Gabourey Sidibe, the actress from the movie “Precious” and TV’s “American Horror Story,” created quite a stir during an appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show” when she used what many perceive to be a transphobic slur. On the show, Sidibe recalled recent visits to New Orleans, where there always seemed to be a large number of transgender women being arrested outside a popular nightclub. She feigned distress about these arrests and implored an end to what must be an epidemic of “tranny-on-tranny violence.” Before long, the video went viral and Sidibe got heat for using the T-word.
“Project Runway” alum Christian Siriano caught hell several years ago for his use of the word to describe a fashion faux pas as a “hot tranny mess.” Lance Bass, Kelly Osbourne and Neil Patrick Harris are among other celebs who’ve had to apologize after public use of the word; each insisted he or she had no idea the word “tranny” was a slur. A recent post on my Facebook page revealed that more than a few of my friends, both gay and straight, had no idea of the offensiveness of the T-word. There is even some division among trans folks themselves about whether or not “tranny” is actually a bad word.
From my Facebook friend Wendy: “As a transsexual, I don’t find the word negative. ‘He/She,’ ‘It’ and ‘Shemale’ are touchy, but ‘tranny’ has never really bothered me or had me up in arms.”
Many trans folks share Wendy’s perspective in not being offended by the T-word. That’s a call trans folks themselves get to make, and a word that, in my opinion, only they get to use — like with black folks and the N-word. Cisgender people like Sidibe, Siriano and me have an obligation to avoid use of the word simply because there are some trans folks who don’t like it.
Far too frequently, the T-word has been used to dehumanize and de-feminize trans women, especially trans women of color. (A recent topic of “The Jerry Springer Show” was “Mom, don’t ruin my tranny wedding.”) What we see and hear on “Jerry Springer” is not representative of the transgender experience.
Nor is what we see on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or on stage at The Connection. Those representations are here for our enjoyment, much like musical theater. Drag is flamboyant, histrionic and hyperbolic. And while drag has a rich history as both an art form and an act of resistance, drag is mostly here for our entertainment. The lives of transgender people are not.
Certainly there is some overlap. Most drag queens are gay men who have no desire to be a woman. There are some drag entertainers who are transsexuals and do drag as a hobby or career. Drag can prove very lucrative for those who are good at it. But not all drag queens are transgender, and certainly not all trans women are drag queens (or prostitutes, but that’s another discussion for another day).
In 1966, jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln wrote an essay entitled “Who Will Revere the Black Woman,” in which she asked: “Who will revere the black woman? Who will keep our neighborhoods safe for black innocent womanhood? Black womanhood is outraged and humiliated. Black womanhood cries for dignity and restitution and salvation. Black womanhood wants and needs protection, and keeping, and holding. Who will assuage her indignation? Who will keep her precious and pure? Who will glorify and proclaim her beautiful image?”
Today, I ask, who among us will revere the trans woman? Who will respect and remember and avenge the lives of the black and brown trans folk who are murdered in astronomical numbers across this country and around the world on a daily basis? Who will revere Rita Hester and Islan Nettles and Evon Young? Who will revere my friend Nakhia Williams, who was shot in the head in Louisville in 2008? Or Timothy Blair Jr., who was murdered and tossed from a car into a street in the West End in 2005?
Trans women are as simple and as complex as cisgender women. Some are mean and some are nice. Some are pretty and some are not. Some are flirtatious and flamboyant and some simply want to be wives or mothers and live quietly in the suburbs. But all women want to be respected and want to live lives free from harassment, abuse and murder. And all women — trans and cis alike — deserve this.
In love and reverence, Jaison.