After trans adult performer Bailey Jay criticized trans people who object to the use of transphobic slurs in mass media such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, an anonymous person on Tumblr asked me why I took issue with her remarks. My response is reprinted here.
Anonymous asked: Why can’t Bailey Jay just have her feelings about RuPaul? Some consider her (Ru) part of the trans community, others don’t. The idea of a ‘transgender’ community or identity is a recent invention, and many people have the word ‘tranny’ used against them. just my two-cents from a twoc who’s found RuPaul empowering, even if you consider her just a Black man in a (fabulous) dress. Also fuck that last anon, you’re just as pretty as Ru! :P
I appreciate your perspective on this. I don’t consider drag to be something that’s strictly and inherently negative in terms of its consequences for trans people, and I can totally understand how it can serve as a gateway for trans or questioning people to explore gender. So I get how it can be empowering – I had a phase where I had no better way than “drag” to describe what I was doing, and that was a step on the way to figuring myself out.
What I really object to is RuPaul’s various statements about how the difference between drag and trans people is “$25,000 and a good surgeon”, and recently, the overt hostility toward trans people who’ve objected to these particular slurs being regularly used on TV. Were it not for that sort of thing, I otherwise wouldn’t really have a problem with RuPaul, or the others who’ve been involved in this.
If the idea of an overarching trans community is a recent one, then I can see why some of these people might think they’ve been unwillingly drafted into something bigger, and others are now telling them they can’t use their own slang. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “trans umbrella” concept either – there are a lot of serious distinctions between drag performers, recreational crossdressers, people who transition, and everyone else whose differences get erased by a blanket concept of “transgender”.
I try to look at things in light of the different challenges we respectively face – some of us will have to deal with the legal and medical system in the course of expressing our gender, issues with sex-segregated environments, coverage of transition-related treatments, and so on; others will not have to deal with any of this. I think looking at the specifics is more helpful than anyone just deciding to define us together, or define us apart.
But at the same time, I’ve recently seen a lot of these same people – Calpernia Addams, Andrea James, Justin Vivian Bond – suggesting that “transgender” really is such a broad grouping, and a label which they have equal claim to. Looking at how gender-variant people in general have been historically treated, I can see that there’s some truth to this. Bigots often haven’t bothered to distinguish between gender-nonconforming cis people, or drag performers, or crossdressers, or people who transition – to them, every one of us is a “tranny” or “shemale”. They don’t care much for the specifics of our lives and identities and experiences and what the differences may be.
The trans umbrella grouping may be recent, but it seems like the recognition that these are distinct phenomena is also just as recent. The other day, I was reading an article in the New York Times from 2000 about Calpernia Addams. The writer could barely figure out which pronouns to use, whether she was a woman or a “gay man”, the implications of this for her boyfriend’s orientation, and whether they were in a “homosexual” relationship or not.
It was so conceptually muddled that it was obvious the author was conflating so many distinct ideas – but back then, they just didn’t have the language or the models and understandings to articulate this in a more sensible and clear way. It was like that person on Tumblr who was like “Neil Patrick Harris is gay, not cis”, except it was an entire article full of that. And that was just 14 years ago.
I’m just glad that things have become a bit clearer since then – it may not be a perfectly clear split, the lines may be blurry, but it’s not all one identical shade of grey either. And I get how performers like RuPaul can have very different experiences from trans people, while also facing some of the same things, like the slurs and hostility. But I have trouble accepting the logic of: “we’ve been targeted by these slurs, they’ve been targeted by these slurs, they feel fine about these slurs, therefore let’s all continue normalizing these slurs in mass media”.
One imbalance here is that the particular people who are putting their stamp of approval on this language have a great deal of media reach and access. RuPaul has a really popular TV show. Calpernia Addams and Andrea James are advisers on trans portrayals in major Hollywood films. Bailey Jay is probably the single best-known trans adult performer. So they have a disproportionate impact, even when there may be hundreds or thousands more trans people who are really uncomfortable with the casual use of these words. They may not represent our views – but they’ve still ended up representing us to the entire world anyway. There are far fewer trans people with that level of access and popularity who have strongly spoken out against these words.
Another issue is that this has extended far beyond them having their own feelings about these words, about RuPaul, and so on. They also have feelings about us having our own feelings about this. Particularly, when we’ve expressed our discomfort with hearing these slurs all the time, they’ve called us “nutty”, “fringe”, “fascists”, “trans lesbians” in a derogatory sense (why they think this is derogatory, I have no idea), “newly minted queers”, “stay at home activists”, and accused trans women of having “male privilege”. They’ve attacked our orientations and genders. This has gone beyond a respectful difference of opinion.
Personally, I haven’t felt any need to misgender any of them during this, or use mental illness stigma against them, or attack them for their sexual orientation, or any of that. I don’t know why someone would do that and I’ve honestly been surprised that many of them have escalated this to that level. I’ve stuck to addressing their arguments, because that’s all that should have to happen here.
So it’s become about more than the words themselves. It’s also become about how the people who loudly, publicly endorse these words also just so happen to be loudly, publicly attacking trans people in ways that, if cis people were to talk about us like this, would be unambiguously recognized as severe transphobia. It’s been really uncomfortable to see them doing this time and time again, and it worries me that their support of slurs used against trans people is so often associated with outright hateful attacks against trans people. At a minimum, this is not breaking down the association between these words and transphobic hatred. It is reinforcing that association. I don’t like being on bad terms with people – I really, really wanted to be able to like RuPaul and Calpernia and Andrea and Bailey. What they’ve been doing lately is making that really difficult.
But even if they hadn’t done any of this, and even if they had otherwise respected us, I’m still not sure that this can be a live-and-let-live kind of situation. For a lot of trans people, those words can conjure up really traumatic memories of being beaten or harassed on the street or rejected by their families and partners or anything else that so many of us deal with from a transphobic society. It’s not even just memories – it’s a reminder of the real danger that some of us face just going outside every day.
And it’s a reminder that society has, at seemingly all levels, decided that the words we hear from people who reject our existence – sometimes violently – are totally suitable for mass media. That’s disturbing, and unsettling, and suffocating. The reality of having to live in this world can feel like we’re drowning and no rescue is coming. It’s like a nightmare we can’t wake up from.
So I find it difficult to accept that erring on the side of caution, here, means going ahead and continuing to throw these words around casually just because some people think it’s okay. I have to wonder what degree of deprivation that people will be subjected to simply by being asked not to say “tranny” and “shemale” – is the absence of these slurs from the conversation just as frightening as the everyday, inescapable transphobic climate that they’re so often associated with? I find that hard to believe.
I think erring on the side of caution would mean showing the decency of recognizing that these words often show up alongside some really, really bad shit for a lot of people who can’t get away from it. And I guess I really can’t grasp how these other people can feel so put-upon by that simple idea. I was being called a “tranny” and “shemale” on YouTube, years before I transitioned or before I even knew I was trans. It was never, ever, ever a positive thing, and even back then, there was no way that I was comfortable even saying those words out loud, let alone as some kind of joke. Even if others also have a claim to these words, I think it’s worth considering whether we’re really asking as much of them as they’re asking of us.