Was RuPaul Wrong to Be Using “She-Male” All These Years?

Trans semantics are causing an uproar—within the community and outside of it. But is language really the issue here?

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What’s in a word?  That’s a question RuPaul found himself having to consider once more as the producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race decided to pull all mentions of the term “she-male” from past and future shows.

In the offending segment, Ru has a bit—much like Tyra Banks on America’s Next Top Model—where he delivers a message to his competitors via mail or video message. It used to be called “You’ve got She-Mail.” But recently, a group of activists pushed the network, Logo, to change it—especially after recent episode took “she-male” to a new level—asking contestants to look at close up pictures of women and drag queens and guess if they were “real or she-male.” Probably not the brightest idea the writers room ever had.

While producers initially balked and issued a tepid statement of vague support, the higher-ups had second thoughts, and she-mail as a concept has been banished from Drag Race.

Much like the debates over the word “tranny,” the she-male controversy has ignited another firestorm over language and semantics, but the trans community seems to be getting fed up—with itself. While the younger generation does its due diligence trying to educate the greater public through Twitter and media campaigns, some members, including many of the pioneers of the trans community, are getting tired of people in their own community telling them what they can and can’t say.

On the one side of the debate are people like transwoman Parker Marie Molloy, a writer for the, the Daily Beast (where I am also a contributor), and the Huffington Post. Molloy has earned the ire of longtime queer performers Jayne County and Penny Arcade with some of her comments, inciting an Internet flame war. After the offending “Female or She-Male” segment aired, she tweeted “I f*cking hate RuPaul,” and wrote a piece for the Advocate explaining that “she-male” is a word that historically refers to transgender women, most prominent in pornography. The word originated with transgender porn and doesn’t have roots in “drag culture,” as some have argued is the case with the word “tranny.”

Molloy has been outspoken about the acceptance of words like tranny that she categorizes as hate speech.

When reached by email, she said: “I’d just like to clear up that I don’t actually hate RuPaul. Does his dismissal of trans people and our identities frustrate me? Absolutely. Should I have said that? No.”

Many of those who disagree with her and others in this debate complain of humorlessness and over-policing. Another transwoman, singer Our Lady J, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, titled “RuPaul’s Drag Race—and the Danger of Overpolicing Language.” In it, she points out that even on the LGBT spectrum, drag queens, transpeople, and other gender nonconforming types are on the farther end of the continuum than the mainstream sector of the LGB community.

She equivocated the policing of language with manipulation, itself another form of oppression. “When I first transitioned, I proudly identified as a ‘tranny’ until people within the trans community told me the word was offensive to them,” wrote Our Lady J. “I complied but quickly realized that while striving to be accepted by the hetero-dominated world, the upper echelons of the trans community were trying to sweep the fringe under the rug by censoring the language with which they identify. In addition to banishing ‘tranny,’ ‘sissy,’ ‘sex change,’ and ‘she-male’ as slander, they insisted that the users of these words were the oppressors, making themselves the victims—a well-worn tool of manipulation and control.”

But Molloy disagrees with the sentiment that language can be overpoliced—especially if it’s hate speech. “I really don’t think so. In this case, these are slurs that have been considered derogatory for years. Anyone who says things like, ‘Well, why are you just now concerned about this?’ hasn’t been paying attention.”

County and Arcade are pioneers in the realm of gender. County was trans in public when the very act of dressing in drag was hugely transgressive. Neither artist has any patience for what they see as infringements of free speech by people within their own community, particularly those who are just joining it. County was an actress in Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s, and later formed her band, then called Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys, playing at seminal punk clubs like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. She was one of the first visible transwomen in rock and roll—no easy feat in the mean streets of New York during the ’70, and ’80s.

To say she is outspoken is an understatement. County wrote in an email, “This policing of words must stop! 
It is both homo AND transphobic!
I am against transfascism!”

County said that as the years change, what language people like to use also changes—she used to call herself transsexual, and now she says she prefers to identify as “two spirit” or “gender variant.”

“’Cuz no matter what you do or change, your mind, soul, consciousness, etc., is basically the same regardless of an ‘opinion,’” she says. “No matter how you alter your body! We can’t force one groups’ opinion on another cuz our experiences with it [being trans] are all different.” County likened the people who are policing language to uptight “church ladies.”

