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?

 

 

 

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  2. As a transitioned woman, as a diagnosed transsexual, as a member of a group under the Transgender Umbrella, I equate the term Tranny/Trannie with the use of the N word for the African American Community. Both terms were used extensively in the past at the considerable expense of loss of respect to the people addressed, it has origins of no-so-nice descriptions of a disenfranchised group. It is really outdated and crude, even when used derisively by our own people. In short, it really has no place in today’s world.

    • Since transsexualism is no longer considered a mental disorder it is also no longer to require the distinguishing adjective “diagnosed”. It is no more inline with homosexuality. More specifically, one would not say, “I’m a diagnosed homosexual”.

      As far as your opinions on the word, I agree. I use the same exact comparison when I explain it to my cis friends and family.

  3. When we ban words and label them hurtful they become hurtful. When words are open to use they do not have the power to hurt that a verboten word does.

    Only victims are harmed by this or indeed any word.

    • Aren’t you the same asshole who set up the BeatingTrannies subreddit over at Reddit.com? You sick fuck.

  4. I think the fact that most trans* people find the word offensive has been widely publicized enough that pretty much no one has the excuse of ignorance.

    Why this matters to me: I’m a trans person who keeps to myself, I don’t want to be equated by a word with porn or drag performers. That implies that I’m little more than a prop or just play acting instead of expressing my true gender.

  5. The problem really comes from a disconnect not between the gay and drag. But between Transsexual/Transgender and Crossdressing, gay, and drag communities.
    As gender identity does not directly correlate with sexuality, nor with cross dressing. The term is used for crossdressers most of the time, or transsexuals with negative connotations.

    • I’ve not found evidence which supports the idea that this term is only used in an ironic or pithy way towards transsexuals.

      I agree that gender identity and sexual identity are not the same thing. I can find no evidence to support the notion that crossdressers and non-ops do what they do for reasons which exclude gender identity. From what I’ve found, crossdressers who are prevented from expressing crossdressing behaviors will suffer psychologically and even deal with feelings of suicide.

      The meme that all crossdressers and/or non-ops do what they do reasons which exclude gender identity isn’t supported by evidence which informs current scientific consensus.

  6. Hi Cristan, Thanks for sharing this interesting research. I was wondering if you would say a little about your methodology? How did you define the purview of your investigation or, in other words, what are the boundaries of your archive? Thanks! Paige

    • The two things I did here was a qualitative and quantitative research.

      Not only did I look at when and where the term pops up, I also looked at the context. Instead of only looking at gay media, I also reviewed straight media. Instead of looking at every single instance wherein the word was used – ever in the history of history – I tried to focus on the way the term was used in specific publications over time. Not only did I look at the proportion of web searches, I also looked at the context of the searches. Since “tranny” is an English neologism and I therefore focused on English language sources. Lastly, I tried to capture important moments in the word’s history: first appearance in print and first website for “tranny”

      Does that help?

      • Yes, thanks. I was curious because I’ve heard some transwomen who came of age in the 70s/early 80s who suggested that “tranny” had currency as a self-identifier in their communities, but it seems like your research doesn’t bear that out?

        • Yes, I’ve heard others who claim that the term existed prior to it showing up in print (which one would, of course, expect). I’m also sure that for different people (according to their own subjective experience), they would have diffing recollections of how, when and why the term was used. However, once something is printed (or written), the context and exact time is an objective fact rather than a subjective experience.

          Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that oral history is worthless; on the contrary, I just did an interview with Dr. Milton Diamond last week wherein I asked him about his recollection of trans terms. At the same time, I also realize that when I try to think back > 35 years to recall the exact non-subjective contexts for certain terms that were used, I find that it’s not such an easy thing to do. I therefor find it a bit more concrete (for research purposes) to look at what was written… when, where, why and how.

          For example, I found the term “transgendered” in a Iowa TV Guide in 1970. One could easily make the case that for this term to have made its way to straight news, the term would have been in use prior to its printing. In fact, I’ve interview people who claim that they remember it being used in the mid-1960s. However, for objective evidence-based research purposes, I’m going to date that term to 1970 until I publish were I’ve found it used in earlier printed contexts.

  7. Christan, I’d like your view on what seems to be a somewhat trend of many young TG transitioners such as on youtube and facebook who mostly self-identify as “tranny” even when they present as pretty much normal woman or men in public (although a few are what I call “classic trannies” in that they crossdress just to go party in gay bars or get attention in public spaces).

    When I see this term it in the title of their video or subject heading (or tags) they tend to say “I’m just speaking for myself, not anyone else” which I find to be a weak excuse given how many people in the general public that may come across their posting or video, vs when just spoken in the environment where that term is commonly used (bars, semi-private meetings, etc) and not overhead by the general public who might see it as a suitable term for all those in the trans communities.

    Its like they don’t know the social and potential political impact of the use of this usually considered derogatory term, and only see it as some community unifier. To me it not only is offensive “on the face of it” but has strong tinges of “third sex” to it’s usage, meaning someone could say as an example that in a group they have 10 men, 8 woman and 2 trannies (maybe even at work regarding employees).

    Then there are all the haters that troll on youtube video comments that pick up on the term “tranny” being somewhat legitimized and pretty soon they are applying it (and not in so positive of way) to other transwoman and transmen who only identity as transgender or transsexual (or post-TS), and now they have an excuse to do so since there are so many video posters that apply this term to themselves and so often. It makes it hard to rebuke the haters when so many trans videos-makers are freely using this term.

    I now wonder: Does having such a historically marginalizing term somehow relieve the pressure to conform strictly to the binary gender norms (including forms or some steps of medical transitioning) by putting themselves somewhere in the middle-sex zone? Or reduce the added anxiety of feeling they must “pass” perfectly to feel okay which is already high if in their teens or early twenties? And does the word “tranny” offer to some community members (even those that pass/present well) something as a community identity that “transgender” fails to provide?

    Finally, playing the devil’s advocate to my own strong anti-tranny term personal (and slightly older) perspective, does this tranny term being used in a more open and self accepting way by these typically younger t-people speak of a greater level of self acceptance of being “different but equally valued”? Could they be the next wave of trans acceptance?…as in “I’m a tranny….so what?” And possibly…just possibly..could this more self-accepting attitude in time replace the older and more negatively charged definitions? Or will it go the “N” word duality where it’s okay if a trans person says it but not outsiders?

    My current thinking is just to say “call yourself what you want IN the video, but just don’t put this term in the title or captions on photos” for the benefit of the greater community and those that don’t identify as “tranny” and those fighting for full social, political and legal acceptance as men and woman. But would that be too much to request?

    So what in your view can and should we say to these non-gay scene t-people (most younger but some older) that generally look like any other group of transgender woman and men, which will convey the potential negative aspects for the greater community and social/political causes without coming across as just a gender politically-correct policeman? And without giving them a long lecture in the process?

    Or it the current “problem” more about us that see the trans community more as a space for transition and rights to being just a woman or man…and not a middle-gender destination?

    A bit perplexed, and feeling a bit “first wave.”

    Christina-Xena
    Gender Warrior
    …. and more.

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  9. I’m a transwoman, and I personally like the word “tranny.” It rolls off the tongue better than the clunky ‘transwoman’ and, to me, it’s a cute word, like “chick.”

    I understand that the word means something negative to many people, and therefore I don’t use it in mixed company, for example around my cisgender friends (as I don’t want them to start thinking it’s OK to go around calling people “trannies.”)

    Words ONLY have the power we give them. Just as gay people took back the word Queer, reclaiming what was once a pejorative term and making it into a badge of honor, I believe we transwomen should take back the word “tranny” for ourselves.