Even NPH Can’t Say ‘Tr*nny’ : A Teachable Moment

2 Dec

It’s time for some education around Transgender issues and what is now seen as transphobic or discriminatory language.

A few months ago, I was on a bus trip from NYC to DC and the two young collegiates next to me were having a really intelligent discussion about the current political atmosphere. While I don’t think they were LGBT, they were certainly progressive enough. I smiled as I listened to them banter on about the environment and the damage that some Republican candidates would do to our country. When all of a sudden, they started discussing a party they’d been to the night before and out popped the sentence “She looked like a tranny.” To me, this was jarring because as an activist, I’ve been trained that “tranny” is an offensive and downright unacceptable term to be using.

I interrupted the young men, apologized for eavesdropping for the past hour or so and let them know that the term they were using was hurtful towards transgender people. They immediately apologized and thanked me for letting them know.

At the beginning of this month on Huffington Post, the bastion of liberal blogs, there was a little survey entitled “Who looks more like a Tranny? Sofia Vergara or Blake Lively.” When it was brought to their attention that they were using an anti-trans slur, they immediately removed it and issued an apology.

And then just a few weeks ago, Kelly Osborn issued an apology for using the word in a Glamour UK interview, with regards to a transgender friend of hers. Kelly was under fire immediately and reached out to GLAAD for advice on how the word was offensive and education on how she could reach out to apologize for her gaffe. She wrote a wonderful piece, ironically enough, for Huffington Post titled “I’m retiring the word ‘Tranny’…will you join me?

And then this morning, I was referred to a video of our very own Neil Patrick Harris co-hosting “LIVE with Kelly”. The two were inhaling a gas which was the opposite of helium, whose properties actually lower your voice in the same way helium raises it. Neil made the comment “I’ve never sounded more like a tranny in my life.”

I’ve met Neil on several occasions now and have worked with his partner David a few times, and I can tell you that if Neil had ever been informed that what he said might be offensive to some people, he never would have used it. If one of the most out, positive LGBT role models out there has not been educated on this issue, then we need to be doing better work.

I know among some, there will be the desire to break out the pitchforks and torches and make an example out of NPH. But the truth of the matter is, when even members of our own community don’t know about these things, or know and use them anyway, we should pivot to education, not attack. Each moment like this is a chance to move the ball forward. I urge people to avoid jumping to the conclusion that he is a “transphobe” or that he “doesn’t give two shits about trans women.” It comes off as not only extreme, but potentially counter productive. We make a lot of assumptions about the use of a word that many have not yet been trained to avoid.

Trans issues are happily, finally coming to the forefront. With Chaz Bono’s appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” and the doors that has opened, I’m hoping to see far more attention paid to the T of the LGBT – it’s about time. But in doing so, we must find as many opportunities as we can, to educate. If we start out by attacking people who honestly have not been told otherwise, we will lose potential allies.

I’ve reached out to Neil and it would surprise me if we don’t hear from him soon about this. But again, I can almost guarantee that he was not aware that his language was seen as offensive.

I would like to ask all who read this to take a little time and read this GLAAD Media Reference Guide and transgender glossary of terms. The education has to start somewhere.

UPDATE:

As expected, NPH has come through with an apology for his use of the slur. Please continue to help educate others on potentially offensive language. Many responses to this post have been met with “I had no idea that we shouldn’t use that word” or “My friends use it all the time, I’ll ask them not to now.” All it takes is a little education.

And take a look at this excellent explanation of transphobic language from Bilerico.com (thanks Vincent Villano at National Center for Transgender Equality)

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16 Responses to “Even NPH Can’t Say ‘Tr*nny’ : A Teachable Moment”

  1. Patrick Farley December 2, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    I wish people wouldn’t immediately do what you’ve pointed out they do, and accuse someone of being transphobic for using that word. It’s how they react when they’re told it’s offensive that indicates how WE should react. I’ve had people sit there and argue with me that it’s not offensive. Sorry, I’m trans, you’re (the collective against whom I was arguing) aren’t, you do NOT get to tell me it’s not offensive.

    And there are the ones who respond with “OMG I didn’t know; I see it used and no one ever told me!” and they stop using it.

    NPH handled it correctly. He still has my respect and adoration.

  2. Michael December 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    So, it’s not okay to repeat the word “Fa***t” or “Ni***r” in an apology when discussing slurs, but it’s perfectly acceptable to repeat the word “Tr***y” in an apology.

    Double standard much?

    • Jamie McGonnigal December 2, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

      I actually believe it is so unknown as a slur that if he didn’t repeat it, no one would know what he was talking about.

  3. Amy December 2, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    I have never used that word in my life, and I don’t tolerate it from others. But I’m not LGBT, and neither were my parents–the people who taught me about using respectful language toward all people. I’m grateful for their example of treating their fellow humans with dignity. It would be good if every parent communicated this lesson to their children.

  4. Marti Abernathey December 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    I’d like to clear something up. I didn’t say he was a transphobe. I said he “sounded” like a transphobe. It fit both in a response to his flippant comment, and as a title. If I thought he was transphobic, I would have titled the post “NPH is a transphobe.”

  5. NelsonG December 2, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    Here’s the problem I have and that is those who’ve been having an apoplectic fit about it and lobbied to have GLAAD declare that word a defamatory term are the same ones who act like a bunch of authoritarians and totalitarianism, bullying everyone into doing things they’re way while they’re, of course, getting away with murder. Literally and figuratively.

    Was NPH being malicious when he said it? No, he wasn’t and everyone needs to stop acting like the world ended.

