A controversy that I had stayed out of

Far too many pixels have been wasted in the last few months in the row about whether ‘tranny’ is a) a vile insulte comparable to the ‘n-word’ as an instrument of repression, assault and abuse b) a term that has historically been offensive but can be reclaimed the way ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ have been as words which are ok or even positive used among ourselves c} something that, on the whole, one would wish to see gone while regarding the struggle for medical rights, against social exclusion, for personal happiness as rather more important or d) none/all of the above.

I incline towards c, while respecting the views of people who don’t agree with me.

What I will not accept is the attempt by various people – notably Gina Morvay, who comments on Bilerico as ginasf – to muddy the historical record by accusing Kate Bornstein of either misrepresenting the truth, or being over-invested in untruths told her by the late Doris Fish.

What Kate has said is that she understands that in sections of the Sydney and Melbourne communities in the late 70s, some people used the word positively about themselves.

This is in fact the case. I never met or knew Doris, but I corresponded with some of the women in the Playgirls troupe and met them when they came to London. Various people I know, now dead, were part of that community when in Australia. They all used ‘tranny’ about themselves and their friends.

According to my friends, they did so as part of an egalitarian world-view in which they wanted there to be no distinction between people who, at a given moment, identified as drag queens, transvestites, cross-dressing performers or pre- and post-op transexuals. No one got to pull rank – most people in that community turned the occasional trick, or performed on stage, not because that was who they were particularly but so that they could not pull rank over those more invested in hustling or shows.

And a lot of that community died in the epidemic, or are dead from other causes, and it is all in the past and not remembered even in those cities all that much. Maybe this particular worldview was less widespread in the community than it seemed to me at the time as I listened to those voices – I am sure plenty of people will want to correct me.

But what I will say is that the little I know bears out what Doris told Kate. Historical records are made out of a lot of voices, and they are all a part of the truth.

Gina has accused Kate of making ‘underresearched’ statements – a claim which contains some elitist assumptions. When a community is dead, and was not the sort of community that left all that much in the way of written records, how precisely do we research them except through anecdotal memory?

None of which, in the end, affects the fact that a clear majority of the community is either hugely or moderately offended by the term and wants it gone and out of use and rationed in fiction even in the name of realism.

But different views have existed and we should not make this the crucial indicator of transphobia in the great world. After all, Janice Raymond, Robin Morgan, Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel manage to be the gold standard of transphobia without, as far as I know, ever using the word.


About rozkaveney

Middleaged, trans, novelist, poet, activist
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49 Responses to A controversy that I had stayed out of

  1. rozkaveney says:

    Oh, and the ‘me’ of which particular year in my long and colourful past? I’ve experimented with so many identities and self-indentifications that I look back and only vaguely recognize myself.

    • cmcmck says:

      Being straight and assimilated, I suspect that my experience has been somewhat less complex than your own, but that, in the end, is the real advantage of ‘me’ as a self identification. :o)

  2. matociquala says:

    This feels like a good time to mention just how much I admire you.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Historical (and legal) Methodology


    do not sell yourself (or your evidence short). “Anecdotal memory” is part of oral history and that is increasingly regarded (especially in circles arrogant enough to describe as “underresearched” [DQ: how does that Teutonic-style word formation get into English discourse?] first hand evidence).

    That was with my historian’s hat on – now I’ll speak as a lawyer and do we know about quality (or lack of it) of evidence. First hand evidence of the time is the best, if there are no contemporaneous records – which is hardly likely in this context. If not hearsay evidence (which, contrary to public perception, is acceptable as evidence) is the next best – and the key issue is always that the best evidence available be used.

    Reverting to the other hat – through most of the historical record we are lucky to get first hand hearsay.


    • cmcmck says:

      Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

      My own specialist area (17th century British Isles) is too far back to provide much anecdotal memory give or take the odd diary but you nonetheless make an important point. My own experience as a historian who also shares a lot of Roz’s personal experiences (transitioned young pre undergrad a very long time back) gives me something of an unusual take on all this!

      I was involved in a project a while back to interview British Korean War vets and it was amazing how often I was told: ‘no one wanted to talk to us about this’, to which my response was: ‘well, I do!’ :o)

      Oral history is hugely important.

      • maellenkleth says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        Well, that got a wry smile, as the question always arises: how do we reconcile woodworking with the collection of authentic oral histories?

