I think for anyone who has read even 2 articles on this blog can tell you, I love talking about sexuality.  Especially how the practices and viewpoints which make up our psyche affect our interactions with language, with other people, and with ideas about normativeness and privilege.  So I was more than ecstatic to take Sex, Gender, and Culture, an anthropology class at American University as a way to satisfy a general education credit and a major requirement for International Studies!

So far, I’ve been loving the class, but yesterday our conversation delved into the realm of performance transvestitism (which I already dislike the term for, as “transvestite” has a very negative connotation in society and is often used as a pejorative way of lumping gender non-normative people together).

Regardless, we dove in, and I tried my best to play along, inserting gender-sensitive definitions wherever I could, but the conversation inevitably overwhelmed me as my instructor accepted glossed-over explanations of very complicated gender concepts and the students absorbed nothing (in addition to not having done the reading- an excellent piece about drag performance in the home and in relation to Carnival in El Salvador). At one point, attempting to draw the distinction between transgendered people and “transvestites,” the professor asked the class to define a transgendered person- a concept we had fleshed out earlier in the semester- and they could come up with nothing better than “a person who wants to be the opposite gender.  *sigh*  Really?  Is that the best we can do?

Frustration mounted in me, but it came to a boil when the professor, in an attempt to focus the discussion on gender performance instead of gender identity, wrote the word “Tranny Prostitutes” on the board and then crossed it out, illustrating that this phenomenon was not what we were talking about.  I’m still at a loss for when, in an academic environment, it would ever be appropriate to use that phrase, except to deconstruct how horribly offensive and inaccurate it is.

The problem is that cis-gendered people are horrifically ill-educated about gender and the different ways that gender non-conformism occurs.  Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, transitioning, gender non-conforming, gender non-normative all mean the same thing, if they’ve even heard the words.   The use of the word “tranny” in everyday conversation is just one more example of this: rather than recognizing the word for what it is (a nasty way of referring to non cis-gendered people), people just see it as a shortened word, a harmless abbreviation.  Asher Bauer, whom I’ve featured before, talks about this concept brilliantly in his article, The T Word.  Ze further goes on to say how the term tranny is disproportionately placed upon trans women (biological men who dress/live as women), and in that regard he is spot on.

My professor implied, through the use of the phrase “tranny prostitutes” two inappropriate things, both of which stem from the poor intersection of sex and identity: one, that the sexualization of transgender or transitioning women is not legitimate; and two, that said sexualization can only occur within the bounds of “bad industry” such as sex work.  By pairing “tranny” with “prostitute,” he unconsciously equated the connotations of the two words.  AKA- prostitutes are bad, and trannies are bad, therefore tranny prostitutes must be REALLY BAD.  Ignoring the vilification of sex work, which bothers me equally but isn’t relevant here, the association made is that trannies can only be sexual when they are prostitutes, as if that is the only sphere in which they are acceptable.  Coming back to Bauer’s point, this critique only seems to apply to trans women, as trans men are excluded from discourse about prostitution altogether (despite the fact that the industry exists, the same way there’s a market for straight and gay male prostitutes).

I know that this isn’t the way my professor actually meant his comments, but the juxtaposition of his words was not an accident: it betrays a cultural misunderstanding and vilification of  trans and gender non-conforming people.   So lets all take a moment to run through our vocabulary list and consider the ways in which we oversimplify our understandings of sex and gender.  If you haven’t taken a look yet, I’ll direct you to Susan Stryker’s “Transgender Terms and Concepts,” which is in the downloadable blog articles box to the right of this post.  Educate yourself.  Watch the associations you make in speech, and apologize when you slip up.  We don’t vilify the people who make mistakes, only those who refuse to learn from them and become better.

Stay cool, queer kids.

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