Let's Talk Slurs: On the Term "Tranny"

By Jessica Mahmoud on May 9, 2017

In case you missed the memo, I doing a segment on slurs. So far I’ve talked about the terms dyke and fag. Since three’s a charm, I’m doing one more. This time I’m talking about the slur “tranny.”

I think it’s important to establish once more what I mean when I use the word slur. The book We Did What?! Offensive and Inappropriate Behavior in American History explains the following.

“Ultimately the meaning of a slur and its impact depend on the nature of a relationship between the speaker and the listener and their intentions. Members within a particular ethnic, racial, or gender group may use slurs among themselves, not intending to hurt each other or even as terms of endearment … The uses of slurs might sound offensive to listeners who do not understand the relationship between the speaker and listener or they do not understand that they mean no harm.”

The word tranny is usually a pejorative term used for a transgender person, although some transgender people have reclaimed the term.


Interestingly enough, the etymology of the word tranny is:

“In 1960s and ’70s, the word was used as a slang shortening of transistor radio and in car magazines for transmission” (Harper).

In talking about spending time in the 1960s Australia blogger Kate Bornstein talks about experience and the history of the term:

“No matter what ideas you might have about transsexuals or drag queens, if you were M headed toward F in any fashion at all, you moved into, through, up and out of the drag queen community. So there was always a bond between the drag queens and the MTF transsexuals in Sydney. The bond was so strong, they invented a name for the identity they shared: tranny. It was a name that said family. Doris Fish taught me that she and I were family.”

This site has a historical timeline of its use in media and online, etc.


While in my past slur pieces I listed the “types” of dykes or the fag discourse, I think the reasoning behind why folks reclaim or don’t reclaim the term tranny are most interesting to bring light to. Check it out:

Here’s Why People Like to Reclaim It

•”… it is the kind of term that has been claimed by many as a celebration of their own queerness, an indication of their intention to futz with our society’s deeply ingrained gender binary” (Lowder)

•”What [critics of the word] fail to recognize is that by banishing the use of the word TRANNY they will not be getting rid of the transphobia of those who use it in a negative way. What it does do is steal a joyous and hard-won identity from those of us who are and have been perfectly comfortable, if not delighted to BE TRANNIES” (Mx. Justin Vivian Bond quoted by Lowder)

•”… denies that the term has links to violence, explaining that in all forms of violence the perpetrator will use language they think will be the most derogatory, so banning a word like tranny would only add fuel to the fire” (Gregoire)

•”…in Australia, the word is not a slur but is used as an umbrella term encompassing drag queens as well as post and pre-op transsexuals” (Gregoire)

•”RuPaul and others contend that the t slur isn’t aimed at trans women, and therefore, he, as a cisgender, gay man, is welcome to use the term as he sees fit. He’s gone so far as to denounce those who have apologized for using the term” (Molloy)

Here’s Why People Don’t Think it Should be Reclaimed

•”using it encourages outsiders to sling it in hate, for example, or that it implies all trans individuals are sex workers” (Lowder)

•”the term “tranny” is used as a dehumanizing slur to describe transgender individuals and is oftentimes the last word someone hears before they are brutally attacked” (GLAAD quoted by Bass).

•”Please don’t say ‘tranny.’ It hurts. It’s a word people use to make trans people feel like shit, to reject our humanity, and to isolate us from the rest of the world. It’s a word people scream when they are beating us, strangling us, shooting us, setting us on fire, and dumping our bodies in ditches“ (McCallum)

•”When you continue to use words that are frequently used to dehumanize people like me, that are used as precursors for assault, after you’ve been informed how hurtful these words are, you’re no better than a racist who uses the ‘n word,’ the homophobe who calls gay men ‘faggots,’ or the misogynist who refers to his female coworkers as ‘bitches’” (Molloy)

•”It makes you feel like a joke, a freak, like you aren’t a human being worthy of even the most basic respect, even if you aren’t the specific person they’re talking about at the time” (McCallum)

I hope this post makes you think about both sides of the reclamation of the term “tranny” and helps start a conversation around the use of it. You’ll find my other pieces on slurs here and here.

As usual, feel free to check out the sources used as well as an abundance of additional resources below.


Bass, L. (2016). Why We Shouldn’t Use The Word ‘Tranny’ Huffpost.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lance-bass/why-we-shouldnt-use-the-word-tranny_b_1168078.html

Borstein, K. (2009). Who You Callin A Tranny? Kate Borstein  Is A Queer and Pleasant Danger – this is her blog. http://katebornstein.typepad.com/kate_bornsteins_blog/2009/07/who-you-calling-a-tranny.html    

Gregoire, P. (2014). Is ‘Tranny’ a Derogatory Term? Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/is-tranny-a-derogatory-term

Harper, D. Trannie. Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=tranny

Jay, T. (2017). We did what?! : Offensive and inappropriate behavior in American history. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood.

McCallum, D. Please Don’t Say Tranny. Queer Life. Medium. https://medium.com/queer-life/please-dont-say-tranny-6c9e3263a9ad

Molloy, P. M. (2014). Op-ed: It’s Time to Stop With the Word. Advocate. http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2014/02/20/op-ed-its-time-stop-t-word

Lowder, B.J. (2014). The “Tranny” Debate and Conservativism in the LGBTQ Movement. Slate. http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2014/05/30/is_tranny_a_slur_or_an_identity_who_decides.html

Tompkins, A. (n.d). “There’s No Chasing Involved”: Cis/Trans Relationships, “Tranny Chasers,” and the Future of a Sex-Positive Trans Politics. Journal Of Homosexuality, 61(5), 766-780.

Williams, C. Tranny: An Evidence-Based Review. The Tranadvocate.  http://transadvocate.com/tranny-an-evidence-based-review-2_n_13593.ht

Check These Out Too!

ADDAMS, C. (2014). Burning Books, One Word at a Time. Advocate, (1073), 75.

Grace, L., & Ozzi, D. (2016). Tranny : Confessions of punk rock’s most infamous anarchist sellout(First edition. ed.). New York: Hachette Books.

Heklina. (2015). The trouble with Tranny. Studies In Gender And Sexuality, 16(2), 142-143.

Rawson, K.J., and Williams, C. (2014). Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term. Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society.  http://www.presenttensejournal.org/volume-3/transgender-the-rhetorical-landscape-of-a-term/

Serano, J. A Personal History of the ‘T-word’ (and some more general reflections on language and activism. Whipping Girl. http://juliaserano.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-personal-history-of-t-word-and-some.html

Serano, J. (2007). Whipping girl : A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Zeisler, A. (2016). We Were Feminists Once : From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. New York: PublicAffairs

Originally published on Color It Queer

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