Being The Pejorative

Continuing along with my little totally-accidental “covering the basics” theme for this week, it seems appropriate to cover one of the most basic and recurring trans issues of them all (and one of the most overarching), being the ubiquitous use of transgenderism as an insult or pejorative.

A common conversation in regards to whether or not the terms “gay” or “fag” are acceptable as loose pejoratives when their intent is divorced from literally referencing homosexuality is centered around the fact that regardless of intent, the association still exists in this usage, and the implication of such an association being an inherent or universally applicable negative is to suggest that homosexuality is inherently negative. What’s more, intent does not necessarily modify consequence. No matter what an individual literally means or intends through the usage of “gay” or “fag”, the ultimate effect is creating a world where gay men and boys are barraged with the constant message that their identity is considered negative and shameful. It creates a situation where reminders of the bigotry, hatred, ridicule and intolerance they face are omnipresent and inescapable.

But the often unexplored truth is that this non-literal usage of “gay” and “fag” does not simply mean “bad” or “negative”. It has clear and specific connotations. The most consistent of these connotations is that whatever or whomever is so described is weak, pathetic, cowardly, malleable, passive, frivolous, non-manly or feminine.

And all of the connotations that do not directly imply femininity or lack of suitable or proper masculinity nonetheless draw upon a secondary layer of connotations and associations- in that things like weakness, cowardice, passivity, artifice and frivolity are regarded as “feminine” characteristics.

Thus, examining the ubiquity of the use of “gay” and “fag” as pejorative, and the ubiquitous climate of homophobia enacted through it, reveals a deeper layer of the use of “feminine” as pejorative, and that this is directly interconnected with enacting and maintaining a climate of femmephobia and misogyny.

Let’s consider a few of the most common insults levied against men: fag, bitch, pussy, sissy, wimp, motherfucker, bastard, son of a bitch, cocksucker. Men are quite often insulted by comparing them to women, describing them as feminine (often by proxy of implying they’re homosexual), invalidating their manhood or masculinity, or insulting the women close to them, usually their mothers.

This would lead to the conclusion that gender binarism is the underlying issue here, that it is all about suggesting an individual’s dignity is measured in their adherence to assigned sex. But, if we look at the common insults directed towards women we don’t see a comparable, inverted pattern. Instead, we see slut, cunt, bitch, whore, cow. Women are insulted by either reducing them to the sexual aspects of their bodies, or by suggesting they are “impure” or “undesirable” as women, that they don’t live up to what a woman’s role is supposed to be (chaste, passive, attractive, endlessly attendant to the needs of men and endlessly patient with their demands).

So while gay men and boys have to contend with a level of ubiquity to people using their identities as a universal, catch-all pejorative (the fact that I’m using the word “pejorative” so much in this post is totally gay), and this ends up coalescing into an inescapable, constant reminder of their secondary status, women have to deal with an even higher level of ubiquity with our culture using them as the underlying bedrock on which insults and degradation are built.

But trans women? Oh, we’ve got it made. We exist as an insult that can be directed towards anyone. Compare a man to somewhere on the AMAB (assigned-male-at-birth) trans* spectrum, or suggest he is AMAB trans* himself, and you successfully deride his masculinity, even more so than calling him “fag”. Compare a woman to an AMAB trans* person and you’ve successfully insulted her “purity” and “desirability” as a woman just as well as if you’ve called her a “whore”.

While the use of transgenderism as a pejorative and insult isn’t quite as ubiquitous as “gay”, “bitch” or “slut”, it makes up for it in universality and punch. We end up being a go-to insult for any occasion, with a little extra heft for when you want to show someone you truly disrespect them.

Meanwhile, the open ridicule of trans women, in its non-insult form, remains constant, inescapable and explicitly tolerated.

And of course, there’s that extremely powerful cultural undercurrent I originally mentioned, about how the universally bad and horrible and insulting and very-not-good worst thing you can accuse a man of is deviating from his masculinity in the direction of womanhood.

In other words, the worst thing you can accuse a man of is being transgender.

This is more than just theory on cultural perceptions of gender however. What becomes very immediate, and very important to recognize, is the consequences.

