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January 16, 2012
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January 16, 2012

Tranny: An Evidence-Based Review

“Tranny” seems to be a contentious term within the GLBT community. For many in the trans community, we’ve known “tranny” to be a term associated with the gay (specifically gay male) community; a term used by gay men to talk about the trans experiences in a pithy, ironic or comical way. The term is usually spelled one of two ways: “Tranny” or “Trannie”. Recently a number of notables have begun experiencing the ire of the trans community when the term is used in a public forum. The trans community asserts that “tranny” is a term akin to “faggot”. Some have asserted their right to use the term in public while others assert that the public use of the term is disrespectful.

Instead of quibbling over opinions, let’s instead look at the historical context this term has been used (and by whom) during its short existence as a word associated with the trans experience.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Slang (p. 336) has the following entry:

Trannie: Noun. A transvestite. 1983 -. GAY TIMES “By 11 pm they seem drunkenly immune to the influx of trannies, trendies, and other creatures of the night”  (1990). [From abbreviation of transvestite + -ie.]

Word Usage: Historical Context

1985

1985, New Yorker, page 49

“In March, Sally joined a cabaret act called the Tranny Crew. The group consisted of three women and one transvestite. All four stuffed their bras and performed original rap music at the Pyramid Club.”

1986

1986, New Society (p. 23)

“First man on the cover of Cosmopolitan, first man to say he preferred a cup of tea to sex – Boy George came to see himself a the tranny who tamed the world, or at least the global village.”

1991

1991 Queer Community Flier

“Queer means to fuck with gender. There are straight queers, bi-queers, tranny queers, lez queers, fag queers, SM queers, fisting queers in every single street in this apathetic country of ours.”

1993

1993, Dirty looks: Women, Pornography, Power, p. 215

“Cross-dressers often desire, not the security of a perfect imitation, but rather the delicious impersonation that belies complete disguise: the hairy leg in the lace suspender, the bald pate in the bonnet. In ‘tranny‘ (transvestite) publications such as The World of Transvestite, a man’s hairsuit calf protrudes beneath the silken skirt, the shadow of an erection is pressed against the lacy lingerie.”

1994

1994, The Advocate Magazine p 115

“Rub-a-dub-dub, a tranny in a tub”

1994, Ripper by Michael Slade, p159

“Karen nodded. “He worked the tranny strip on Davie off Burrard. How’s your hand?” She eyed the splints on his fingers. “I’m ambidextrous,” Nick said, and threw her a smile. “Gimme crack and I’ll rim you,” Karen whispered.

1998

The domain tranny.com is created

2000

October 2000, Winnipeg Free Press

“In Tranny School, a former porn model conducts training classes in how to be a transvestite.”

2002

August 2002, Santa Fe Reporter

“Not since The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a rag-tag troupe of trannie glamsters rocked so hard, and with such heart. Originally conceived and written by John Cameron Mitchell (who spent some of his formative years in Albuquerque), Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a musical about an aging German punk/glam chanteuse, Hedwig (ne Hansel), whose life is dictated by a sex change operation gone way, way wrong—the mishap leaves Hedwig stuck somewhere between male and female.”

2003


March 2003, The New Mexican

“Otherwise, transgender characters “are primarily brought in .during sweeps,” laments Adams, “where they’re either the ‘tragic tranny‘ — homeless, murder victim, killer — or, when there’s a sort of liberal paternalism: Oh, these poor sick people, we really need to help them.’” He notes that a recent episode of CBS’ operated CSI centered on “an elusive criminal mastermind, a serial killer, where it’s revealed that he had a sex change operation from female to male, with creepy flashbacks and horror music behind it.”

2003 TV listing for NYPD Blue’s “Tranny Get Your Gun”

Clip from NYPD Blue’s “Tranny Get Your Gun”

June 2003, Santa Fe Reporter

“Mothers, lock the doors and hide your children (unless you happen to be a member of PFLAG), because Pride Week is upon us. The Paramount has long been the traditional cornerstone of Pride activities, but this year Swig joins in on the fun, and the queer-friendly gaggle of ladies ‘n’ trannie gents at Backroad Pizza will throw a new twist into this favorite institution.”

October 2003, Santa Fe Reporter

“Moment-in-time #2 also involved Andy Primm and Chopper Sick Balls’ lead singer Sue Fury. It was last Sunday night, when CSB opened for the Hollis Wake at Bar B. The Hollis Wake busted into their groovy little number “Gingivitis,” prompting Primm and Fury to commence what can only be described as strange punk rock lambada. It was hot and sexually ambiguous— here’s a borderline trannie singer with melting Iggy Pop eyeliner dirty dancing with Santa Fe’s answer to David Bowie—and it made me feel sexy and careless and happy I was there.

2003 Urban Dictionary: Tranny

2004

November 2004, The Gleaner

“The real Ignacio (Francisco Boira), a drugged-out trannie, collapses over a typewriter while writing and smashes his/her heavily made-up face into the keys.”

