RuPaul’s ‘tranny’ debate: the limits and power of language

‘Tranny’ finds a place among many other slurs that have historically hateful roots. Foxtel

RuPaul’s ‘tranny’ debate: the limits and power of language

‘Tranny’ finds a place among many other slurs that have historically hateful roots. Foxtel

If you’re a fan of the American reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, currently airing on Foxtel’s Lifestyle You channel in Australia, you’re likely aware of the ongoing storm that has surged around how the show uses certain language relating to those who identify as transsexual, transgender or transvestite.

Words such as “tranny” and “she-male” have been called to task for what some see as the way that they target one of society’s most marginalised populations, namely transgendered people. “Tranny” is slang for transexual or transgendered people: those whose psychological gender conflicts with their physical sex. It is also used in reference to transvestites: those who dress but do not necessarily think, feel or relate with a sex other than their own.

Strong voices against the use of words like “tranny” have featured on social media. In response, RuPaul defended the word “tranny” and questioned how people think about language and victimhood.

RuPaul ® and drag personality Alyssa Edwards at 2013 MTV Movie Awards in Culver City, California. EPA/ Paul Buck

Closer to home, Sydney-based drag queens were recently asked to remove the word from their event “Tranny Bingo”. These examples call to question how subcultures, and society generally, negotiate language.

While this issue may seem like mere semantics, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of language.

In 2010, Roz Kaveney wrote in The Guardian:

language is a battlefield for trans people.

Language can be thought of as a battlefield for all because it is the primary way through which we organise our world. As a result, it is a powerful mechanism for social learning. Marginalised groups know this well and language has a long history of being used to exclude and dominate minority identities.

Although language is incredibly powerful, it is also rather limited. This limitation is embedded in the nature of words, which are only ever approximations for our world and our experiences. All language is representational and as a representation it is fallible.

“Meaning”, as we all know, is consensus about what a word represents. For some words, consensus is not achieved and in these cases dissent and debate about meaning can be found. “Tranny” is one such word and it finds a place among many other slurs that have historically hateful roots.

WTF podcast: RuPaul Charles gives his thoughts on language and those who would police it.

In some cases, these words have been reclaimed and recast in an affectionate and empowering light. For example, many people now understand the word “queer” to represent a specific identity and some claim it proudly for themselves. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine this word still being used in a sneering or hurtful way.

Context and intent are pivotal to meaning and it is a mistake to assume that words have a universal meaning. As the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes put it:

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged. It is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and comment according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.

From a social science perspective, the conversation that surrounds “tranny” is a fascinating example of how language is negotiated. These negotiations are rarely simple and they challenge both minority group members and society more broadly.

In the USA, law professor Randall Kennedy outlines just how convoluted and contested the so-called “N word” remains. Is it ever all right to use this word? What about among those racialised as black?

Carmen Carrera. Christopher Macsurak

Kennedy argues that this particular word may make us very uncomfortable but many understand it as a part of their identity and it has great historical richness and depth. For these reasons it cannot be, and indeed is not, confined to the past. Confronting its place in contemporary language is unavoidable.

For “tranny”, the issues are remarkably similar. Some have suggested this type of debate – which is largely taking place among gay and trans-identified people – distracts from other issues while creating distance between would-be allies.

But this type of public and critical discussion is a key part of helping minority groups construct their own realities of language and in doing so become stronger and more diverse. Dissent helps us identify weakness and move forward. Like all words, “tranny” is not static nor is it simple.

The true significance of this debate is that it is happening at all. No-one would argue trans-identified people are not marginalised, even among other sexual minority groups, but now there are important questions being asked about what it means to be trans and the debate is moving away from exclusively the fringe.

As a result of this shift, understandings of the word “tranny” will undoubtedly evolve and as a term it will emerge with greater nuance and depth. Alongside this change, cultural understandings of broader trans issues will evolve as well, which is the great social power of language.