Recently, Susan Sarandon made tabloid news when it was announced for the world that the affluent, White, cissexual actress didn't think there was any problem with the term "tranny," which had been used as a pejorative on the television show Glee. It was reported that Sarandon defended the shows' use of the slur in a statement denouncing the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for "getting like PETA - way out of control," when the anti-defamation organization called Glee out for the derisive use of the anti-trans epithet.
What's in a Slur?
Sarandon and many other cis people seem to be under the mistaken assumption that the term "tranny" is just a neutral term like "gay" is. It is often seen as shorthand for "transgender" or "transsexual." Hence Sarandon asks, "What should they have said?" But the reality is that for many, perhaps even most, trans people, especially transsexual women, "tranny" is a term of abuse similar to "faggot," "nigger," "kike," "spic," "gook," "retard" and other highly loaded and offensive slurs. As such, what "tranny" is most often shorthand for is hatred of trans people, and specifically hatred of transsexual women.
Tobi Hill-Meyer asks "Is 'tranny' Offensive?" and points out how the term "tranny" is tied to a skewed representation of trans women popularized by the porn industry and asks us to be critical of how it is used. As a stereotype and/or pejorative, the term "tranny," like the term "shemale," is most often associated with transsexual women and the coercive sexualization we often experience. The slur "shemale" had already been used this past April on Glee as an offensive joke referring to a cisgender male with a ponytail. It seems that the call for the program to do better in its references to trans and gender nonconforming people has been ignored.
While the "T-word" is closer in its use to "faggot," even if the term was a neutral one like "gay" the use of the term on Glee was far from neutral. The line used was not unlike "that's so gay" in its derisive execution.
Dressing Like a Stereotype
In the episode titled "The Rocky Horror Glee Show," the character Mike Chang was going to play the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter for the Glee club's Rocky Horror production but backs out since his parents didn't want him "dressing like a tranny," which he emphasizes with a sneer of contempt on the word "tranny." Dr. Frank-N-Furter is a character who self-identifies as a "transvestite" and is played by a man dressed in black lingerie, which is one of the predominant stereotypes that are used to control trans women and deny us our womanhood and access equitable participation in society.
In the phrase "dressing like a tranny," the term "tranny" is obviously a stereotyping pejorative. Chang didn't say his parents didn't want him to dress like Dr. Frank-N-Furter, he said they didn't want him "dressing like a tranny," which connotes transsexual women. It is being assumed that the stereotype of Dr. Frank-N-Furter as a cross-dressing man in black lingerie is an accurate depiction of all trans women, our dress and our presentation. Yet none of the campy and exaggerated costumes used in performances throughout the series, including for other Rocky Horror characters, are assumed to be a standard uniform for all cissexual people.
Personally, I can't dress like anything other than a transsexual woman, because that's who I am. Most days I wear a tee shirt and jeans, I notice that characters on Glee regularly wear tee shirts and jeans, so logic dictates that these characters (and probably most of the people reading this post) are already dressing like a transsexual on a regular basis.
Even if dressing like Dr. Frank-N-Furter wasn't a stereotype for all trans female people, and were simply a reference to one fictional cross-dressing character, the phrase is still transphobic. Why is the presentation of this one character any more offensive than the presentation of any other character or performance? It is specifically because of the presentation is one that cross the sex/gender binary — that is specifically because it is trans. In fact, after Chang changes his mind the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter is taken up by Mercedes Jones, a female character who was assigned female sex at birth and therefore safely within the realm of cissexuality.
A Teaching Moment Lost
For a series that has made a noteworthy effort to establish "fag" as a slur and the address the pejorative usage of phrases like "that's gay," the program has chosen to do just the opposite when it comes to trans women. There are a million other things that Glee could have said in the place of "dressing like a tranny." Will Schuester, the club director and adult mentor, could have spoken to Mike Chang and pointed out the problems with using a word like "tranny." Just as Schuester allowed Kurt Hummel, a character who was assigned male sex at birth, to try out for a female vocal lead, Schuester could have defended Chang's interest in performing a gender-bending role. He could have pointed out that while there is nothing wrong with cross-dressing, that Dr. Frank-N-Furter is an exaggerated and campy fictional character, and not an accurate representation of trans and gender nonconforming people as a whole. Instead of doing anything like this, Glee exploited, and in turn helped perpetuate, a stereotype of trans women for a cheap laugh at our expense.
'Out of Control'
GLAAD, as an anti-defamation organization that claims to include trans people, was simply doing its basic mission when it challenged the pejorative usage of "tranny" on an extremely popular prime time program. The comparison to PETA that is made by Sarandon is perplexing.
PETA is an organization that thrives off of its exploitative use of stereotypes and pejorative as shock tactic to gain media attention and easily call on preexisting prejudices of a potential audience for the organizations own self-aggrandizing. To this end, PETA has been perpetuating anti-trans stereotypes and using terminology associated with trans and gender nonconforming people as a pejorative for some time. In this regard, PETA and Glee obviously have more in common than PETA and GLAAD do.
But maybe it is the actual advocacy that is the issue. Is GLAAD "getting like PETA - way out of control" because trans people and nonhuman animals are similarly considered undeserving of basic respect and justice? I mean, seriously, as a trans woman, how does Sarandon expect me to feel about her comparisons here?
It seems to be common for people with power and privilege to dismiss the oppression experienced by others while simultaneously harboring a deep-seated fear that those who are oppressed will get "out of control." And what's more tightly controlled in our society than person's sex and gender?
Trans people experience massive levels of surveillance, control, and suppression in our daily lives. It is a common everyday occurrence for me as a trans woman to be subjected to attempts from other people to externally control and dictate for me who I am, how I live my life, and what I do with my body. These people think they can decide for me what is my real gender, my real sex, my real sexuality, my real name, my real pronouns, my real voice, my real body, or what spaces I can use, where I can go to the bathroom, and millions of other little things throughout the day. It would seem that by simply living my life as an open transsexual woman I am getting "way out of control" and people feel it's there job to put me in my place. The term "tranny," along with its associated stereotypes that go along with it, is just one of the many tools people use to keep people like myself under control.
Post Script: Since the above post was originally written on Nov. 10, 2010, Out.com republished a post from the blog of genderqueer author and performance artist Kate Bornstein defending the use of the term "tranny." Out published the post in response to GLAAD calling out Glee for its offensive use of the word. Here are two responses from trans women who took issue with Bornstein's defense of a term they see as being strongly associated with the intersections of misogyny and transphobia: "An Open Letter to Kate Bornstein," by Quinnae Moongazer, and "Follow up for Kate," by Tobi Hill-Meyer.