2005

2005, Pasatiempo Magazine

On Saturday, Nov. 12, Wise Fool New Mexico hosts Lynnee Breedlove and her One Freak Show. Breedlove has been entertaining audiences for nearly a decade with her queer punk band Tribe 8, and her one-person One Freak Show is pure icing on the tranny cake. Billed as a performance of ”queer homohop punkrock sugarcoated feminist tranny theory.- stand-up comedy on transgender bodies, family, and community,” Breedloves show is a multifaceted exploration of gender issues through the eyes of one of queer cultures most outspoken and humorous devotees. Through music, spoken word, and some creative use of stuffed animals, the politics of sexuality get a much needed dose of not-so-serious self-examination.

March 2005, Minnipeg Free Press

“On the other hand, there is a painstaking affirmation of traditional native tolerance to marginal sexuality — here represented by the aforementioned tranny hookers affiliated with the Indian Posse, a sign, Gonick and co-scriptwriter David McIntosh have compromised their script with agendas of their own, including: How do we make the film homo-erotic?”

October 2005, Associated Press

“I don’t want to call it a split personality — but sometimes, I feel like a girl. So I put on the costume, what feels comfortable,” says the 18-year-old Chicagoan, who refers to himself as “tranny boy.” The term is deliberately ambiguous, reflecting the gray area in which Polanco exists, where gender is blurred and he feels no obligation to choose female over male — or vice versa.”

April 2005, San Francisco Weekly

“The Tranny Pack – Tonight an all-transgender troupe revives the vaudevillian are for with the”Tranny Roadshow.” a cross-country tour of artists and performers.”

Use of Trannie/Tranny in Books: 1983 – 2008

The above graph reviews the frequency in which the terms “tranny” and “trannie” were used in books published between 1983 and 2008. It’s worth noting that until the 1980s, the term “tranny” referred to any of the following words: transistor, radio, television, photograph or transmission. However, note the rise in the words use between the 1994 – 2001. Since this spike corresponds with a spike in other trans terms, it’s reasonable to conclude that it was in first part of the 1990s that “tranny” entered into common usage by society at large.

Current Contexts

Now that I’ve reviewed the way in which this term was used in a historical context, let’s look at the way our culture currently uses this term:

Tranny/Trannie Google search frequency

The above graph is a review of the frequency people use google to search for “tranny” and “trannie” between the years 2003 and 2011. During the last year (2011), a number of incidents account for spikes in the search trends:

Cultural Context: 2011

Now lets look at exactly what people look for when they’re google’n “tranny” and “trannie”:

Cultural Context

How does interest in “tranny” and “trannie” stack up against other trans terms such as “transsexual” and “transgender”?

Search volume: Tranny (blue), Trannie (red), Transsexual (yellow) and Transgender (green)

When the data are narrowed to specific categories, interesting trends arise:

  • Arts & Entertainment (TV & Video, Online Media):

  • Online Communities (Dating & Personals, Forum & Chat Providers):
  • People and Society (Ethnic & Identity Groups, Social Issues & Advocacy):
  • News (Gossip & Tabloid News, Celebrities & Entertainment News, Newspapers):

(Note: The bars in the graph represent averages for each line on the above chart graph)

Wrap up

From the evidence available to me, I feel that I can draw some conclusions:

  • This term seems to have originated from the gay male community.
  • This term seems, in it’s original context, to relate to performers (closely associated with the party culture) of one type or another.
  • The term became more closely aligned with the drag community (both FTM and MTF) in the 1980s to mid-1990s.
  • The term became more closely aligned with the sex industry in the mid-1990s and this seems to be an upward trend.
  • The term dominates google searches by orders of magnitude in most areas (especially in the media) with the exception of specific social causes.
  • There seems to be a disconnect between the gay and drag community’s uses the term “tranny” and the way the term “tranny” is most commonly used outside of these communities by the society at large.

Some debatable questions:

  • What impact does an obviously very popular context of framing the trans experience (tranny) have on social justice movements?
  • When the majority clearly associates “tranny” with the sex industry while the gay and drag community associates the term with performance and partying, will this affect the ability of the GLBT community to communicate well?

cross-posted from Ehipassiko

Cristan Williams
Cristan Williams
Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of the transgender community. She started the first trans homeless shelter in the South and co-founded the first federally funded trans-only homeless program, pioneered affordable healthcare for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. Cristan is the editor at the social justice sites TransAdvocate.com and TheTERFs.com, is a long-term member and previous chair of the City of Houston HIV Prevention Planning Group.
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  • The trouble is evidence is hard to find of oral-histories. Whether it’s indigeneous peoples or street-culture if they weren’t getting as easilly published it’s harder to find the evidence. So the claims that it was an Australian Transgender communities self-defined term for themselves can’t be so easilly tested. Perhaps interviews of surviving people from the time period from Sydney could be done? After all if we did a similar search for the word Gay… how would it fare in the meaning and usage of mainstream society where the phrase ‘that’s so Gay’ is increasingly used and is clearly derogatory?

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  • On the Rock

    Perhaps you could give us a little “historical context” on other words that have become offensive. You could start with the “N” word.  gee i wonder just what the reaction would be? 

  • Jonathan Tait

    From the historical context there are also Vicky Lee’s annual “Tranny Guide”s, which she produced between 1993 and 2004 (from WayOut in London).

    Maybe it’s a UK thing, but I don’t remember any problems with the title of Vicky’s books.

    Or maybe it’s a contemporary thing; maybe people are more sensitive to the pejorative nature of the word now – in which case maybe there would be problems if she revived the book under the same title. I do recall that for the last volume she changed it to “Transgender AtoZ”.