As the worst thing you can accuse a man of is being transgender, thus the message is sent, over and over and over, in hundreds of thousands of subtle signals, that the singularly worst and most shameful thing someone who was assigned male can do is transition. As “were you born a man?” or “looks like a tranny” are used as denigrations of women, the message is sent, over and over and over, that all that awaits you on the other side is being a particularly pathetic and shameful type of woman. I hope I shouldn’t have to clarify what this does to how pre-transition AMAB people struggling with their gender identity end up perceiving themselves and their prospects, the sense of deep hopelessness and self-hatred it engenders.

We have the inescapable barrage of jokes at the expense of trans women. We have the use of challenges to a man’s gender as the most salient and consistently employed insult. It is effectively impossible for a trans woman to make it through a single day without being confronted with messages telling her she should be ashamed of herself for what she is.

I’ve mentioned before just how bitterly exhausting it is to live in a world where that’s what you hear, constantly, from all sides. That you are the worst thing that could ever happen to someone. That your life is a misery. That your body is a disgusting abomination. That you are brimming over with sin and immorality. That you are an unnatural freak. That your identity is a joke. That your mind is diseased and delusional. That you are unlovable, undesirable, unfuckable, untouchable, that beauty is by definition only attainable through the degree to which you suppress and hide what you are, and that in all likelihood, no one will ever love or want you. That if you have the audacity to pursue love or intimacy or touch, then you are a deceitful liar who deserves whatever violence befalls her. That you are “really” a man, but bereft of everything that makes men “superior”. That nothing awaits you further in life but more pain, more misery, more loneliness, and if you’re lucky, an early death.

I don’t care how much confidence someone has. It is impossible to fight that off forever. We are forever swimming upriver against our culture’s messages about gender, just to maintain the basic level of self-confidence and self-love necessary to survive. It is exhausting. Exhausting in a way I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t lived it can really understand.

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”

Is it any wonder 41% become too tired to continue?

One often hears the term “micro-aggression”. Micro-aggression is an extremely important concept in understanding how discrimination, bigotry and privilege work. A micro-aggression is a form of non-overt bigotry that nonetheless subtly needles away at someone’s identity, and undermines their confidence or empowerment in a way just beneath the threshhold of immediate notice. Micro-aggressions are the little comments a male co-worker repeatedly makes about a woman’s appearance. Or the little underhanded compliments a white professor may make about a black student’s eloquence, but describing her expression of her political ideologies in an essay as “unnecessarily hostile”. Or congratulating a person with disabilities for their “bravery” in continuing to live in what must be such a horrible, terrible life.

Micro-aggressions, while individually dismissible, end up coalescing into something much stronger, with much more harmful consequences, like stereotype threat, undermining an individual’s confidence and morale, asserting and maintaining engrained power structures, normalizing discriminatory attitudes (which may then provide justifications for escalating actions) or intimidating victims of discrimination into silence.

But what I find is the case in transphobia and cissexism is that while yes, we deal with the threat of micro-aggressions, we also deal with a coalesced macro-aggression. While the subtler enforcements of cis-supremacy remain in play even in “trans-friendly” environments through the effects described in the preceding paragraph, we’re also faced with the aggregated pressures of having to deal with our identity used as an extreme pejorative, as the most shameful possible iteration of identity (with that hatred motivated by intensely powerful cultural and psychological needs), and the (often literally) overwhelming bombardment of overt hatred and ridicule that we are constantly exposed to through media… and even “innocent” interpersonal interactions and socio-linguistic mores coded into our language itself. It would only be through total and complete isolation from our culture (and other human beings) that we could protect ourselves from this, which would be just as psychologically harmful.

The thing that makes this so hard to bear is that we have to actually be the insult, be the punchline. For a cis person, trans is a concept that can be visited (such as while reading this blog, or the Urban Outfitter’s Jack and Jill card, or renting The Crying Game) and then left, put aside. It is something else, something other, something you can choose to think about or choose not to think about. The transphobia may seem appalling, but it’s ultimately something you can put aside or tune out if you need to. And you do tune it out, I promise. One of the scariest things about transition was suddenly noticing it everywhere, no longer able to ignore it. You have the benefit that no matter what shitty, awful thing gets said openly about trans people, that is a conceptual category apart from yourself.

