Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The T-word, contested meanings and cultural imperialism

The erzatz furore over the use of the word “Tranny” by a well-known transwoman has been erupted in an unacceptable way, to my mind. Considering the rather dubious basis for some of the accusations and assertions it is worth considering some of the things those who criticise first and think later (or not at all) didn’t think about.

A hundred years ago, Ferdinand de Saussure made the, actually rather sensible and now apparently quite obvious observation that in language, the relationship between signifier and signified is purely arbitrary. In other words there is no link between the word itself and the object or concept which it represents. There is nothing in the word “tree” which can tell you that it signifies something brownish with a trunk, branches and leaves. The only reason that it does signify a tree is because enough people (ie. those who speak English) agree that it does.

In other words, language and words have meanings which are negotiated and contingent. Of course some words are more negotiated than others but all are contingent to some extent on the way people agree to use them. Of course not all people agree all the time about every word.

Pierre Bourdieu however noted how some language is more privileged than others, and how the power structures and hegemonies of society are brought to bear through language. Language does not inherently have any power, we cannot ascribe agency to something inanimate such as language. Power is exercised by people, through language and it is also the sublties such as tone of voice and body language which affect its meaning. This fits in with Saussure’s view of language and suggests that society exerts power through privileging certain forms of language over others. “He” for example is normally privileged over “she” reflecting the sexist and misogynistic power structures within society.

Gunther Kress however, went a stage further in his analysis of language and noted how linguistic communication is in fact entirely social, and is contingent on a complex relationship between the subject matter, the speaker (or writer), the listener (or reader), and the context. In other words, you cannot separate any utterance from the relationship between the signifier, signified, the communicator, communicatee and the context in which this is all happening. When other variables are factored in, such as the degree of disagreement about the word or words in question, it becomes clear that there are going to be no hard-and-fast rules about the use of any particular element of language which are not contingent on the person communicating, the people being addressed, the situation in which the communication is taking place and indeed the media in which it is being expressed.

As such the use of a word such as “tranny”, the meaning and usage of which is still highly contested, will be difficult to predict in terms of making judgements about its appropriateness or otherwise. Of course in the case of a word like “he”, which is almost completely uncontested in terms of its meaning and usage, it will be much easier to predict and make judgements about the appropriateness of its usage.

To illustrate this, transgender people consider the usage of the word “Tranny” inappropriate in cisgender media. However even here there are going to be exceptions when cisgender media are discussing the appropriateness of its usage, when they are quoting from transphobic hate-criminals or when reporting hate crime or examples of transphobic discrimination. However as a recent survey has shown, there is no evidence whatsoever of any feeling in the trans community that it is wrong for trans people to use this word. As such there is no problem, for most trans people, for a transwoman performing drag calling herself “Tranny”. In the case of Mzz Kimberley’s performances at Transgender Days of Remembrance in London, the additional contextual locating of the performance, that of lifting the mood after a particularly difficult reading of the names of 179 trans people who had been murdered during the year, meant her performance enabled the participants to get over the depressing and sad mood, to help people to regain some kind of optimism to enable them to face the future. As such it was particularly appropriate. Of course one participant (out of about 100) disagreed and made an accusation of transphobia about this, although this is all the more puzzling considering the fact that she didn’t complain a year ago, when the same song was performed for TDoR.

In contrast the use of “he” by Planet Transgender to describe Mzz Kimberly, who clearly identifies as female in her everyday life as well as her performances, is easy to come to a judgement on. It is clearly unacceptable and represents deliberate transphobia. One doesn’t need a survey to know that misgendering is one of the areas in which transgender people and their supporters almost unanimously agree is unacceptable whether it is done by cisgender media or by trans people.

The fact is that, like most words in the English language, or indeed any language, the meaning, implicit or explicit, and connotations of the word “tranny” is always going to vary according to context, subject and person using the word. If I say, “There’s going to be a war” and David Cameron says “There’s going to be a war” the meaning will be completely different. If David Cameron said it in the context of a drink with his friends down the pub or on the steps of 10 Downing Street, it would also have different meanings. To ignore these multiple textual, contextual and social elements to any utterance is to ignore the most important elements of that utterance in terms of its meaning, relevance and importance.

