Logo caught a lot of slack recently over a tasteless “female or she-male” game and the use of transphobic slurs on the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, and announced they’d be pulling the episode – and the offensive word choice – from the show. It’s caused quite the stir, with the LGBT community split between cries for freedom of speech and the awareness of the psychological harm this language can afflict on trans people, particularly trans youth.
It’s interesting that Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson degraded gays on a mainstream show – one targeted primarily at straight men – in the name of his religion, and was subjected to criticism and resentment, and a huge amount of the LGBT community (rightfully) boycotted the show. But when RuPaul degrades trans people on a mainstream show – one targeted at LGBT young adults – in the name of a cheap laugh, it’s supposed to be “art” and everyone wants to protect his freedom of speech, and maintain that he is entitled to use this kind of language because he’s a high profile drag queen. Are we only anti-bullying when the bully is straight?
Many people in the drag community, cis and trans alike, are desensitized to these words. They’re thrown around all the time among drag entertainers. So it’s easy to overlook what it means to the larger population of trans people who are simply every day people trying to live every day lives. The majority of trans people/kids affected by these things are not, have never been, and never will be entertainers. The drag world is a blip in the radar of the trans community. The drag community has helped to pave the way for the trans community to make the advances it has, but that doesn’t mean that drag entertainers are entitled to keep the trans community from advancing past this kind of language so that they can hold on to their easy punch lines.
If a child, perhaps someone in your family or close to you, were to come out to you as trans and ask you for advice on being the girl she feels she is, would you be comfortable calling her a tr*nny or shemale to her face? Young LGBT kids are turning to Logo shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race when they have no other role models, and this is the treatment of themselves they are learning is acceptable among people who claim to be empowering them. Some may choose to call it overpolicing of language, but these constant every day mini-attacks (they’re called “microaggressions”) have a deep psychological effect on young people coming to terms with their identities and learning the examples of how they should expect to be treated. Using transphobic slurs as jokes only sends trans youth the message that no matter how many ways they succeed in life, they will first and foremost always be a “tr*nny” and a joke, an easy laugh on a tv show, even from their own supposed “community”. How can they expect to be treated any better by the rest of the world?
I’d like to eventually live in a country where I can’t be fired from my job or denied housing for being trans, turned away from healthcare, or left to bleed out by paramedics who don’t want to touch the “tr*nny” (and yes, this kind of thing happens ALL TOO OFTEN). Words like “tr*nny” and “shemale” are often the last things many trans women hear before being beaten to death – they are not jokes, and they perpetuate the idea that we are sick or something less than human. It’s not about what personally offends you. It’s about the message it sends to society (which is then reflected in government actions, healthcare practices, workplace discrimination laws, etc) that we are less worthy of respect than anyone else. Your personal language is your prerogative, but these slurs have no place in mainstream LGBT media. Allowing the people who are supposed to represent us in a “positive light” to refer to us in a way that makes us jokes instead of humans is not going to bring us any closer to equality. It’s not choosing one battle over the other in this case, it’s the fact that ignoring one battle hurts our ability to fight the larger battle.
I keep hearing “well, if you don’t like the word, don’t answer to it”. That’s absolutely right – I don’t have to answer to it, and I also deserve the respect to not have to listen to it on a daytime television show that’s supposed to be “positive” for the LGBT community. So does every trans child, every trans survivor of violence, every person who’s lost a trans loved one to a hate crime – the trans community as a whole. It’s time to demand a little more respect for ourselves. Because right now we’re sending the message that it’s okay to treat us as jokes, that it’s not necessary to take us any more seriously than the easy pun or the gross-out factor in movies and TV shows. And it’s not just trans youth hearing that message – it’s political representatives hearing it and reflecting it in the laws they DON’T pass to protect us. It’s time to be the change we want to see, and that includes seemingly “small” things like the words we use.