When trying to address and enlighten on an issue near and dear to you, there are really only two ways you can go about it. You can actually do just that in a thoughtful, respectful manner – which gives you about as good a chance at having meaningful dialogue as possible. Or, you can be argumentative, hostile, and preach only to the converted.
The latter approach is good if you’re doing the performance art known as “Tell ‘em why you mad, son!” That doesn’t do much in the way of moving the conversation forward, but hey, you get more Twitter followers! Still, for those really trying to get people to change their minds, your methodology matters.
That’s why I’m disappointed in the back and forth between RuPaul and certain activists over his usage of the word “tranny.” In some respects, I appreciate how this highlights that though we all fall under the same banner, gay men, transgender men and woman, and in this instance, drag queens may be all in the same bus, we are often going in different directions. For example, someone asked me earlier in the week what the term “cisgender” meant and the best I could do is offer a very elementary explanation of the term before reaffirming that my expertise is more “Partition” and pelvic thrusts than contemporary gender politics.
Even so, Big Mama from Soul Food said the family got to be that fist so watching members of my LGBT family at odds and completely unable to speak to one another respectfully exhausts me – mostly because I want to believe that not only are we capable of better, but that we should be able to see the commonalities in our struggle.
Just yesterday, I saw the headline “J.Lo Tranny Scandal” flash across my TV screen while watching The View.
Honestly, I had no idea that “tranny” was considered a slur until fairly recently. Much of that had to do with the reality that once I started frequenting gay clubs – particularly in Houston – I noticed that it was a term some trans* people used with each other.
I’m only now realizing that while some within the trans* community find it offensive, there are shades of the conflict Blacks have over the use of “n*gga.” The same goes for gay men and women over “fag” and “dyke.”
It’s not the word itself, but the intention behind the word
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) May 24, 2014
The Drag Race host was soundly blasted for being transphobic. While I understand why those who find the term to be hurtful are so upset, I do wonder if anyone has taken into consideration that many drag performers and house queens, some of whom are trans*, have been using the term for years—often short for the now-antiquated term "transvestite," which is still used by some to refer to drag performers and other cross dressers.
In fact, one of his loudest critics has been trans* model and Drag Race alum Carmen Carerra…but Queerty revealed this week that she used the term to refer to herself in a tweet from 2011 and, allegedly, on a now-private YouTube video that was recorded in the last three years.
However, RuPaul’s response(s) have umm, fairly contemptuous.
As in, defending the usage of the term by arguing: “It’s not the trans community. ‘Cause most people who are trans have been through hell and high water… But some people haven’t and they’ve used their victimhood to create a situation where, ‘No! You look at me! I want you to see me the way you’re supposed to see me!’ You know, if your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a f*cking hard-ass road…”
Harsh, but not exactly on par with Kevin D. Williamson, who wrote a disgusting op-ed entitled “Lavern Cox Is Not A Woman.” Ru doesn't sound like a bigot so much as he reminds me of certain conservative Blacks (ahem, Clarence Thomas) who use their ability to prosper as reason to suggest that other members of the race have no right to complain about racism.
I’ve been a “tranny” for 32 years. The word “tranny” has never just meant transsexual. #TransvestiteHerstoryLesson
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) May 24, 2014
However, I do have another concern: even if RuPaul wasn't so abrasive in his defense, there's a certain hypersensitive, ultra politically correct wave of folks that makes it impossible for even a casual expression of confusion about a relatively new issue. And it's frustrating.
I am eager to learn from the likes of LaVerne Cox and Janet Mock, but some of their brethren online—including the many cisgendered people who can be extremely vociferous in the need to prove just how much an 'ally' they really are—have got to understand this is a fairly new issue and it’s one that has to be explained thoroughly for the slow folks in the back of the classroom. Should unabashed transphobia be met with "But wait, we want you to understand"? Of course not. But I've seen people say things that were far more innocuous that RuPaul's arrogant dismissals of his critics get attacked just as soudly.
When I told a few friends that I wanted to write about this subject without being called a transphobic, cismonster who wants everyone to die in the name of male privilege, I was told that I better call on God, Beyoncé, and Hillary Clinton’s top advisers.
Probably because they know there’s always this call for people to be educated, but very few willing to teach.
Nevertheless, the greater issue is that a community of people — people to whom RuPaul and I are both linked through the perhaps too tidy umbrella of LGBT life — is looking to experience the same (relative) freedom that we enjoy as gay cisgender men. We can't dismiss trans*people as whiny, victims when trans*youth face devastating rates of homelessness and trans*women are more likely to be murdered than any other group of women in this country. And as someone with a large platform, had RuPaul been sensitive in his response to the critics, had been willing to apologize and make himself for a meaningful conversation, he could have made a powerful show of solidarity with a group of people that is still unfamiliar to and largely maligned by 'mainstream' society—much like drag performers were before his crossover success. At some point, someone had to open their heart to recieve him for who he his, despite how he may challenge what they understood about manhood and gender. And I'd be willing to bet he's also done a lot of teaching, especially considering how much work he's done in an industry that is run by wealthy, White, straight men.
We have to be that fist, y'all. Which requires both sides being willing to dialogue.