Is Christian Siriano making a hot mess of the term “tranny"?

by Margaret Price

Project Runway 4: The Season of Love. And no designer was more lovable than the prancing, snapping, flat-iron–wielding Christian Siriano, who ended up winning it all—the final runway showdown, the spread in Elle, and the $10K Fan Favorite prize. Sassing and sewing with equal velocity, the diminuitive designer and self-described "big deal" introduced us to an array of hip, new-to-many-Americans phrases: Fierce! Ferosh! A hot mess up in here! A hot tranny mess up in here!

Wait. Tranny?

The first time I heard the winsome Christian use his famous catchphrase, I thought, "Are we allowed to say tranny on TV now?" Had the revolution arrived while I was writing my holiday thank-you notes?

Well, not quite. A glance at the political landscape indicates that actual trans people are still awfully far from being America's fan favorites. Last November, following a pitched battle between trans activists and mainstream gay organizations, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 3685) was passed by the House of Representatives in a form that omitted any mention of gender-based discrimination. And murders of gender-nonconforming people have continued apace, unaccompanied by mainstream media attention: During Project Runway's Season 4 run alone, the list included one in Detroit (Ashley Sweeney), one in Florida (Simmie Williams), and one in South Carolina (Adolphus Simmons).

Maybe I'm being a little humorless. I don't expect Project Runway to offer public education on federal bills or hate crimes, and I'm happy to cheer for Siriano's Vivienne Westwood–inspired skinny pants as they stomp down the runway. But, as Tim Gunn might say, I'm worried. Will Siriano's very winsomeness persuade PR viewers that saying "tranny" is the new way to win friends and influence people? That it's a term of affection rather than an as-yet reclaimed slur? That as long as you're cute enough, language doesn't matter?

Happily, there is more to the tranny story on cable TV. At the same time that Christian was flouncing his way around Bravo, the Logo network debuted Transamerican Love Story, starring MTF actor/activist Calpernia Addams. In her deathless video "Bad Questions to Ask a Transsexual," Ms. Addams assures us, "This list might seem a little bit angry … But I hope you'll bear with me as I chap your ass."

Now, that's a hot tranny mess. And I mean that in the best way.

Thanks to E., my favorite ferosh tranny bitch, who got the info about trans rights all up in here.

by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Affectionate or Derogative?

I actually never felt the word 'tranny' was derogative. I've only really heard it used within/by the trans community. It always sounded a bit cute and affectionate to me, to be honest. The problem with Christian's usage is that he TURNS it in to a slur the way he uses it. Luckily his other catch-phrases like 'fierce' and 'ferosh' are so dated and dumb, that hopefully nobody will begin using 'tranny' in this way just due to its association with such an obnoxious (tiny) man.

Tranny is the new Fierce

Not really, but I definitely like the word "fierce." I agree with Suka, though, that "tranny" doesn't seem to be a slur in general usage. In my dealings with the trans community (I flit on the edges, not trans enough for some, but too trans for the mainstream), I've only heard it used descriptively (as in "trans" person, usually for "trans-woman" and often for someone currently "in transition"), not as a negative. Outside of the trans community, I've never heard it used (excepting it's attached to lots of internet porn, but again, is used in [mostly] a descriptive sense, although in this case it seems to always indicate a male-born person in transition [with male organ] only).

I've only seen a few episodes of this last season of Project Runway and didn't hear the new term "hot tranny mess" on either. I wonder what the context was, but if it was purely negative (i.e., a badly done garment as opposed to something fabulous), I'm sure I wouldn't be too happy. All in all, however, I found Christian to be fairly benign and getting mainstream America exposed to an outrageous somewhat-feminine male designer is not necessarily a bad thing (though I think there are many issues with that show in general).

By my book, trannies and feminists are both fierce. ;)

Thanks for calling Christian out on this

I posted some similar thoughts over at <a href="

While I suspect Christian's just using the phrase to be edgy, it's clearly intend to refer to something tacky and ugly. Somehow I doubt he'd think it's all in good fun if straight folks started using "hot faggot mess" as a put-down. It's really not different from how "that's so gay" is an offhand put-down straight kids use to describe something lame. As Suka said, part of the problem in both cases is that a stigmatized group is being used as a pejorative adjective.

The other thing is that while some of us trans people -- including myself -- do use the word "tranny," there's a difference when a term that's often been an epithet gets reclaimed by members of the stigmatized group (or their friends and allies) as a way of saying "yeah I am a [insert derogatory term here], wanna make something of it" -- and quite another when someone outside that group decides to fling it around carelessly.

Christian's Tranny Mess

A hate word can only be reclaimed by the community that's suffered most from it's use. In this case, the community of transwomen, the community in the lgbtq community that also suffers the most discrimination and violence. Male spectrum transguys (bois, 'trannyfags', ftms) have NOT had this term spat at them—therefore they don't get to reclaim it. Swishy gay men like Christian, while they have experienced lots of hate and intolerance, have not had this term spat at them (they may reclaim the terms like 'faggot' 'fairy' and 'queer' if that is their wish) and the cisgendered Project Runway-watching public at large hasn't had to deal with 'tranny' as a hate term—so they don't get to reclaim it. Men don't get to reclaim the term 'bitch' because it wasn't used against them (well, except in a gender-putdown way, such as 'X is someone's bitch'). Christian has no right to use the term much less to popularize it on a tv show. So... stop it.

Another issue rising from this is the 'transgender' community and how, while it's become a kind of useful artificial political entity, includes groups of enormously varying experience. Do drag queens who live most of the time as gay men, get to call fully transitioned transwomen who've lived as women 24/7 for years a "tranny?" Not to this one, they don't. As I wrote in a letter to fashionista Simon Doonan (another gay man very who's very free with the 'tranny-slinging') 'in this society, a tranny is not a woman. Period. A tranny cannot be a parent nor teach children.' I am a woman (yes, in discussions like these, I'll allow myself being called a post-op transwoman) who is a single parent, has taught elementary school and has a great deal of respect for what I've had to go through to live as the woman I am today and for others to who've had to go down that path and even died for it. Some transwomen in the sex worker community use 'shemale' and 'tranny' because of their commercial value in selling their services and, sadly, because of their own internalized transphobia, not out of respect for each other. There is nothing affectionate in calling someone 'tranny'. Christian, if you like being outre and outrageous, then live that life yourself and reclaim your own terms, don't try to sell others on your hipness on my back and the backs of others who've suffered under hate speech.

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