Is “trannie” a “four-letter word”?

Don’t worry, I can count–yes, trannie is literally a seven-letter word.  But is it also, more figuratively, a “four-letter” word, a word with the profanity-level of the “F-word” or the history and toxicity of the “N-word”?

Since Christian Siriano’s repeated use  of the word “trannie” on Project Runway and SNL’s subsequent parodies of him and the show, the word has become a trite catchall pejorative.  Through its application and (over)use on theses shows,the word has taken on new meaning.  Instead of denoting transvestism (dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex) as it had for about a century, the word in these contexts has become a buzz term for a fashion faux pas.  Everyone from high school students to celebrity gossip columnists has latched onto the word so that its usage has extended beyond the crossdressed to the misdressed and underdressed–and really to anyone who looks, speaks, or behaves unkempt, subpar, or socially inappropriately.  On sites like Perez Hilton’s, Lindsay Lohan, Rupaul, and Chaz Bono are likely all to be labeled “trannies.”  Is this fair to the latter two? And, no, I’m not asking jokingly.

In a sort of surprising and twisted way, the new usage of “trannie” simply represents a variation on a discourse dating back to the 19th c. at least that identifies trans- appearance, behavior, and desire as ‘abnormal’ or polluted because it does not fit within the heterosexual paradigm or uphold sex-derived gender binaries.  It sort of says not only are you sexually deviant but you look like sh–, too.

The new use of “trannie” also presents something of a ‘queer quagmire,’ if you will.  While one might come to the defense of the word’s new usage and argue that it is cheeky or playful or in some ‘queer’ way disarms the word or points to the trannie in everyone, I remain wary of  the implications of the word’s new usage for the cause of transgendered people today.  For one thing, some transpeople who want so badly ‘to pass,’ don’t want someone else coming along and pointing out their ‘trans-ness,’ the seams in their presentation of self.

The evolution and proliferation of “trannie” in the 21st century risks dulling society’s sensitivity to its darker, discriminatory connotations and overlooking its power to denigrate, offend, or wound transpeople.  Through my own friendships and collaborative projects with transpeople, I have come to realize how sensitive a matter language can be.  Call one transperson a “trannie” and they’ll embrace you; call another transperson a “trannie” and they’ll tell you to fu– off.  Generalizing about the transpopulation is risky business: One label does not fit all–and this, of course, applies to all human beings, but bears reiteration with regard to transpeople because they are still fighting for basic human rights in many senses.

As awareness, compassion, and acceptance of the transgender population grows, will we see a time when “trannie” becomes the “T-word”–a verbal shift that would indicate the word is so (potentially) offensive that it ought not be spoken outright, but instead whispered or spelled or abbreviated?

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Comments
2 Responses to “Is “trannie” a “four-letter word”?”
  1. CL Jahn says:

    My own perspective is uniquely skewed: “Tranny” was my great-grandmother’s nickname; it was short for Transylvania. She was named for her mother, and we don’t know who her mother was named for. When my great-great grandmother was born in 1845 – years before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula – few people had heard of the place.

    Back to the subject; the shifts in acceptable usage have long been a source of confusion; consider this chain of adjectives: colored, negro, black, person of color. All were initially considered the polite term, and now all are considered at least slightly derogatory. As human beings seek to better define themselves, they cast off older labels with a vengeance.

  2. nstodard says:

    Chris,

    Thanks for sharing the anecdote and your thoughts… your anecdote about your great-grandmother makes me think about the name Fanny, which is a nickname for Frances and also British slang for vagina…

    Best,
    N

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