But that’s not the case for us. In every single moment of my life, for the rest of my life, I have to actually be a trans woman, be that thing that is used as an insult, a joke, an Exotic Other, an interesting story, a fascinating I’ve Never Met One Of You Before, a “Frankenstein”, a he/she, a shim, a thing, an it, a tranny, trap, ladyboy, shemale…

That’s me. That’s the identity I actually inhabit. That’s the body I inhabit. It was there when I began writing this post, and it will be there when I finish. And when the next awful bit of transphobia rolls around, which WILL be by the end of today, I’m still going to inhabit it, I’m still going to be trans, and I’ll still have to know it’s me they’re talking about with their hatred, disgust, scorn or ridicule. It’s me and who and what I am.

I can’t escape being trans. I can’t escape the world where that is seen as inconceivably shameful. And I can’t escape having to be that pejorative. It takes all the running I can do just to carry on.



  1. Cynthia says

    And you will continue to be the best damn reason I have to fight the fools. I’m the one who never lets it slide, which makes life around me a bit harder for some of the fools. And since I’m raising teenagers, I fight even harder to point that junk out. No one uses fag, gay or tranny around me. Period. Because I WILL call them out, I WILL tell them that’s wrong, I WILL tell them to drop that shit at the door. No one in my house gets insulted in that way.

    You can call people dumb, stupid, moronic…the list of insults is long enough. But insulting someone by using slut is not something I’m ever going to take. And please don’t give me that “we’re taking back the word” crap. You’re insulting people by calling them something you are afraid of. Period.

    It’s not much, but it’s all I can do personally. So I hope it helps you a bit to know that, because of your writing, I have the courage to tell others to stop being transphobic.

  2. jamessweet says

    The thing that makes this so hard to bear is that we have to actually be the insult, be the punchline. For a cis person, trans is a concept that can be visited (such as while reading this blog, or the Urban Outfitter’s Jack and Jill card, or renting The Crying Game) and then left, put aside. It is something else, something other, something you can choose to think about or choose not to think about. The transphobia may seem appalling, but it’s ultimately something you can put aside or tune out if you need to. And you do tune it out, I promise.

    Oh yeah, you better believe I do this. I’ll tell ya something, Natalie, as I have read your blog and become more attuned to trans issues and problems of cissexism, I have been so overwhelmed by how much of it is ingrained in just everyday thinking, in language, in common culture, that sometimes I just cowardly retreat from even facing up to it at all. I sometimes wind up saying to myself about something you’ve written, “Well, I think she’s right… but think about that is just way too hard. I’m just not going to think about it at all for a couple of days.”

    I guess my privilege is showing in that I indulge in that luxury. But I do at least try to acknowledge it’s a luxury. When I do that, I’m running away from a real problem — and only because I can.

  3. Erin W says

    I’m posting a little something in my social networks that just says, ‘Want to ‘get’ what my life as a trans woman is like? Read this.’ It will point to this article. Thank you for your eloquence.

  4. D-Dave says

    Just… wow.

    No one uses fag, gay or tranny around me. Period. Because I WILL call them out, I WILL tell them that’s wrong, I WILL tell them to drop that shit at the door. No one in my house gets insulted in that way.

    +1. My sphere of influence may be limited, but I do what I can to make it a more inviting, accepting place. Each one of us alone might not seem like a lot, but here’s to the day when we hit a critical acceptance mass.


  5. otrame says

    Natalie, you make me so sad. And there is not a single damned thing I can do to help.

    Well, there is one:

    No one uses fag, gay or tranny around me

    Me, either. Been that way a while now. At least, I won’t tolerate people using “gay” as an insult, instead of simply describing someone as a homosexual male. I haven’t run into much “tranny” talk except online mentions of the vile Ann Coulter, but I don’t tolerate that either. She is vile, but not because of any supposed “male characteristics”. I frankly could not care less whether she was born with a y chromosome. It has nothing to do with how vile she is.

    So, yeah, I strongly “suggest” that people not use gay as an insult whenever I hear it. It ain’t much, but it’s what I can do.

  6. says

    A lot of important stuff to be reminded of here.

    Would you mind my asking (of course it’s not easily quantifiable, but in a general sense) how much not-tuning-out you feel right in demanding from close friends, from peripheral friends, or from any decent person out there?

    It’s clear enough that tuning out the sufferings of the “other” is the norm, whether it’s starvation, war, political conditions like North Korea, or even just something as close to most of us as cancer. Yet when I start to think about how much to adjust my attention to so many injustices and sufferings, especially in a way that’s not fundamentally self-congratulatory, it’s as if the circuit is overloaded and a fuse blows. It takes cognitive effort for a cis man to notice these things, and social cost to stand up against them. So, lay it on the line. How much do you expect me to do?