      • x_mass says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        well presumably through the artefacts and tools they leave behind

        or were you talking about a different kind of woodwork? :p

      • cmcmck says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        The woodwork that some of the older generation chose to inhabit as a means of self preservation! _maellenkleth_ and I are exact contemporaries from the old struggles :o)

      • scattermoon says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        Speaking as yet another historian, specialising in 20th Century Germany, I concur that oral history is vital, and often underappreciated. It tends to play more of a role in social and cultural history as opposed to political history, and it’s the politics that often steal the mainstream attention. I actually used oral history myself for one of my essays, given that my grandfather served in the army at the Malay Uprising, and his testimony was a highly useful addition to the official accounts. One only need look at the Millbank ‘riots’ last week to learn how official accounts can miss a great deal of detail and reasoning. Not everyone can make their voices heard…which is the matter at hand here.

      • x_mass says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        i did radical social and feminist history at ruskin and oral history is a critical part of a history that is often forcibly obscured or denied by the history of the people in power

      • x_mass says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        how many of us are historians?

      • cmcmck says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        Quite a few, it seems :o)

    • cakmpls says:

      Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology


    • Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

      Ooh, can we talk about how that history is mobilized? Say in Kate Bornstein’s case, where she is trying to use this anecdote (which I will say here: I do not believe a community in Australia invented the slur to describe themselves, and I do believe that even if they did use it in a positive way and invent it, it became a hostile slur very rapidly) to convince trans people to adopt this slur that is used by cis people almost exclusively to attack trans people and turn us into punchlines. It is simply common sense to use it against trans people in a dehumanizing way, and while other slurs (racial, for example) actually get fines from the FCC in the US, this one word is acceptable and frequently used in PG-rated television shows and movies.

      Kate’s perspective contains absolutely no analysis of the word’s modern relevance, or even its past relevance outside of a small community in Australia, and even rejects that much larger relevance of the word’s use as hate speech against a marginalized population.

      • rozkaveney says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        1. It’s not Kate’s anecdote alone. It is, as I think I have made clear, mine also.
        2. It was not a slur when and where they used it – it was an equalizing term based on an ethic of equality.
        3. I don’t know how it became a slur used by cis people – I think it got picked up by some LGB people some of whom used it negatively,
        4. All of this came up because some people, mostly young trans guys, wanted to reclaim and decontaminate it; if it were always and everywhere a slug, that would not be possible.
        5. It is sometimes a vicious slur and insult, and equally clearly sometimes not intended as one.
        6. It is not universally the case that trans people are offended by the term itself; the extent to which I take offense at it depends on the extent to which I am meant to.

      • Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        1. True or not, how is it relevant to now?

        2. True or not, how is it relevant to now?

        3. It’s been used as a slur for decades. Whether there was some gender utopia in Australia where it was a positive term is only relevant in a historical sense.

        4. Trans guys reclaiming a term that, by and large, has not been mobilized against them. This is entitlement. I do not believe they can reclaim it. I do not believe that reclamation is actually possible. The word carries too much negative currency.

        5. Unfortunately, the dominant usage is a vicious slur. All uses are colored by this.

        6. I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. Does this mitigate the fact that the word is used as hate speech against trans women? That it is even used on prime time television in degrading ways? Is context only important to counter the prevailing cultural forces?

      • rozkaveney says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        1 and 2 If we don’t know the whole truth, how can we possibly discuss what’s relevant.
        3. Actually, as someone who was around in those decades ( remember I first made contact with the community in 1967) I don’t remember it being used in an especially negative way until comparatively recently. Please don’t try to tell me what my experience was.
        4. I don’t think it is for either of us to decide how much it has been used negatively against trans men – I don’t know and neither do you. I know some of my trans guy friends are conflicted about the whole issue.
        5 and 6. You believe the word is intrinsically hate speech – since the word has no internal negative connotations and has not got a long history as hate speech as part of an apparatus of oppression, I can’t see how it can have. It is a diminishing word which means that it is often a jeering sneering word and a lot of its usage is negative.

        How can it be the case that cis people who do not hate trans people use it out of cluelessness if it is intrinsically hateful? Are all those people lying about their real feelings towards us? Hate speech cannot, by definition, be inadvertent.

        It is legitimate for those of us who object to the term to ask people to be aware we would prefer that they did not say it. The assumption that this should be blindingly obvious to them without our saying so is not one to which I subscribe.

