After a solid season of controversy over his use of the T-word — “tranny” — RuPaul has finally spoken up, and what he has to say won’t thrill trans activists who weren’t pleased not just with the T-word’s presence on the show, but with the segment known as “Shemail.” They argued that the word was a slur, used primarily against trans women and associated with transmisogyny, the same ideology that leads to violence against trans women. “Shemail,” a pun on “she-male,” was also a sly way to use a slur on the show, some felt, and they weren’t happy about it.
In an interview with Marc Maron, RuPaul said that: “Does the word ‘tranny’ bother me? No. I love the word ‘tranny.’” He went on to speak dismissively of the people raising their concerns about the word, claiming they weren’t part of the trans community and that a relatively small group of people were trying to dictate which words people could and couldn’t use: “Bitch, you need to get stronger. If you’re upset by something I said, you have bigger problems than you think.” His doubling down in the interview should come as no surprise to those who remember similar statements from 2012, in which he hotly defended the use of the word.
Logo TV, his host, made it clear that RuPaul wasn’t speaking for them, and in response, he took to Twitter with a string of comments. His escalating irritation with critics was clear, as was his confidence that he wouldn’t be likely to suffer consequences — “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a wildly popular television show and it’s unlikely the network would pull it over the controversy, but it has mandated changes, including removing the “Shemail” segment to address concerns raised by members of the transgender and transsexual community who were uncomfortable with it.
The RuPaul controversy highlights the complex nature of using slurs in a reclamatory way. While some members of the trans community do use the word, there’s discussion even within the community over who has a right to use it — some trans women, for example, feel that since the word is most commonly weaponized against them, they are the ones with the right to use it to reclaim power and control over it. Others, like RuPaul, clearly feel that it can be more broadly applied to a variety of gender variant people as well as those like transvestites, who have indeed been targeted with the word (and assaulted over their gender expression) in the past.
RuPaul’s stance is that he doesn’t find the word offensive, and other people shouldn’t be so sensitive. While he’s entitled to his opinion, it’s not a stance shared by many activists, who feel that discussing language and challenging the use of slurs on television and in other media is important.
While RuPaul may find it personally empowering to use the word, activists are challenging him to consider the context: as a major media personality with tremendous clout, he has influence over the way other people think about the word and decide whether to apply it in their own lives.
While his sense of confidence and ego is impressive, not everyone has reached that point in their lives — and those individuals expect better of a drag icon.
Photo credit: David Shankbone.