    • says

      For what it’s worth, I think this is a dangerous question to answer. The reasons being:

      1. If you view your actions as an ally to be something *asked* of you, you may find yourself resenting this expectation. And that will make you resent the person who asked you, and/or be uncomfortable around them.

      2. Especially if you get tired, or when/if something happens to make you feel less inclined to be a trans ally (e.g. someone says something bad about cis people), again, you may feel like “but I’ve tried to do the right things for them!”

      3. Conversely, if you meet some minimum expectation, you might be inclined to rest on your laurels and think you’re doing enough.

      In fact, being an ally is never comfortable and never done, and you really just have to figure out what you’re willing to do, weigh the extreme difficulty of life as a trans woman vs. the social cost to you personally. Weigh the things Natalie says–I assure you, she is really really NOT the only person saying similar things at least when it comes to trans-misogyny–and decide how much you must do something. You’re already here, that’s a start. More education/experience does make it easier to develop reflexes, see transphobia all over the place and try to push against it whenever possible. Though I think experience doesn’t make it easier to put yourself out there and do something active. As you say, there’s a social cost.

      Obviously Natalie may choose to give you a good answer. But I don’t think I’m off the mark here about why it’s not the best question to ask; I hope someone will tell me if I am not helping.

    • says

      Let me be slightly more concrete. As I started to get involved in trans activism on occasion, and as I learned more, I used to talk to my friend and my ex-girlfriend (who are both trans women) about this stuff. Now that I know more, I’m still kind of doing it for them, but not really. I’m keeping trans rights as an important part of my life because I can, and if I went around telling all my trans friend “I did this and that” or asking “what do you want me to do”, I would only tire them out. They’ve got enough constant battles of their own without having to tell me I’m being a good ally.

      Does that make sense? I’m not trying to sound holier-than-thou or like I never screw up or even like I do half as much as I’d like to; I’m just saying, it gets easier to think this way.

    • says

      Hi Jeremy,

      I don’t know you from a bar of soap, to use the cliché, so would it be terrible if I make a few assumptions about you?

      Let’s assume, like most people who post on these blogs, that you are a North American. You’re probably living in the United States, which should put you ahead in real terms over four-fifths of the world’s population in terms of the usual demographic metrics: opportunities for education, good life expectancy, good living standards.

      You’re a cis man, probably white, and since you didn’t qualify anything else, you might even be heterosexual. Congratulations: if all of those are true, you would be unlucky to be particularly disadvantaged along the usual axes of race oppression, sexism, or the marginalisation of gender/sexual minorities. You might even be relatively well off monetarily, so less likely to suffer from the axis of classism which reduces many people in North America to the status of working poor on a minimum wage. If so, I’d hope that all things being unequal, despite the desire supposedly being for an egalitarian world, you could actually have it a lot worse.

      Anyway, it’s up to you how you live your life, and to what extent your awareness of whether you have a somewhat privileged set of circumstances, as well as how others lack the advantages that you have, affects how much you try to redress minor or major wrongs, and try to prioritise problems. It’s sadly obvious we can’t solve everything. It’s a lazy argument to say that you can’t solve anything.

      You’d be aware that last year a prominent atheist said that an admittedly minor first world problem mentioned by a privileged woman was unworthy of any attention at all, because of things being so much worse elsewhere in the world. But this is a fallacious argument which is disproved by an old cliché which is that “charity begins at home”. We may not have the power to dispel the oppression of women in Muslim-dominated theocracies, but we most certainly do have the power to address issues of behaviour and speech in our immediate personal environment. And the raising of the admittedly minor problem did achieve something, because in the end it did raise a lot of people’s consciousness to issues that are viewed by some as “not important” or “zero bad” – but that is actually to say, issues that one half of the population experience regularly, and the other half rarely if ever.

      In short, we don’t all have to be assholes to one another and let slide negative attitudes that foster racism, sexism, or others form of bigotry. And meanwhile if you do want to pay more than just lip-service to poor Muslima, or any other major issue in the world, you probably have the luxury of being able to write about it on blogs, or if you are relatively well-off, research and donate money to a charity that is set up to achieve stuff out in the real world.

