A rose by any other name

August 31, 2008

Recently I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the vocabulary that we (trans people) have available to us, how we talk about trans issues like transitioning, transsexuality, cis (non-trans) concerns and so on. I find it difficult, for example, to define gender identity in a way that is meaningful to me but which can still be understood by cis (non-trans) people – mainly because I don’t have any words that really fit. This is a subject that I may return to in the future, but for now I’d like to talk about a couple of occasions in the last few weeks where I’ve found myself questioning a couple of quite commonly-used words.

First, in my recent post about Kellie Telesford over at TFW I described Kellie – twice – as a “woman of colour”. And I was called out on this use by one of the commenters who said he found the term problematic and questioned why I needed to refer to her colour at all. The unspoken subtext that I drew from his remarks was that I was seeing it through (what The Unapologetic Mexican calls) the white lens:

This is the lens that is fitted upon the American who absorbs mainstream culture. You do not have to be White to see this way. See Gonzales, Condi, etc. It involves thinking that POC are inferior to Whites, that Whites are best enabled and empowered by Nature to act for and in the interest of all other brown peoples, that the most desirable goal is to succeed in this current White power structure as it stands, and as it has been built; to abdicate parts of yourself or your culture or history as demanded by this structure and to never look back. It can be an unepexpectedly subtle lens, and so good a fit that rarely are people aware they are wearing it.

Yet it wreaks untold harm upon the world.

The commenter’s remarks rather caught me off-guard, and on reflection I felt that it would be fair to say that my use of the term “woman of colour” was wrong, albeit for a different reason. I tend to use it as a catchall, umbrella term – like “transgender”, in a sense. Again from UM: ‘[People of Colour] can mean Latin Americans, Blacks, Asians, Indians, Middle Easterners, etc. It means “not White European”‘. So it would have been more appropriate to refer to Kellie Telesford as a black trans woman – and I amended my post to reflect that.

But I completely disagree about the relevance issue: I think the fact that Kellie Telesford was black was actually entirely relevant. Although I understand, but disagree with, what the commenter means when he says that the term “woman of colour” is a misnomer “because it assumes white women don’t have colour”, the fact remains that the majority of trans women who are murdered are black or Latin@. So her skin colour is relevant from my point of view as a trans woman, reflecting on Kellie Telesford’s death, the consequent court case and verdict.

I’m immediately back on the subject of intersectionality: as a trans woman I am oppressed (a) because I’m a woman and (b) because I’m transsexual. The concept of intersectionality dictates that these two oppressions will act together – not independently, not in parallel – and create a third oppression: that of being a trans woman. So the oppressions Kellie Telesford suffered were (a) because she was a woman (b) because she was trans and (c) because she was black. The intersectionality creates a fourth oppression which arises from being a black trans woman.

But what the commenter fails to notice is his cis (non-trans) privilege. (See this link, this link and this link). By introducing the subject of my use of the term woman of colour, and telling me that her skin colour is irrelevant, the commenter has refocused the discussion on cis (non-trans) concerns. My post was about the verdict of the court with regards to the trial of Kellie Telesford’s alleged murderer, yet the commenter was recentring it on race; which was a secondary aspect of the subject.

This refocusing on to cis (non-trans) concerns is an all too common reaction when trans people try to discuss trans issues in cis (non-trans) spaces. An attempt to derail the comments had already been made, and – typically – I had been criticised for standing firm on the subject matter. And that kind of criticism is also too common – it’s a variation of UM’s Drowning Maestro attack: “I can’t care about the violent death of a black trans woman when you use that tone of voice”. The truth is that the cis (non-trans) person using that line of attack is more bothered that a trans person has the nerve to speak passionately. It’s demeaning, and in other circumstances would leave them open to ridicule. It also leads into the question of safe spaces for trans people, but that’s another subject which I previously touched on here; I found Lisa’s comments perceptive and very helpful, and I plan to return to it at a later date.