    Where was the language police when Sofia Vergera called herself a tranny on Nightline?

    When I called out GLAAD and the transadvocates to hold her accountable, I got crickets.

    And where is the word police when some blogger and activist invokes pedophillia and NAMBLA at the expense of another person?

    Neil Patrick Harris SHOULD NOT have apologized. What he should have done is tell everyone to kiss his ass and GLAAD to fuck off.

  6. tgflux December 2, 2011 at 10:32 pm #

    NPH is a class act. Makes a mistake, apologizes. No rationalizing, no blaming the victim, no “Making It All About Me.”

    Dan Savage could learn a lesson!

  7. Jennifer Duncan December 4, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    I’ve just about had it with all of these PC twits who’re ever so sensitive to every twitch of the eyebrows of others. I’m a femme male and the term tranny doesn’t bother me in the least; it can mean transgender or transexual and is only a shortening of those terms; I have the feeling that people who claim to be ‘offended’ by this word don’t have a lot going for themselves in other areas of their lives so they use this as a sort of power grab over others…., GROW UP PEOPLE!!!

    • Eve December 14, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

      What is a fem male? Are you a Gay man , who is effeminate? Are you a Trans man , who is effeminate. Or are you a straight man who is effeminate? I’ve never heard that term in the context of Trans conversation.

      I am a Transsexual female (MtoF) I would be highly offended if someone referred to me as a “TRANNY” and ,I have a great deal going on in my life thank you very much! lol

      I am also an African American person (Black) I would equally be offended if some one called me Colored, Nigger, Negro… I could go on, but you get my point . I do not believe that NPH is at all a Transphob , however just like a Gay man would not appreciate being referred to as a Fag , fairy, fruitcake even in jest ,so too do I NOT! appreciate being referred to as a he/she, shim /Tranny/ Transformer/Dragqueen, confused or shemale. Is this such an unreasonable request?

    • Leigh December 16, 2011 at 8:38 am #

      I was raised very PC and as such can not tolerate ethnic, racial or gender slurs. I do however believe that words only have the power we allow them to have. If we all run around all day with a list telling people what they can and can’t say we are doing nothing but contributing to the death of our society. The more we worry about the actions of our neighbors and the less we try to better our lot as a country, the sooner this society will fall apart. Instead of wasting time and energy calling out celebrities for simple word usage (that really doesn’t bother most transgender individuals or the people in the group in question if the word is different) why doesn’t GLAAD and every human worried about gay rights and equality take that energy and make a difference in their own community? That energy would be better spent reaching out to a young person who’s being bullied for their sexual identity, talking to people about the right to marry, raising awareness in schools about suicide. Right now, it’s wasted on little things that really don’t matter. Be honest with yourselves, people are up in arms about words usage because they don’t have the strength of character to take a loud stand about the things that matter. And their righteous outrage is unbalanced, they are not worried about all the words used to pigeon-hole and label people. If I had a dollar for every time an LGBT person called me a “breeder” I wouldn’t need to work. Do I get bent out of shape? Nope, I remind them that people like me help make people like them, so back off. Where’s the outrage for that? There isn’t any because it isn’t needed. We need to look back at the long and arduous civil rights movement and take our cues from that, work on getting legal acceptance of the people, work on getting equal treatment and consideration THEN tackle the words people use…just realize that the more you fight the semantics, the more power you give it and make sure you are ok with that.

  8. Tina Thompson December 13, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Anyone who’s ever walked in public, in alternate gender presentation and been confronted with the term “tranny” when tossed as a threatening slur has every right to loathe the word no matter what anyone else says.

    The larger point of the article, however, is well thought out and very true: instead of attacking NPH and mislabeling him as a transphobe, a calm discussion did more good because it educated a very valuable ally. And kept him a friend rather than alienating him.

  9. jennifer justice December 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

    as a transgendered woman i find LGB&allies claiming the word “tranny” is offensive. it is NOT. i use it to describe myself and i know many of my ts friends do so as well. it is NOT akin to the word “faggot” as i dont know a single gay person that would use the word fag or faggot to describe themselves. take the sticks out of your asses and stop trying so hard to be PC or champions for the transgendered person. if yall wanna be our allies or advocates than maybe when you see us at the bar or around town or anywhere else you say “hey this is jennifer.” end of sentance … not “hey this is my tranny friend jennifer.”

  10. GuiltyConfusion December 14, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    Hmm. This is interesting. I read Kelly’s article last week, and it was the first piece of information that I’ve ever seen stating that T****y was a slur. AND – I”m trans. Now this article….I’m not trying to offend anyone, but when did this start to become a slur? Did a larger group decide this because too many A-holes used it in a derogatory sense? I just want to know why it is considered a slur, so that next time I can maybe have a heads up without having to stumble upon an article (and therefore stop using it sooner rather than later).

  11. Eve December 14, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    Great article by the by!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Transphobia and You: Basics « A Gay Girl's Advice For Guys - December 4, 2011

    [...] Talk About Equality [...]

  2. Harmony Santana, Transgender Actress, Nominated for Independent Spirit Award | caramelstgirls - December 20, 2011

    [...] Much of the confusion about pronoun usage is exacerbated by regular jokes about “trannies,” “she-males,” and other profoundly offensive phrases. Let’s be clear: these words are never appropriate to use. But media portrayals of the trans community are often relegated to joke status. Comedies especially find ways to poke fun at the community. Perfect examples of transphobic television include the upcoming television series Work It and Neil Patrick Harris’ recent comments on Live with Kelly. [...]

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