      It’s up to you how much you choose you can do to add to the positive side of things, or do things which end up being neutral, as opposed to contribute to the bad (and we all have different ideas on what those might be). It might be unrewarding not to receive a stream of internet cookies if you routinely do things you think are a net good and go unremarked, but virtue is actually its own reward.

      To get to your specific questions: you should be able to have the most influence over close friends, and if you want them to be better people, then pointing out if they’ve done something unconsciously sexist or bigoted is actually a kindness, as well as a criticism. Raising issues like bigotry is always touchy, because of the way it gets framed as an all or nothing problem: “that thing you said was bigoted” easily gets worked up into “OMG you called me a bigot!” There’s a brilliant Jay Smooth talk from TED that goes about trying to be able to discuss these sorts of problems without starting a major war. 🙂

      Peripheral friends or decent people out there, you have less power of influence, but perhaps lesser involvement allows you to say your piece and agree to disagree if they refuse to be swayed. At the very least it can’t be said against you, in that instance, that you didn’t try.

      You also mention that it is an effort to notice some minor injustices or bigotries, and exerts a social cost to stand up against them. So say you’re in an all-male group where someone in the group has objectified a woman passing by with a sexist comment which elicits some approval from the other men; it may cost you social capital to oppose that, or point out the guy is lucky that (presumably) no sexual discrimination officers are present. In other similar situations – say the group includes a small number of women, almost entirely outnumbered by the men, then you may end up losing social capital with those women for not voicing disagreement and tacitly being part of the group approving of sexism. In such social settings we all make mistakes at being good people from time to time, I hope you try your best.

      End of trans grrl sermon 🙂

      • says

        Wow, I wish I hadn’t beaten you by 13 minutes, because your comment applies *so* widely. Someone needs to make posters out of awesome things like this. Guess I’ll put that on my project list…

    • says

      I’m not demanding anything.

      And sad as it may be, I don’t really expect anything either.

      A much more important question is: how much does this matter to you?

      • says

        Thanks, everybody. Xanthe, I’m not bothered in the slightest by anything you’ve suggested about me personally. My deal is not the ridiculous pity-seeking from some members of many privileged groups. Not at all. If there’s anything I’d disagree with in your thoughtful comment, it’s this bit:

        But this is a fallacious argument which is disproved by an old cliché which is that “charity begins at home”

        I’m really not sure that that cliché is valid, as opposed to being a very common rationalization for not caring about a whole lot of people whom it’s hard to jog one’s mind into caring about. In fact, I’m a white American long-term expat in Korea, where I’m involved in North Korean human rights and to a lesser degree in LGBTQ rights issues.

        “At home” (which is what Korea is, and the U.S. is not, and I can’t say much more except that I bristle when anyone implies otherwise) my daily reality is steeped in an odd blend of white privilege on steroids with various negative stereotypes from many directions. More than anything, it’s a balance between presenting Americans in a good light and pushing against being “the one good foreigner”. But that’s neither here nor there. My obstacles are trivial.

        As far as being an “ally”, well, I expect you’d like the ideals I’d articulate — but I tend toward ethical consequentialism, and I can’t pretend like some other people can that what I support is the same thing as the real good that I do. If it were just me and you in a simple binary act of empathy, I could never do enough. But that’s where my question kicks in.

        Consider this:

        weigh the extreme difficulty of life as a trans woman vs. the social cost to you personally.

        The answer to that is a staggeringly high ratio. But that’s not the issue I’m faced with. Rather, I’m faced with a tremendous amount of suffering and injustice in the world, the comprehension of which would be unbearable to anybody. And what I’ve gotta do is pay attention to things that hurt other people, while I’m in the process of living my life and getting various things that I want. But this inevitably means some other things, not all of them. Expressions like “whenever possible” sure sound great, but nobody ever does anything good whenever possible — we make a kind of trade on cognitive and social cost together with all the other claims on our moral consideration.

        Look, I don’t think it’s a mark on any of your characters to suggest that you’ve probably gone through weeks at a stretch without worrying about the situation of North Koreans. Human rights there is a very low priority in most of the world, even here in South Korea, and not a lot of images are coming out to grab our attention. Moreover, unlike me, you have grave threats on your personal safety and happiness, which every one us is inclined to prioritize. For all of us, though, ethical reasoning expands our circle but can’t do so effortlessly or without tradeoffs.

