Notes on the T-word Debates of 2014

Heklina was a tranny.
Justin V Bond and Auntie (Kate Bornstein), too.
Ru Paul was a tranny.
Tranny, tranny, tranny, tranny,
tranny, tranny, tranny.

That said, and following this post, I intend to never use the word publicly again. The battle - and why it had to be a battle I don't know - is over.

I was called a fag at least weekly for most of high school. It hurt. It sucked. It was violent. Sometimes I fought back (e.g., "you're just mad cuz I came in your hair last night," was a favorite retort. Then I ran, into a classroom or the library.) When I moved to SF and met self-identified radical faggots I delighted in referring to myself and my gay buddies as fags and faggots. I still use the term to promote intimacy playshops when I want to invoke a particularly fierce energy of my/our history and to challenge the gentrification of the mind that continues to erode radical solidarity.

When queer emerged as a collective name, I finally came fully out, and fully home. I had been waiting for an anti-assimilationist identity that separated me from Castro clones and capitalist gays and linked me to a motley crew and their dissident differences. Queer was an intersectional action poem of punk rage and gay liberation and lesbian feminism and SM dykes and bisexual playparties and trans visibility and radical faerie and poly hippy and AIDS activism and genderqueer body/fashion poets... and all kinds of dissident, fierce LGBT and POC identities and scenes. Queer was intensely debated during its rise in popular and academic use, especially by old school gay men who had been cut, bashed, and terrorized by the word, and the legalized violence that backed up that insult. Perhaps if transpeople had been the most vocal (or most heard) in rejecting the term queer, it wouldn't be in use today. But we recognized then that the effort to freeze the word queer as an insult, as embodied pain, would be a conservative mistake, a reactionary misstep in the movement towards our healing and liberation. We could compare the strategic re-appropriation of queer or tranny to the movement around the slurs faggot, nigger, and dyke.

What's new about today's debate (besides that it is happening online where folks can dismiss or insult anyone they disagree with, without having to look at them or learn anything about them), is that this time, the folks who want everyone to agree on a single meaning and a single history for a word, are winning. Of course, one could also recognize that the folks that speak from the margins, from the place of hurt, for the (most) oppressed, are winning, finally, one small battle among thousands.

Those who defend an immediate stop to the queer use of the t-word cannot accept or even acknowledge that several high profile, pioneering, transgender artist-activists reject the 'censorship' of tranny. They use tranny on themselves, and their friends, and accept it almost as a term of endearment. Is it really that simple to call these people blinded by privilege and out of touch as if aging made them stupid instead of wise? Multiple generations and diverse communities do not always share a word's value, meaning, history, uses, habits, or intentions. I wish that was OK or that we had more strategies for dealing with paradox and difference, and that includes the asymmetrical power dynamics that structure so much violence in and around difference. Violence for some, privilege for others. That's what difference is. How could we possibly agree on a single language or tactic for confronting that violence? And why would anyone, familiar with the violence of exclusion or social death, take a prohibitionist or censorship stance towards a word used more within their communities of solidarity than without?


I'm going to miss the détournement of slander and I await the blooming of a new Q generation's action-poetry of identity, healing and solidarity.

The issue about drag queens not 'entitled' to 'appropriate' the word tranny is messed up in all kinds of ways, especially if you've been to SF Bay Area drag clubs where transgender, cisgender, crossdresser, transvestite, butch, femme, and genderqueer have all been involved in various approaches to drag performances. I've seen many trans people in drag in SF, and many a drag artist has transitioned genders after making community in queer drag scenes. It's complicated, and I mean the intersection of our bodies our lives our experiences our suffering our vision our social death our resistance our creativity our options our lack of options our solidarity our alienation...

I am not a 'fan' of the t-word and I rarely use it. And only after it's prompted or already part of the conversation, and never to name someone I don't know. 

Camp and transgressive humor are healthy and subversive responses to pain and insult, violence and inequity. Trannyshack is a club where a lot of great things happened for a lot of people. Integral to the club's charm was the (lite) transgression of the borders and rules that queers have set up to protect ourselves from further harm. Gender was not the only 'situation' that was re-framed, satirized, toyed or fucked with through drag. There was race and ethnicity drag, dis/ability drag, age (too young, too old) drag, celebrity drag, and more shit jokes than can be counted... As fast as queers could come up with new identities, fashions, sexual habits, STDs, and political issues, they would be imitated, appropriated, and clowned at Trannyshack along with politicians and pop stars. 

The name of the club was part of that clowning transgression. It was post punk Camp. We knew it was wrong but we smiled inside when we said it. And we knew that we were participating in a temporal yet crucial experiment in queer culture, the kind of ritual that, yes Dorothy, actually creates a better world than the one we grew up in. But all naming is political and I guess the powerlessness of being unable to change mainstream culture's naming (sexist and racist sports naming, pop culture naming, official history book naming...) leads us to practice on smaller targets like a drag club. Unfortunate.



Heklina has asked for support and patience as s/he rebrands the club - Trannyshack - that gave many of us more life than we knew was possible. The fucked up and campy name was part of the charm, and I mean charm politically, aesthetically, and spiritually. If you want some queer-is-supposed-to-be-disturbing nostalgia, watch the documentaries I Am Divine and Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, or read Philip Huang's notes on the importance of being offensive.



The opening poem is a reference to/appropriation of Patti Smith's Rock n Roll Nigger.

For further discussion, I recommend this excellent short video by a smart young queer/trans activist:
as well as FB posts by Annie Sprinkle, Justin V Bond, Heklina