      • noirrosaleen says:

        …I actually just discovered it’s considered an insult a couple of months ago. I was rather surprised. Then again, I’m not directly involved in the LGBT community, so…

      • x_mass says:

        Re: Historical (and legal) Methodology

        reclaiming tranny has been going on for a long while I was having discussions about its use in the mid nineties as part of pride, when Tom brookes who was one of the key people in getting the name of pride changed used it about him, me and adam. back then I riled against it because I was still so insecure about myself. It takes time to grow and recognise the truth – we owe tom a lot for all his efforts and help

  4. Whether it was for good or for bad, and whether we support or condemn the events, when we lose part of our history we lose part of ourselves.

    I’ve got something 2 bookshelfs full of originals and photocopies of UK nuclear industry literature, a big mix covering from technical and internal to the stuff for public education and stretching from the early ’60s to mid ’90s. Given none of it was published as a book and only a fraction as newsletters, and the ‘purging’ that privitisation lead to I expect little of it is in readily (public) accessible archived. Kinda creeps me out I may have one of only a handful of copies of something important.

    And in similar vein, while the net revolution has lead to an explosion in written and visual records and the internet may be ‘build to survive a nuclear war’, the web is brittle as hell. I’ve lost count of the number of whole sites I’ve seen vanish in a blink, taking the sole copies of stuff with them.

    • scattermoon says:

      You should write a book using the materials you have, if you feel up to it.

    • x_mass says:

      i really hope that genderpeace is backed up somewhere, yes theirs a lot of stuff that a lot of stealth people would like to stay hidden but if they take out the picture threads the text is a really interesting process of exploration of transition

  5. scattermoon says:

    I feel part of the problem with ‘stealth’ and ‘passing’ is the lack of any convenient alternatives, beyond saying ‘passing as cis’ for example. This is absolutely not the case for ‘tranny’.

    • x_mass says:

      can you be open and be stealth? Or is stealth and loud or out intricately an oposition

      passing and loud is possible, but again we come back to concepts like the pass laws in south africa.

      passing as straight vs closeted in the gay community

      or lines from the song black and blue from the 1929 musical ‘hot chocolate’ “I’m white, inside, but that don’t help my case, cause I, can’t hide, what’s in my face”

      the politics of passing have been going on for along time and being able to pass as white has been something to be admired for longer, yet now people are castigated for being able to pass for not being proud of being black. I know plenty of people who excluded by both the white and black communities because they are not fully…. in much the same way bisexuals are castigated by homosexuals and heterosexuals

      I don’t have a better word yet than passing (vs failing) but I would love one

      hows about home in the sense of this is my home base and i explore and travel but come home? My home is that i am women and i am accepted as such???

      • cmcmck says:

        You make some good points (nice to see you on here again btw :o) but I find that I am given grief by ‘the community’ because I happen to be straight, married and assimilated. I don’t choose to tell others who or what they are or should be and I wish others would extend the same basic good manners to me- the situations you mention do not have to be oppositional.

        As I said above, I tire of ‘in crowd’ terminology- life’s too short………..

      • x_mass says:

        because of where i stand I cannot see what you do, so I guess you may be right and i hope my mind can understand what you see.

        as to the grief you suffer, if i have done such to you then may I apologise and i will try to stand up to others who might give you such grief and can i also wish you belated congratulations on your marriage. It probably utterly stupid, as for all I know your about to celebrate your silver anniversary. But what I am really happy about is that you have found love and apparently happiness and that seems to be such a rare thing for people who walk through road we do that any example should be celebrated.

        I was talking to someone else via the guardian articles. To a woman who has by all accounts met a wonderful man, her life revolves around crimson tide football games and being the best lawyer she can be. I am over the moon for her. I am so pleased, i don’t have the words and I feel the same way for you. I lost touch my mentor, mostly because my loudness made her stealth harder, but it’s a friendship I miss greatly. I so hope she is married and happy, she was a wonderful friend to me when i was lost and I wish I could be a good friend to her now – yet I know that by my very being I might bring pain. I know that stealth people stay away from me and I can truly understand why, all i can do is wish them well in their lives

        as i said I hope life is going well for you, for as you say life is short

      • cmcmck says:

        We’ve actually been married for a bit over four years (the law got in the way a bit before that) although we’ve been together for a bit over seventeen.