        So, per Jay Smooth, I’m open to having my own bigoted statements pointed out to me, as well as to consider evidence for subconscious bigotries. My caveat would be that most bias in favor of some people and against others comes not in anything we express, but rather in whose suffering we attend to more or less. Me, my family, my lover, close friends. Check. Then who, and when, and how much?

        It sounds harsh, but the ubiquitousness of transphobia means that it requires attention to identify and social cost to challenge. These come out of a limited capacity for a naturally selfish, xenophobic primate trying to expand his circle. “How much” has to be asked and answered in good faith. What level of friendship do I break off because of bigotry? How important does a conversation about something else have to be before I redirect it? What level of bias justifies no longer reading a certain author?

        I appreciate your answers greatly. Of course, whatever good I can do will end up being a tradeoff that I can’t perfectly predict. Natalie, you have enlightened me a great deal in your blog, and have more than earned a right to make demands. I’d just like to have some input about priorities with respect to the bias you describe in the original post, given that “everything” is an impossible demand.

        • says

          Well, you can define your own priorities, really. I suppose certain things are fairly obvious, like not enacting or perpetuating cissexism yourself, not othering us, respecting our identification, that kind of thing, as well as stuff like standing up for our legal rights and calling out overt transphobia or cissexism when you encounter it. Beyond that, the degree to which you involve yourself, and what you see as the most important issues to tackle, are really something you’re free to negotiate for yourself, and weigh against the degree of importance you place in other social problems, like sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, the environment, etc. And obviously it should all also be balanced against attention to your own needs as well. If you burn yourself out, you won’t be able to help anyone.

          In other words, the first and most important thing is not being part of the problem. Next is lending your support for institutional change (supporting legal protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity, opposing transphobic “bathroom bills”, etc.) and taking instances of transphobia or cissexism, when you encounter them, as opportunities to educate others. Beyond that, though, it’s up to you. Just do whatever you feel able to do, and think is important.

  7. Rilian says

    “The most consistent of these connotations is that whatever or whomever is so described is weak, pathetic, cowardly, malleable, passive, frivolous, non-manly or feminine.”

    I’ve never used them that way. I used to use the words “fag” and “faggy” and it meant annoying or stupid or an annoying or stupid person. It didn’t have any connection in my mind to “feminine” or “gayness”. But I realized that OTHER people think there’s a connection, so I try not to use those words anymore.

    • says

      Well, many homophobic slurs work by framing homosexuality as a non-masculine behaviour (you can’t be a real guy if accept cock) and detrimental to masculinity. In a strictly enforced gender binary sort of world, what’s a synonym for non-masculine? Homophobia is thus actually a special case of misogyny.

    • Lumidingo says

      I don’t really get that. You must recognise, on some level, that fag or faggy are just shortened variations on “faggot”. Saying that ‘other people have made that connection’ is disingenuous.

      Far be it from me to assume I know what you are thinking, but it’s more likely that you’ve internalised the fact that ‘fag’ is just a negative slur from your environment and your culture, and as such when you’re confronted by someone who annoys you due to being annoying or ignorant or whatever, you utilize a negative slur that you know, which happens to be ‘fag’ in this case.

      The point is not that you literally think someone is a homosexual when you refer to them as a fag. The point is that you utilise a word that is inherently denigrating to homosexual people as a slur for actions or behaviours that you don’t like. You’re not calling someone a fag because they’re stupid – BECAUSE they’re stupid, you’re calling them a fag. And the reason why that’s the case is because subconsciously, your culture/society/environment/peers has taught you that fag is a go-to slur when you want to marginalize and insult someone.

      It’s the fact that faggot IS inherently demeaning as an indicator that someone is a homosexual that it carries any weight as a slur. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using it to refer to actual homosexuals or whether you’re using it as a general slur on someone who’s annoyed you without any actual thought about their sexuality.

      • Rilian says

        I wasn’t trying to separate it from the word faggot. I just never used that form of the word, because I don’t like it aesthetically.

        I did hear other people using the word “fag” to mean someone stupid or annoying … and maybe in their minds it was connected to gay people, but I couldn’t read their minds and know that that was what they were thinking … I just knew that they were calling a stupid or annoying person a “fag”. I found out LATER that that word was connected to gay people. But it was already in my mind as its own word by then.

    • says

      Rilian, you may not have considered the link to “femininity” explicitly, but think about the semantic a little more and I think you’ll see that Natalie was dead on.