I think that’s quite a thorough example of just some of the problems with the vocabulary and language that trans people use to talk about trans issues with cis (non-trans) people, and how cis (non-trans) people like to keep the spotlight on themselves.


Moving right along… A useful example of the difficulties of finding appropriate language for use amongst ourselves (trans people) is found in Tobi Hill-Meyer’s post, Is ‘Tranny’ Offensive? To me, the short answer to this deceptively simple question is, “It depends who’s asking the question, who they’re asking it of, and why they’re asking it”.

I have a problem with Tobi’s piece that comes from hir habit of making generalised statements without citing hir sources. For example: “The term itself was first widely used within the porn industry“. Was it? The entire porn industry, or only part of it? When did this use start, and why? Has that use been continuous? And so on. Because without those qualifications, Tobi’s trawl through the history of the term is interesting but no more. Without attribution, it leaves open to question statements like:

The issue of reclaiming the term is further complicated, though. You see, while I have been discussing the impact the term has had on trans people, the reality is that it is trans women who have most directly targeted by it. Trans men have been comparably invisible is the sex and porn industries, and the trans men porn that exists today is almost exclusively produced by trans men. Yet a significant portion, arguably a majority, of the effort to reclaim the term has been made by trans men. Usually by trans men who are not familiar with the negative history of the term, let alone having been subjected to it’s sting themselves.

It’s a shame that we have to rely solely on hir interpretation of unknown sources, because what sie says is otherwise fascinating, and the original material may offer other, additional, insights.

Nevertheless, that concern aside, I do empathise with hir stated discomfort at the use of the word tranny. I’ve noticed its use in a couple of trans-only forums and indeed, I’ve used it myself in that context: but that’s the only place I’ve used it, and even then, I felt my use of it to be tentative, cautious. I’d be very reluctant to use it around cis (non-trans) people because I think that it’s likely to be misappropriated and used deliberately to cause offence to trans people.

And I think that there are already plenty of pejoratives available to cis (non-trans) people to marginalise and dehumanise us, without handing them further ammunition. “Well, you used it so why shouldn’t I?”…


Okay, let me finish with some linkbacks, then a tune: I found the piece Is ‘Tranny’ Offensive? by Tobi Hill-Meyer from a link in Weasel’s post solitary oddness over at the rather wonderfully-named Dreaming of Butterflies. Which I have at last added to my blogroll…

For obvious reasons (well, obvious to me, anyway ^_^) I wanted to close with Weasel And The White Boys Cool by Rickie Lee Jones and actually managed to find a live version at YouTube. It’s from 1985 so beware the hair – but the song, and the playing, is/are generally pretty fab, although I do have reservations about the rock lobster on the leaden guitar.

To be honest, I could listen to any track from that album, but then again, it’s been one of my favourite albums for about 30 years. So maybe I’m a little bit biased…

Rickie Lee Jones: Weasel and the White Boys Cool

Sal was working at Nyro’s Nook in downtown
Selling articles of congress to these people downtown
He was pretty sleazy when I met him
A weasel in a poor boy’s wool

Sal lives in a black vinyl pen in New Jersey
Buys his meat from a whore next door
Wants it rare but he gets it well
A weasel on a short order floor

So, Sal, say good-bye to your mom and your dad
Sal, say good-bye to the barrio
Sal, say good-bye to your buddies and your pals
Angela, Perry and Mario

Kid Sinister with the Bus Stop Blues
A quarter could take you home
A dime could make a dream come true
But a weasel ain’t got a dime for the phone
Does a weasel got a dime for the phone?

So, Sal, say good-bye to your mom and your dad
Sal, say good-bye to the barrio
Sal, say good-bye to your buddies and your pals
Angela, Perry and Mario

You dancin’ in the welfare lines, Sal
Actin’ like some jerk-off fool
When we could lay out eatin’ peaches on the beaches
A weasel in a white boy’s cool
But we’re all in a white boy’s school
Just like a weasel

(YouTube link)


7 Responses to “A rose by any other name”

  1. belledame222 Says:

    just a quick note–Nez’s site is “The Unapologetic Mexican”

  2. Helen G Says:

    And… fixed! What was I thinking?
    Thank you Belle!