        I can honestly say that you have never been the cause of such an upset and you have every right to be as out and loud and proud as you wish just as I have every right not to be and to object to the crowd who think it right to ‘out’ people who don’t wish to be outed. I notice that these self styled ‘experts’ have often transitioned five minutes ago as against my own thirty odd years ago.

        They should maybe read a little history?


      • x_mass says:

        “I notice that these self styled ‘experts’ have often transitioned five minutes ago as against my own thirty odd years ago.”

        and 5 years later they will be stealth and hoping nobody does to them that they seem so willingly to do to others

        I feel very lucky that some of my friends who have gone stealth are willing to stay friends with me despite the difficulty I must cause them. What I want for them is to have happy fulfilled lives. I hope that’s true for you



      • agent_dani says:

        I’m coming to wonder if anyone truly escapes that grief. I have, for example, received (what I consider to be) a significant amount because I don’t desire to be stealth and because my wife and I are staying together.

  6. we should not make this the crucial indicator of transphobia in the great world.

    Who is doing this, really? Who is putting all their energy into stopping the use of this word vs. everything else?

    • rozkaveney says:

      I would hope no-one is. Given that people are accusing Kate and me of being Toms for even discussing the question, clearly far too many of us.

      • My criticism of things Kate has said goes a lot deeper than her call for all of us to start using “tranny” and dismissing or ignoring its problematic history.

        Did you know she’s also defended the idea of butch flight? That butch lesbians are fleeing womanhood?

        And, really, IME, the word is a prelude to worse abuse or even violence. The word carries a certain weight for a lot of people. Defenses of usage aren’t going to be taken with much grace.

      • rozkaveney says:

        Actually, it all depends on one’s particular experience. I’ve been beaten up; I’ve had someone drive their car at me – neither time did anyone call me tranny. I’ve been thrown out of lesbian bars – no use of the word. OTOH, lovers have used it tenderly until I asked them not to.

        Kate says a lot of things – she is a contrarian – quite often she is wrong. Sometimes she starts conversations we need to have; sometimes she is just being difficult.

        I was around in the sex wars; I watched various communities expel, disown, ostracise and attack some of their finest and best as well as some other people who were mostly a pain in the arse; I also watched a lot of other people walk away in disillusion and disgust.

        We need not to do this to each other. We need to be able to agree to disagree. We need to be able to have conversations openly without excommunicating each other or thinking that we cannot discuss certain things because the radfems might be listening.

      • Kate’s not trying to have a conversation. As far as I can tell she’s shut down or ignored disagreement and then spent time mocking trans people who protested TOTWK as pro-censorship with Neil Gaiman on twitter.

        This whole thing came about because she was working on a book with S. Bear Bergman that would have had the word “tranny” in the title, and basically told everyone who didn’t like this to shut up and sit down. That’s when she first mentioned this anecdote.

        And I’ll say this: When you start saying that trans men are not really men but probably deluded lesbians, you have departed the realm of conversation and are just perpetuating oppressive stereotypes. I am not trying to disown or ostracize her, but I do not find she has anything of relevance to add to my life.

        If I was concerned about whether the radfems were listening I wouldn’t openly disagree with other trans people at all.

      • rozkaveney says:

        1. I was asked to contribute to Gender Outlaws The Next Generation at a fairly early stage and Tranny was never mentioned at the point when I heard about the book.
        2. Where exactly did she say the stuff about trans men? Give me a source and a quote and I will go off and shout at her.
        3. May I say that I find your constant reference to the lives of a lot of dead women I care about quite deeply as part of my past as an anecdote quite demeaning and trivializing?

      • x_mass says:

        I am a tranny

        I agree with kate, plenty of times i have been beaten up and no one has said the word tranny. I have also been called tranny both as a word of abuse and occupationally as point inclusion

        I am a tranny, there I have said it. I say it because I’m also a dyke and I have been called a dyke and been beaten up as well

        I use the word tranny because I refuse to let you, or anyone else, make me be ashamed of who I am. I refuse to be ashamed of being a drag king, I refuse to be ashamed of being IS, I refuse to be ashamed of being transexual and I am loud and proud of all those aspects of my being transgender

        as i said elsewhere I was gifted dyke by women who stood up and were proud before me, I was gifted gay by people who stood and were proud when even their own community was screaming insults at them in the streets. I was gifted queer by numerous activist that sought to recognise diversity and too pride in their diversity. I btw am a Jew by race if not by religious practice and i don’t have to list you the millions of people who have fought over centuries to bear that word.