      Think about a guy who’s stupid and annoying because he’s strong, likes physically intimidating other men, seduces women then dumps them, is jingoistic, etc. Are the people you grew up around really likely to call that guy a “fag”? I can’t see that myself. He’d be an “asshole” or “fucker”, probably.

      I don’t know of specific studies on this, but I know the research methodology very well. This would be very easy to test with the effect of priming on response time and other things, if nobody’s done it yet.

      • Rilian says

        Language is constructed anew in every person’s mind, and never exactly the same as for anyone else. I just didn’t see the sexist/whatever basis for those terms at first. I might have called such a person a fag, if they pissed me off. I don’t know.

  8. Dalillama says

    About all I can say in response to this post is that you’ve got my support, and I do make what efforts I can towards fixing the problem, what with calling people on their language etc., but I really don’t get out in public company much these days, and my friends are mostly already not prone to using those terms pejoratively, because I don’t keep associating with people who persistently do that type of thing. Also, I’m happy to provide what personal support I can from a remove of a few hundred miles, if it would help at all.

  9. reneeknipe says

    Ridiculous fangirl moment here…thanks for reaching into my brain and extracting so much of its contents. I’ve been linking you everywhere, from my FB page to the feminist gaming site I blog for (traffic from Gaming As Women is my doing!). So much of what you write ends up being “yes, this post!”, and this post was another one of those.

    (Also thanks to my bestie Christianne for directing me hear in the first place.)

  10. Nentuaby says

    This is the topic on which I came up with the best rejoinder I’ve every actually thought of in time to use it in the conversation at hand.

    Coworker: “[Whatever the heck it was] is so gay.”
    Me: “Please don’t do that.”
    Coworker: “Huh?”
    Me: “Use ‘gay’ as a general insult.”
    Coworker: “I didn’t mean anything bad by it!”
    Me: “… well yes, actually. ‘Anything bad’ is exactly what you meant by it.”

  11. paul says

    I’ve been wondering for awhile: what is the acceptability of pejoratives that are related to ‘male-ness’? Prick, Dick/Dickhead, and Bastard are really the only ones I can think of that have any common usage, so for starters there seem to be a lot less of those than ‘feminine’ insults.

    Is it “OK” to use these words because they’re tied to a social group that’s high up on the privilege ladder? Or should we avoid using gendered insults on principle?

      • says

        think of it this way: when the word had it’s original meaning (child not born in a marriage), the only people who mattered, inheritance and family-wise, where the dudes anyway.

        so it’s not really gendered, but if you see it in literature or whatever, it will always refer to the illegitimate son of someone, who doesn’t get to inherit shit. so in its insult-meaning, it came to be primarily attached to dudes.


        a proud female bastard :-p

    • Nentuaby says

      Different *-feminist communities have come up with different answers to that one. The ones who feel it’s okay take the reasoning you suggest– it just does not mean the same thing going up the privilege axis that it does going down. The ones who come down against it feel that keeping gender alive as a nexus of insult just cannot ever work out in favor of those who lack power, no matter who’s actually wielding it– ‘the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.’

      Personally, I come down with the Don’t camp. (Albeit not particularly strongly– I keep them out of my vocabulary but don’t evangelize to others like I would with the femme insults.) I see throughout gender studies that any wedge driven between the genders invariably seems to work against women. Attack women’s competence? Well, clearly they can’t have any power. Attack men’s competence? Well, clearly the women have to take up their slack through extra labour.

      Check the hidden implications of any particular “male” insult you may think of using, too. “Dick” implicitly genders self-assertion as a male trait. “Bastard” may mean an unpleasant man in current usage, but what you’re actually speaking of is his mother’s marital state. Etc.

    • says

      I see no moral objection to their use, since punching up and punching down are quite different. However, I don’t use them anyway for practical reasons:

      [1] The kinds of people you might want to use these on tend to shrug them off. Not only do they not see it as much of an insult, some of them practically treat them like a compliment. This says a lot about the relative power structure in language about sex.

      [2] The use of insults in general tends to lower the level of discourse by discouraging the discussion of ideas and leading to arguments over particular people. Insulting language should be left aside until it’s already completely clear that all communication has broken down. Even then, it may not be wise.

