Tobi Hill-Meyer has an excellent series up about the controversy over “tranny” and its use as a slur, going far deeper than the word itself. Part one delves into meanings:
… the message that a tranny is someone who is incapable of doing femininity correctly, whether you’re talking about the shoes that make you look like a tranny, insulting a cis woman’s “tranny makeup,” or the outfit that turns a cis woman into “a hot tranny mess.”
… “Tranny” is reserved for those whose femininity is deemed fake, incorrect, or forced, those whose sexuality is either too brazen or too frigid, those who dare to take power and space and need to be knocked down a peg.
That’s why it’s frustrating to see cis women who can understand the utter horror and indignation of being called a tranny themselves but are completely willing to dismiss the negative implications when the term is used against trans women – because supposedly it’s just a factual statement that she is trans….
Part two looks at how the media commonly uses the word, getting at the intent:
… In both cases, defenders of the film and TV show quickly moved to argue the right to use the term “tranny,” held discussions on whether or not cis people should be allowed to use the term and whether or not the intention was to offend. Doing so, however, completely ignores the pattern of trans-negative representations that are the real offense…
So if you really want to focus on community boycott, media criticism, and protest as a form of censorship, by all means we can have that conversation – so long as you understand it’s about boycotting, criticizing, and protesting transphobia and not just the utterance of a single word.
Part three gets into context on the individual level:
Ultimately, the important question is not just if, but how does the term get used against a person? It’s pretty common for straight men to be called faggot, but that doesn’t mean it’s an anti-straight slur. Trans men occasionally are called tranny, but that doesn’t erase the fact that the slur specifically attacks one’s femininity as fake or a failure, as if they are a man in a dress who’s trying too hard – as explained in part one. I know a few sissy, femme, and/or crossdressing trans men, and I can understand how they feel they have some ownership over the term, but it’s because they are sissy/femme/crossdressing, not because they are trans men.
For example, consider the various “women and trans” events and spaces that are conspicuously lacking representation of trans women. It’s almost always due to trans misogyny, historically and/or currently. Trans women are more likely than trans men to have traumatic experiences with the term and be triggered by it. When trans men use the term in such spaces – as commonly is the case – it contributes to the dynamic keeping trans women out, regardless of whether or not it is their intention.
I highly recommend this series. Like Tobi, I’m not interested in being language police and am more focused on the intent… and in these segments (which aren’t terribly long, by the way, so don’t let the “it’s in three parts” thought dissuade you from reading), she nails that perfectly.
For further reading, I also recommend another piece she did on trans language, including this observation on “gender identity:”
I know, I know, it’s the whole basis of our legal claim to trans people’s rights, but its very linguistic construction is based in an assumption of cis-supremacy… By discussing the gender a trans person identifies as rather than the gender a trans person is, we’re right back to defining trans girls as boys who identify as girls rather than as individuals who are girls who were assigned male at birth.
When we base our legal claims to non-discrimination protections within “gender identity” it reinforces a legal framework that sees trans people as “really being” the gender they were assigned at birth. When I see the case of a trans man who was fired because he is trans, it’s hard to apply “gender identity” here. The reality is that he isn’t being discriminated against for identifying as a man – there are probably several other co-workers who also identify as men – he was fired for being trans. The current way that the courts process this distinction is to evaluate the trans man in terms of being a woman who was fired because “she” identifies as a man.
This clarifies why the legal system has such a problem getting trans people’s pronouns right. When the subject of the sentence is “a woman,” it naturally follows that you should use female pronouns. Insisting upon male pronouns in this example without also insisting on male terms being used as the subject drastically decreases the chances of people being able to follow the request.
Personally, I’m not certain that we will find a perfect term, that “gender identity” has been workable in its usage over the past couple decades, and that generally when it’s used, it doesn’t have the same kind of intent to undermine, but it’s interesting.