this brings up back to its use in the title of a certain film, The filmmaker, again, claims that those involved with the film had little to no issue with its use – and maybe they didn’t. My own asking around could further shore up Luna’s argument.
Yet even though I have used it in a self-deprecating fashion, I found myself cringing at its use in the title. The use was out of step and offensive even if there were far worse words that could have been used (“Steamed She-Males with Switchblades,” anyone?). I found myself further bothered with headlines about the controversy that opted to refer to the titular trannies in the same breath as those who were protesting the film. Likewise, I found myself decidedly uncomfortable with the notion that it was non-transgender, straight and gay people picking up this term and using it without thinking of whether or not its use was in any way appropriate.
I guess it comes down to a a bit of common sense. The filmmaker felt it important to ask his cast and crew if the use of the term was acceptable. He could have saved himself a lot of time by realizing that, if he had to ask, then it probably was not. I would contend that he used it because he knew it would cause controversy, and drive more people to see his movie.
Meanwhile, it is up to those of us in the transgender community to look at “tranny” and decide what we want to do with this misshapen word. Should we bury it, reclaim it – such as it is – or take some other road as of yet unknown?

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.