        I use the word tranny to describe myself, if you don’t want to that fine. I truly grateful to kate for connecting me doris fish, for doris reminds me of my connection to others in my community, that I do not stand alone.

      • Re: I am a tranny

        Wow, where in the heck did I say anyone should be ashamed of who they are? What is it exactly that you’re think you’re defying here?

      • x_mass says:

        Re: I am a tranny

        god i hate how bad i am at english especially in the middle of the night. For you think the you think the great they, you know them, them over there, where, anywhere, just not you singular. please excuse my tendency to rant and my appalling tendency to rant at those who are supportive and kind rather than those who need to be ranted at.

      • Re: I am a tranny

        Okay, thank you.

        My own comprehension is not up to par right now. 😦

  7. tearsofzorro says:

    Just taking a wee tangent here (especially as I have had no exposure to the current controversy):

    When a community is dead, and was not the sort of community that left all that much in the way of written records, how precisely do we research them except through anecdotal memory?

    That sums up my feelings about script kiddie (wannabe hackers without the knowhow to do anything without relying on an out-of-the-can solution) culture in the mid-to-late 90s.

    One of the things that emerged from that culture was “Leet-speek” where you’d 7’/P3 £1|

    • x_mass says:

      i always been crap at languages and got horribly confused by leet, I personally have been part of the online gaming culture at various times back to bartles and cix’s mud and had friends on lamda moo. I used to play a lot in UT space and made a home in UNF (unreal fortress). i was doing my masters when I was playing UNF and i wish i spent less time doing my masters and more time playing UNF. I still miss all my fellow players

      the whole anti-oral thing is most clearly expressed in wikipedia and almost ‘science’ attitude to data. The idea that tertiary data is more useful and more important than primary is so cart before as to be unspeakable.

      As for the all under tranny its just a moving of the ground from transgender to trans to t and now tranny as transexuals try to make any word that has any sense of power exclusively about them. This is the politics of insecurity. I was recently reminded of sheila jeffereys playing the same trick with the word lesbian. so that lesbian didn’t mean women who love and fuck each other but ‘actually’ meant women who had a certain political consciousness about their relationships between themselves and if they exclusively slept with men that was immaterial. It’s an old slight of hand played by people who feel disposed from one state and want to feel better than though in their new ‘now lower’ position. think old money vs new money for a similar example

    • cmcmck says:

      I’m glad you mention polari. I know one elderly gay guy who still knows it, but the greatest source of all is Kenneth Williams’ and Hugh Paddick’s wonderful ‘Jule and Sand’ (two resting thesps) from the BBC radio series: ‘Round the Horn’- it is a truly amazing historical source :o)

  8. x_mass says:

    I posted later, in a later post but I’m interested in where Gina comes from in terms of the academy? Has she trained as a historian, does she specialise in public history and oral history, does she have academic basis for what she says of is merely a call to power, an “i know better than you because I do”.

    On one level of course everyone is a historian, we are all keepers of our own personal flames, and we all interested to a greater or lesser extent interested in how we are meshed in the networks of people around us. But in an academic sense I think I can claim to be historian, whilst I am mostly unpublished beyond a few academic libraries, I have studied public and oral history, the history from ‘below’ and of the people. With oral history it’s important to recognise that peoples memory scan be uchronic but that doesn’t mean that their primary knowledge is any less valid. And here both you and Kate are acting as secondary sources, But any controversial history is inevitably grabbed and reshaped by peoples perception in the future. The point of a historian, as you are doing is to recognise the contested nature of the history, to document it and to allow other in their turn to analyse it for themselves

  9. x_mass says:

    hello my dear, we haven’t chatted in a long while – why?

    want a pint some time?

  10. x_mass says:

    I loath facebook with avengeance, anything that has a policy of do evil as often and as much as possible i feel should be shunned

    I’ll find a way back up to your mid country area (the north is carlisle and scotland in my book) as soon as i can. i’m slowly getting stronger and I hope to be back to who I was in 03-05 in the next couple of years

    there something about chatting in person that just doesn’t work on the phone

  11. x_mass says:

    yup me too. me too

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