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Words Mean Things

| Aug 4, 2008
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vid00082-001_0001.jpgYou read about the kerfluffle over the word “tranny” in TWIT Notes a couple of weeks ago. And it’s high time we had a raucous debate, complete with name-calling, charges, counter-charges, hair-pulling, lawsuits and online flaming. Because the question has largely gone unanswered: Is that word offensive?

The easy answer is: yes. To some people.

The more difficult questions lie ahead: Why is it offensive? Why does it tick off some people, but not others? Should we allow it to be used? Should we use it ourselves? Should we allow ourselves to be offended by it?

Let’s start with the title of this blog: words mean things. For those of you not familiar with conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, it’s something he used to say during the Clinton administration on an almost daily basis.

Whether you like Rush or hate him with a never-dimming, burning passion, he is right in this case. Words mean things. He makes words mean—to you,—what he wants them to mean. It’s why he confounds so many people.

Words, at their most basic level, are just sounds. They only become powerful when an idea or a concept is tied to them. There are two parties in this process: the user of the word, and the interpreter. To put it another way, the speaker says a word, and the audience hears it.

With me so far? Good, because sometimes, the speaker has in mind a meaning for a word that is totally separate from what the listener has. That’s where we get into trouble. (Think back to an argument with your lover. Surely you were both on the same page, but couldn’t agree on the terminology.)

Should we, as transgendered folk, get upset when someone uses the word “tranny”? Well, it all depends: what do they mean by it? Is the speaker trying to be insulting? Are they using it in a derogatory way? To determine that, you have to either get into their head, or listen to the rest of their message. (Personally, I find the latter to be simpler, and less messy.)

Take yourself and your biases out of the equation: Is the speaker using the term in a context that shows them to be opposed to your point of view? Do they say “tranny” in a manner that attempts to lessen the value of the idea of transgenderism, or do they simply use it as slang?

Because things get even more complicated when we introduce slang into the picture. For instance, in many quarters, the “t” word is not offensive. In much of the United Kingdom, for instance. And, there’s a rather popular bar in San Francisco that has tranny right there in the name.

Let’s change the focus a bit by looking at other groups who have had this same discussion. Gays have the “f” word. African-Americans have an ongoing debate with the “n” word.

Their debates have come down to this: we can use that word because we’re in the group. You’re not. You’re an outsider.

Well, why is that important? Because all three of us, gays, blacks and transgendered people are outside the “norm”, we’ve been (largely) politically, and socially powerless. (With the exception of a few, like RuPaul, who is in all three camps.) We don’t get to make many rules in the society, and so, those rules we can make, we’ll hold on to. Rules such as determining who can use a word, and who can’t.

We’re claiming ownership of that word.

So, by that standard alone, the Boston Herald shouldn’t be using the “t” word. They’re not part of the “club”.

Tenuous, I agree. So, going back to the first standard, did the journalist mean to insult? After re-reading the article, I see no sign of malice. The cop who is the subject of the piece doesn’t seem to have an anti-trans bias. He’s not interested in hooking up with one of us anytime either, I’d guess, but that’s perfectly acceptable.

However, the anecdote in the story does seem to put the transgendered community into that guilt-by-association category. Would it have better served the writer’s purpose to use the term “transgendered sex worker”? Perhaps, because that phrase, like many used in politically correct speech, tends to be clinical: it takes the emotional impact, the preconceived notions, out of play.

No, it wouldn’t have served the author’s purpose better, but it would serve ours. And the writer wasn’t writing for us.

At best, when someone uses politically incorrect speech, they’re being rude. At worst, they’re insulting. The journalist in this case, was overly familiar, and rude, but they weren’t trying to be hurtful.

So, if we can act as Judge Judy and Executioner, what penalty do we hand down? I’d say exactly what’s been reported by the Edge, and no more. A few angry letters, a few suggestions about doing it better next time, and few expectations that it will change a thing.

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Category: Transgender Opinion


About the Author ()

Ronnie Rho has been writing for Transgender Forum since May of 1999. One of these days, she'll get it right. She's been described as the "world's most famous recluse," but only by people who don't know her very well. She is unmarried, and lives in Cincinnati.

Comments (1)

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  1. dina dina says:

    Roni, I never had a big problem with people using certain terms to describe me. I think we should make a distinction between those who mean to be insulting and those who just aren’t aware which terms might seem offensive. Not everyone is familiar with the shadings or degrees of trans-life. Transvestite has a negative connotation – but not among people who may not be familiar with the term “transgender.” I’ve been called many things through the years but I always referenced whence it comes before I deem it an insult. And, thankfully, in that light, not many have been insults. My experience in gay and straight environs has been mostly positive, though the terminology may hit a false note. Words do count…..but the meaning behind the words – even if incorrect – count more.
    Dina Amberle

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