Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Surely Not the Last Word on the T-Word

But a few words nonetheless. Below I've posted four full interviews from the show this year, different perspectives on a term. In 2010, controversy and debate broke out in the mainstream media -- with the media's usual sensationalism and oversimplification -- regarding the word "tranny"after the TV show "Glee" had used it in an episode.

I appeared on the Joy Behar Show in November to discuss various issues, and this one was one of them. I said that the word can be used in a hateful manner but that there are also those who call themselves "tranny" and that it's all about context. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which criticized "Glee" for its use of the word and disagreed with me, would have you believe the debate over the word is settled within the transgender community. But in fact, there has been an ongoing, important debate within the transgender community for a long time about the word, reflecting many positions. Unlike the word "fag" or other derogatory terms for groups, "tranny" started within the trans community itself, as an endearing term, as one of my guests, writer Kate Bornstein points out, and only later came to be used by haters after they latched onto it and after transgender people attained more visibility in culture in recent years.

As you'll hear from GLAAD's Cindi Creager, GLAAD does not acknowledge the range of opinions among transgender people. I decided to at least try to do that myself. Over a period of several weeks I invited various people on the show to discuss the word. There's not a consensus and I wouldn't say any of them is "wrong" or "right." Each of them, however, influenced my point of view on it, educated me, and made me think much more about the use of this or any word that offends some people. And that's a good thing. Listen in to the full interviews below.

Cindi Creager is GLAAD's national news director and is a lesbian: GLAAD did not have a transgender spokesperson to offer for the show, but Creager, an articulate and forceful advocate, expressed the point of view of those transgender activists with which GLAAD consults. The word is always derogatory in GLAAD's view, and GLAAD would like everyone to "evolve" to its point of view (and that of only those transgender activists it consults). She told me point blank that even people who call themselves "tranny" are wrong and should stop using it -- backing up a statement GLAAD sent me just before she came on, which, I would later realize, was only sent to me and none of the other media, which was very odd. Creager went on to say that anyone in the LGBT community using a slang word to call themselves -- even lesbians who refer to themselves as "dykes" -- should stop using it.

Autumn Sandeen is a noted transgender activist and citizen journalist who writes for She comes on the show often and I'm always impressed by both her courage and insights as an activist. A military veteran, she was among those activists arrested at the White House this year, chaining themselves to the gate protesting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." She explained that she considers the word "tranny" a slur, doesn't use it and thought it was wrong for "Glee" to do so, but she wouldn't tell anyone else they couldn't use it to label themselves. She believes, rightly, that Joy Behar should have had a trans person commenting on it. She believes the word "tranny" is much like the word "queer" in the gay community -- a word some use for empowerment -- and also believes the disagreements are generational: She reports that younger transgender people use it, and even referenced a transgender rock band that uses the word in its name.

Mara Kiesling is the indefatigable executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality who joins me on the show often and always raises our awareness of issues. She says there's a very active debate in the transgender community about the word and that it's important to talk about it rather than just shut it down. She used to use the word "tranny" but doesn't any longer because she came to realize how much it does offend some people. Regarding "Glee," while she believes the usage of the term was derogatory, she believes GLAAD has been relatively silent about larger and more important aspects of "Glee" that have revealed ignorance among the show's creators and writers regarding transgender people and trans issues. In other words, "Glee" has bigger trans problems that GLAAD should be taking on.

Kate Bornstein is the pioneering transgender writer, artist and activist on gender and transgender issues, whose seminal 1995 book, Gender Outlaw, broke ground and caused many of us to rethink everything we thought before about gender. She embraces and uses the term "tranny" and defends all those who use it to label themselves. Of GLAAD, she wrote in a review of the 2009 film "Ticked Off Trannies with Knives," which GLAAD had criticized: "Until you add T to your name, please stop telling me and my people how to perform femininity or masculinity...Through their no doubt kind intentions, GL(noT)AAD acts like protective parents. They believe they have the right to speak for all transgender people. Their nonconsensual parenting reifies the notion that we are as weak and as defenseless as the tranny characters in the film. "