Is 'Tranny' a Derogatory Term?

Norrie, the first person to win the right to be classified as non-specified sex in Australia, doesn't think so.

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Jun 24 2014, 1:03am

Photo by Nicole Verges

If you're strolling through inner-city Sydney and someone rides by wearing heart shaped sunglasses, a rainbow coloured top, and bubbles are blowing out the back of their bike, well that's Norrie.

On April 2 this year, the Australian High Court granted Norrie the right to be classified as non-specified sex, neither female nor male. After a four-year battle, the transgender activist transformed the legal boundaries in Australia, leading to the official recognition of a third sex.

This wasn't the first time Norrie has been involved in a high-profile win, having campaigned for the Transgender Act 1996. This amended the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act to include transgender people and allowed people to alter their birth certificates in recognition of a change of sex.

And Norrie is proud to be called a tranny.

"I think it's a wonderfully inclusive word, because it's not clear whether it's short for transvestite or transsexual or transgender. I know these are very different kinds of people but when you try to draw the line between them, that causes problems. Many people move from one to the other and I like the idea of not drawing the lines and allowing there to be that space for anyone that transgresses sex or gender," Norrie told VICE.

Norrie was part of the Tranny Pride movement in 1996. The group had a float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and formed the Transgender Lobby Coalition. "It kicked off the law reform that led to my recent high court win. That was based on the legislation we passed in 96."

However, not all members of the transgender community feel the same way about the word. In April, a petition was started by Indiana Kelly Edwards, a member of the advocacy group Wipe Out Transphobia, calling for the long running Sydney social night, Tranny Bingo, to drop the use of the term tranny, claiming it's derogatory.

Norrie sees this as a case of the policing words. "I really think there's more things that she could devote her energies to," said Norrie of Edwards. "Doesn't she realise there's a class war going on in Australia? Has she heard about six months no benefits for young people on unemployment? Has she heard about the quadrupling of university fees?"

Edwards refutes that she's merely focused on the tranny debate and believes this is a pivotal moment in the empowerment of the transgender community, as they move into the mainstream.

"We're actually focused on other issues. We're focused on healthcare provision. We're looking into education. The tranny debate is one issue, but it's not less important than any other. It fits into the realm of social evolution for the trans community and this is our civil rights movement," Edwards said.

Having transitioned almost two decades ago, Edwards believes there is a link between the term tranny and the violence perpetrated upon the transgender community. She was assaulted in the past and the last thing she heard before being attacked was the word tranny. "When people use words like tranny, it's not in an endearing way. It's usually a precursor to violence, vilification or discrimination."

The petition against Tranny Bingo was a success in raising awareness of the issue according to Edwards. She feels that while it's fine for drag queens to use the word for self-identification, at the end of the day they can take off their makeup and return home as men. "We don't want to teach the wider community that it's ok to use these words because when they do use them, they're not using them about drag queens. When they use the word tranny they refer to us," she said.

Tranny Bingo is a drag performance night of cabaret and stand-up comedy that has been held in Sydney's straight bars for over eight years. The host Penny Tration said it's all about building bridges and taking the art of drag to an audience that usually would not experience it.

"I don't agree with the argument that the word tranny is exclusively for the use of people who have transitioned," Penny said. She believes in Australia the word is not a slur but is used as an umbrella term encompassing drag queens as well as post and pre-op transsexuals. "Words mean different things in different parts of the world. Australia does not see the word tranny as a derogatory term."

Penny denies that the term has links to violence, explaining that in all forms of violence the perpetrator will use language they think will be the most derogatory, so banning a word like tranny would only add fuel to the fire. "The people that are committing violence are not going to say tranny is a bad word. These people are going to say, 'Now I know what upsets them, that's the word I'm going to use,'" she said.

Established over thirty years ago in Sydney, the Gender Centre is a non-government organisation that provides services and crisis accommodation to young transgender people. Katherine Cummings, information worker at the centre, finds the term demeaning in the same way that homo and leso are. She believes people should refrain from using the word tranny and use transgender instead.

But Cummings wouldn't go to war over the use of the word. She said: "Frankly, there are many more important issues to be dealt with in the world of gender diversity than the use of derogatory slang terms by those who don't know any better."

Cummings believes that Norrie, being the determined activist, has certainly earned the right to use the term. "Norrie is entitled to use the term proudly, having had the energy and commitment to take on the establishment and achieve a revision of the law."

Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulrgregoire

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