      [3] Men’s rights activists (a better name would be anti-feminists) love to derail the conversation using what they see as a principled point about this. They don’t recognize distinctions in power or privilege, and will harp on you endlessly for any perceived flaw no matter how minor or irrelevant to the topic.

      • says

        Men’s rights activists (a better name would be anti-feminists)

        A better name still would be male supremacists (as some of the misogynist douchebagges in fact actually overlap with white supremacists). And I normally spell out MRAs as “Morally Repugnant Assholes” rather than use their definition.

        One particular odious trick, when it comes to identity epithets and gendered slurs, is that if you happen to use a masculine slur (which almost by definition, will be less vitriolic and derogatory than the direct female equivalent slur), the trolls will immediately jump out on you with a ridiculous false equivalence “gotcha” of implied hypocrisy: “ha, you keep telling us to drop the cunts and bitches from our vocab, yet you hypocritically used the words dicks and bastards!”

        So to avoid this very stupid derailing maneuver, and since it doesn’t impoverish my ability to freely and colourfully express myself, I’ve decided to purge using these words as insults in my day-to-day life. Shock horror: the world has not fallen into complete ruin from the First Amendment free speech being censored, merely because I spend a little more time thinking about what I say before I open my mouth. (I’m not in the US anyway, but the abuse of the “Free Speech!” mantra is another trollish commonplace.)

  12. Anna says

    I’m going to ramble but this post made me think of this.

    I pass mostly right now. It gives me safety, it gets me accepted in the gender i always wanted acceptance as. Then I hear the comments. Do I say something? Do I out myself and face the obvious prejudice of the people around me?

    So far I don’t. Every time I make that choice I hurt inside. I feel like i’m being a party to violence upon myself and all the people in my community. I want to finish my schooling though, I want safety, I want a career.

    I don’t see an end to this either. I have to make this decision for years to come. Transition has made me happy in ways I never thought possible but it also makes me hate myself in whole new ways at the same time.

    I really do understand the 41% So many days its all too close to me. I just want to be myself and be happy. It shouldn’t be a choice of protecting myself and denying myself. I will never understand why what I am is so bad to those around me, but it still gets to me and makes it really hard to like myself.

  13. says

    I live in such a small town. When I am in the public school system I hear the most horrible things said by teachers about students. Racism and homophobia especially. Here trans visibility is almost nonexistent so I don’t hear transphobia much. I hear teachers promote gender normative roles in such subtle and horrible ways that I find myself trying not to cry because I can’t speak up the way that I want to. There are ten to fifty of them against me and I am still trying to find a job. And it hurts. It hurts too much to sit and be silent. So much that I can’t work in such a place forever. It hurts so much that I decided that my career cannot be working in public school in TN. I cannot play that political game for the rest of my life. I am not good enough to change attitudes of my coworkers while keeping my job. There are just too many of them.

    So instead, I am working toward an alternative sort of educating the world. One that I imagine will be more rewarding in the end. One where I hope I can affect real change in the world. One where I probably won’t lose my job if I call someone out on their bigotry. (People willing to teach in prison are hard to find

    And ultimately I hope I can recognize bigotry and fight it on all fronts. I plant to work on my personal blind spots to make things like trans issues (which your are right, I can completely ignore if I choose to) my own issues. Everyday by reading,talking, and empathizing I am working toward making problems in society that don’t directly affect me, my own problems with society. The more I allow myself to identify with humans of every shape size and color, the more their cause becomes one that I cannot ignore. The more human I feel that I become when I can no longer ignore pieces of humanity, when I can connect with those pieces on a deeper personal level.

    Forgive me for waxing a little spiritual sounding there. It isn’t my intention to make this some sort of woo nonsense. It is instead a statement of how I personally connect with humans in this world, and there is nothing ethereal or superior about it. It is entirely personal. It is a way for me to say I am thankful for every time this blog makes me cry (like this time) that I am thankful for every time this blog makes me angry (like some other times). Because you, the words you write, make me feel very important things to feel.

  14. tommiewhitaker says

    Thank you, loved your article which rings all too true, thank for sharing and I think you are a fantastic inspiration. : )

  15. KD says

    Thank you so much for this post! Your words really resonate with me and give voice to so much of what I’ve felt for so long. It is incredibly difficult to be in the world as a trans person. Much love to you and to all of us who fight on a daily basis to simply exist and love ourselves in the face of so much negativity.

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