Arcade, a queer-friendly performance artist, has performed shows about gender for years. Her show Bitch! Dyke! FagHag! Whore! dealt with sexuality and gender—a response to Jesse Helms’s revoking grant money to the National Endowment for the Arts for perceived “obscene” art. Arcade responded to Molloy’s piece in the Advocate with rage on her public Facebook wall.

“Molloy has NO LINKS to the Gay World and Transitioned from Heterosexual man to Female 2 years ago…UNDERSTANDS NOTHING OF RUPAUL’S WORLD OR OUR WORLD…EARNS A LIVING WRITING ABOUT TRANSEXUAL ISSUES as an EXPERT. I DID NOT GET MY HEAD KICKED IN ON THE STREETS OF THIS WORLD to have this kind of intellectual pygmy parasite have power in the QUEER world!!!!!!!!! The word SLUR comes with a middle class mindset… If WORDS COULD STOP US NOTHING WOULD HAVE Changed in Gay Rights or Gender rights…. Just try to imagine how much Marsha P Johnson or Jackie Curtis or International Chrysis would care about a WORD!,” she wrote, invoking the names of transgender pioneers.

Perhaps the divide is generational. The people spearheading the charge to formalize the language around trans people tend to be younger. “I think there is a difference as far as generational gaps are concerned,” said Molloy. “For a long time, trans people were essentially given the table scraps of LGBT activism spoils. If that meant having an identity to call their own, even if it was also seen in a derogatory way, some became attached to those terms. And that’s wonderful. If you are trans and want to reclaim these words, more power to you! I have so much respect for the trans people who have paved the way for my generation.”

The inter-community squabbling is akin to people standing in a circle pointing a gun at each other. Everyone loses. Michael Cavadias, an actor who played a transwoman in The Wonder Boys, and who has performed in and out of drag in New York City as a DJ wrote on his Facebook wall: “I couldn’t walk from one class to another in school without being called faggot and being thrown against a locker or my face pushed into a drinking fountain leaving my mouth bloody almost daily. I felt like a girl and a boy and I still do,” said Cavadias. “I am not bothered when Lenny Bruce or Louis C.K. use the word faggot.”

He added: “I remember the Catholics claiming hurt feelings because of a painting at the Brooklyn Museum and the mayor tried to shut it down. Don’t think these tactics can’t and won’t be used against us. They will. I saw Jayne County sing ‘Man Enough to Be A Woman’ when I moved to New York and it changed my life. People are dying, living in poverty, being attacked and beaten and we are arguing about a reality show.”

Cavadias pointed out what many others in the queer community have said: There are bigger battles to fight.

“We have the privilege of arguing about theory and language and we are fighting each other while all of our rights are being eroded by corporate behemoths, people are forced from their homes in our city and workers are exploited. Many people I know are on food stamps and struggle to get health care. Trans women like Jayne, Page (R.I.P.), Amanda, and so many others taught me about being authentically alive,” he wrote. “Now marginalized and traumatized people are attacking each other and labeling people who have lived on the outside all their lives ‘oppressors’ or ‘phobic.’ It’s heartbreaking and it’s shortsighted and it accomplishes nothing.”

Honey Dijon, a New York–based DJ who came out of the Chicago house scene with peers like Derrick Carter, began her career as a DJ who played while in drag. She wasn’t yet out to herself as a transwoman, but doing drag was her introduction into the queer world. One of the reasons it seems the language over “tranny” and “she-male” and other formerly accepted words have come under fire is because of the context: drag queens have long used words like “queen,” referring to each other as “she” and “girl” and cracking jokes about “trannys.”

“The problem I have with she-male language is that a lot of it is defined by sex work. They are sensationalist and exploitative words that have been used by the sex industry,” said Dijon. “I have no problem with Ru. I’ve known Ru when I was in New York. And I can understand the sensitivity of the trans community around these words. I understand where Ru is coming from but not everyone does. I can see Ru is using language that gay men, drag queens, gender illusionists, and even transwomen—because, let’s be honest, the gay community was the only place where you could feel safe. Other transwomen called each other tranny, and for a long time, I would make fun of things like that. One, I didn’t have any other examples of how to be a transwoman and two, I was letting others define who I was instead of having the knowledge and experience of who I was,” she said.

“But this is all growing pains. All this shit is growing pains. We have to allow for mistakes. This is the problem with people, we don’t allow people to navigate and have mistakes,” she said. “There’s gonna be a lot of clumsiness along the way until we get it right.”

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