  3. Weasel Says:

    I love the song, I’d never heard any Rickie Lee Jones before and this was a great introduction.

    The reframing and the alleged irrelevence of race in writing about Kellie Telsford? That was interesting food for thought – it has me thinking back to times when I’ve seen the same thing and not known what to do about it.

    The terminology issue itself, unfortunately I can’t seem to articulate it beyond ‘that feels right / that doesn’t feel right’ and then ‘that feels right/that doesn’t feel right _coming from you’ and not everyone is particularly respectful of that when I can’t wrap it up in appropriate academic speak. I’ll be interested to read anything else you say on the subject.

    And last but not least, you’ve made me smile … that’s the first time anyone has ever blog rolled me before :).

  4. queenemily Says:

    Yep yep. “Women of colour” is undoubtedly a term mostly used by American feminists, which I think would have been far less contentious if you were posting on an American blog.

    But you’re absolutely right, the move de-railed the conversation and tried to make it centre on discussing “appropriate” labels and indeed hypothetical white women… rather than the fact that black and latin@ trans women are overwhelmingly the victims of transphobic violence.

    But hey, anything than talk about the real issues, yeah?

  5. Lisa Harney Says:

    Tobi’s history of the use of the word “tranny” is largely accurate, and you’ll find other trans people – men and women – who will also point out that trans women have been the primary targets of that word.

    It’s true that the people reclaiming it haven’t been the ones most directly harmed by it.

    Also, I want to contrast the question of referring to Kellie’s race in your post with BFP’s question of not referring to Angie Zapata’s race elsewhere. I’m not sure what can be done with the dichotomy of “women of color” (or equivalents) vs. “white women” that doesn’t also make it more difficult to point out privilege. I do think that it’s much less popular in the UK and Australia, or possibly even offensive.

    I think Sunny’s question was coming from a different position than centering cis concerns so much as questioning the approach you took to race in the article, and this kind of dialogue happens somewhat frequently, and isn’t primarily about silencing trans issues.

    That is, I think Sunny was approaching the conversation in terms of you being white, while you were approaching it in terms of you being trans. The outcome, however, does shift the question away from “this woman was murdered” to something like “would you have cared as much if this black woman weren’t also trans?” which is a frustrating question to hear.

  6. Tobi Says:

    Yeah, woman of color is a very common term that’s pretty well accepted in feminist and race conscious spaces. The attempt to paint race as irrelevant is usually a part of the knee-jerk reaction toward color-blindness as a way to not have to think about or confront white privilege. In this case it is extremely relevant, as looking at the Day or Remembrance list, it’s always predominantly trans women of color (often immigrants or sex workers) who are victimized. That pattern needs to be a part of the discussion because it’s clear that that transphobia does not impacts all trans people equally.

    As to my post, I puzzled over that for a moment, as I am aware of no academic or media article that discusses language use around trans folks in the porn industry. I could have dug up someone else stating an observation of the same pattern, but it would have been just their word without any larger institutional support, the same as my statement.

    But I felt that discussing the pattern is important enough to do even without any larger verification of the fact. I think that valuing our oral histories are important, and I have heard this point from several of my elders (and observed it myself). Well, I also included the google search results as an attempt at some kind of verification of the trend. You only have to walk into any porn store and look at their “tranny porn” section to see how active the pattern is today, and if anyone cared enough to look through older porn, they’d see the same pattern. But since my point was about the implications of the pattern and not proving the pattern itself (and, I’ll admit it, I was rushed and feeling a bit daunted by the idea of proving it), I chose to discuss the subject without trying to prove it or trying to track down someone who had already proved it.

  7. Lisa Harney Says:

    Also, the image you use for the London Pride toiletgate posts, Helen, is itself evidence of the word being used against trans women.

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