The Power and Politics of Words: On ‘Shem*le’ and ‘Tr*nny’
Disclaimer: This is a big, complex issue. This post will never be able to do full justice to the topic, especially as I wish to remain accessible (which includes not writing a 20,000 word monster essay). I don’t intend to try and play an academic devil’s advocate, or create an argument where there isn’t one. The point of this post is NOT to ask ‘are these words okay?’ – large numbers of the trans community say no, and they deserve your respect. Nor is the point of this post to explain why they’re not okay – you can Google that though if you need to, as it’s important. Some members of the trans community reclaim the words as an act of empowerment, which I’ll come back to.
I had a really unusual experience of talking to a trans woman recently. She referred to herself and all other trans women as ‘shem*les‘, and asked about the genitals of someone I know. For anyone in the know, you’ll know that when talking to trans people, both of these things are typically big red flags – offensive, insensitive behaviour. If she were cis I would have relied upon my educational privilege and assumed their ignorance, and called them out. It would’ve been an immediate moment of ‘ignorance alert! Need to set them straight in the name of challenging problematic behaviour!’. However, her transgender status changed the dynamic of the conversation, rendering me uncomfortable in putting on a teacher hat. Given that she’s trans, who am I to assume she doesn’t know the oppressive history of the word? Some transgender people (and other members of minority groups) reclaim words that have historically been used as insults, in order to empower themselves and challenge oppressive violence. Possibly the most famous word this has happened with is ‘queer’, which whilst still possible to wield aggressively, is used by many LGBTQ people to describe themselves. There’s even the academic field of Queer Theory. So because it would’ve been a very different (and problematic) thing for a cis(ish) guy to tell a trans woman how to use transgender-related language, instead I said ‘it’s interesting that you say X and Y, because I know many trans people who would have problems with this’.
It was clear from our conversation that her choice of language wasn’t a political decision, and that she wasn’t aware that the word is more often used to insult and oppress. Whilst many transgender people are very well read on transgender issues, as with any large and diverse group not everyone will be. It’s important to recognise that being trans absolutely does make that person the authority on their own experience of being trans, and that people should listen when they have something to say about how it is to be trans. But, being trans *in and of itself*, does not make an individual an ‘expert’ on transgender activism, politics, or language. It just so happens that, for obvious reasons, many people who experience social oppression of one sort or another (and their intersections) are motivated to learn about how to challenge it.
It emphasises a point the wonderful Helen Belcher made in a talk I attended recently. She said (I’m paraphrasing) that ‘coming out as trans could be likened to expressing an interest in GCSE maths, and then having people assume you know degree level calculus’. In being an ally to transgender people, it’s important to listen. But assuming that one trans person can necessarily speak for all trans people not only isn’t realistic, but puts a lot of pressure on that person. I hold to the fact that it was impolite of the trans woman I spoke to to ask about the genitals of another person, close to me, who came up in that conversation. That conviction is informed by both lived, and academic experiences working with the transgender community.
I don’t want the take home message to be ‘trans people can be wrong about trans things, so listening isn’t all that important’. It is. The two points aren’t mutually exclusive – one can recognise that trans people are inherently the authorities on transgender experiences whilst recognising no one person’s points can ever represent what everyone thinks or feels. After all, plenty of LGBT people still loathe the word ‘queer’, and if one such person were to say ‘never use that word, it is always bad’, the queer people who do identify with the term (which includes me) could challenge that claim.
The slur ‘tr*nny’ is a very good example of vocal disagreement between different members of the trans community. For example in reference to controversies involving both slurs on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Justin Vivian Bond wrote how the policing of language is ‘trifling bullshit‘, and that there’s bigger problems to worry about. ‘Pro-slur’ arguments have been slammed – though with caveats pertaining to linguistic reclamation.
There have been conversations about how the slurs are not RuPaul’s to reclaim as a cis-male drag queen, which emphasises how the queer community has changed since the days of the Stonewall Riots – when there was arguably less factionalism (and distinctions drawn) between L, G, B, and T. That may be in part due to there being less information and understanding broadly within society, with the oppressions still being experienced across the board. Now, it’s fair to say that gay and lesbian people have gained more ground with legal and social acceptance than the transgender community – and the differences between the political struggles and communities’ needs are a big conversation all on its own. One might raise an eyebrow at the seeming hypocrisy seen with RuPaul’s use of the above slurs, but then calling out Amanda Bynes for her use of the word ‘faggot’. If fag isn’t her word, tr*nny and sh*male aren’t his, despite the historical connection between drag and trans communities, from a time when there weren’t the words or identity categories for clear distinctions that there are now.
It’s complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. One can recognise that words have different meanings for different people, and use words in a way that is sensitive. I agree that only people who are oppressed by a word have the right to reclaim it, and that it’s insensitivity or ignorance when others play with such words. Words have the ability to oppress and to empower. If you feel strongly about challenging oppressions, then understanding the histories and conversations had about particular words can let you see the bigger picture.