One of the contextual and social elements which people use to judge the importance of any particular utterance on the internet, and especially in the blogosphere, is the extent to which a blogger is willing to permit people to respond and contribute to the discussion and ideas raised in the blog itself. Obviously bloggers who disable comments or who “moderate” large numbers of comments such that many do not appear, should be taken far less seriously than those who are prepared to permit others to respond. Indeed bloggers who do so devalue their ideas by about 99%. By doing so these people are effectively communicating to us that they are not confident enough of what they say to be able to argue it with others. Indeed so many people I know tried to respond to Planet Transgender’s blog that I got several people actually complain to me about it down the pub…

Another variable in this situation is of course, culture. Most people seem to make the mistake of assuming that British and American cultures are very similar because we speak the same language. This is well wide of the mark. British culture has much more in common with those of our north-west European neighbours than it does with that of the United States. One of the features of this is humour and lightening the mood. The best way to illustrate this is ITMA. ITMA, or “It’s That Man Again” was one of the most famous radio programmes of all time, although it is little heard of today. During the dark days of the blitz in 1940-41, when London effectively suffered a 9/11 every day for 9 months, people all over Europe risked their lives to tune in to the BBC to hear news from the free world. Most were surprised, if they tuned in when ITMA was being broadcast, to hear laughter, lots of laughter. In the face of the most brutal and destructive attack on our country in history people were listening to comedy on the radio and laughing.

Different peoples deal with death and horror in different ways. In Britain we tend towards feeling intense pain but then lightening the mood so that we can get on with everything and fight to live another day. TDoR could easily make some people depressed and inaction and resignation can often come from this. Mzz Kimberly’s performance, in the context of our national cultural heritage, was not merely appropriate, it was magical.

At London TDoR I was honoured by being invited to be one of the five people to speak the names of our fallen brothers and sisters. Despite reading out the names and ages of two 16-year-olds and a 16 month old, I pretty much held my British stiff upper lip and did so without too many tears. I allowed myself to weep quietly in my seat afterwards while CN Lester amazingly performed the unenviable task of following the silence with a piece on the piano. While he was doing this I had time, through my tears, to reflect on the list which I still held in my hand. I realised that there were a lot of places where there were no names of dead trans people. The whole of Africa, Russia, China, Eastern Europe and Mongolia. Apart from Turkey and Pakistan there were none from the middle East.

I refuse to believe for one moment that there were no murders of trans people in Damascus, Baghdad, Novosibirsk, Ulan Bator, Guangzhou, Lagos, Volgograd, Harare, Riga, Cairo, Cape Town, Casablanca or any of the smaller towns an villages in isolated places in these teeming and highly populated nations. The names we read out on the TDoR were clearly just the tip of the iceberg. The real number of trans people who have been murdered last year is probably many times the 179 we read out. In many cases their deaths will never be recorded because they were carried out either by or with the connivance of the states they lived in, or by oppressive religious authorities. This is the real issue, there could be as many as 1,000 of us murdered every year, with countless more driven to suicide. This is what should be uniting us in a determination to fight, rather than throwing stones at others in our community and then running away…


  1. I didn't go to this year's TDOR, but I went to last year's where she did the same song. FWIW, a few trans women who were actually there this year or last have said that the song does make them feel uncomfortable. Which, of course, does not call for Plane Transgender (the url only has one t) to leap into the breach, and certainly not in such an offensive fashion.

  2. Thanks Natacha, excellent analysis, quotes and deconstruction of the issues.
    I wrote an article on Tuesday 23rd November and published it on Facebook on Wednesday 24th November with links to some of the Blogistan tribal warfare you referred to.
    It's positive to have a mature open debate without censorship or blocking or using "offence" to dismiss some people from the debate (and the trans community in many situations).
    Here's to more people writing about anti-oppression strategies as Hate Crime Theory and banning words doesn't appear to be stopping violent transphobic murders.

  3. Natacha, your analysis is spot on. This is the first time I've seen, very clearly on the internet, how American cultural-imperialist discourse can manifest so blatantly within a small community such as hours. Kudos to you for a well put together analysis of the situation, which reflects a larger trend of how the anglophone world's trans experience has been disproportionally shaped by American trans culture.

    (Slight point of contention re: moderation, however. I agree that Planet Transgender's outright shutting down of comments is simply more of a manifestation of their refusal to admit wrongdoing, refusal to admit that MAYBE some people in the world who speak English have a different culture and community from America. But your comment about moderating hit home for me, having been on the Trans and Feminist blogospheres for a good while, where it is often necessary to moderate heavily and block many comments, simply to maintain discourse that isn't triggering, misogynistic or simply derailing conversations about oppression. In those cases, I favour heavy moderation because the internet is full of entitled Privilege Denying peeps.)