What’s in a name?

As a transgender person, I thought I’d chime in on Sue’s post about CBS-TV’s “Mike and Molly.”

Maybe you’re wondering why “shemale” is unacceptable. It’s because “shemale” has almost exclusively become associated with pornographic depictions of transwomen. (Go ahead and Google “shemale” if you want to, but most of your results will not be safe for work.)

And although I’m not about to criticize anyone who chooses (important word there: chooses) to work in adult films, most transwomen, like most women in general, don’t want to be objectified by strangers, nor do most of us want our self-worth to be defined by our reproductive organs.

What about “tranny”? “Tranny” also has a strong association with porn and sex work. Here, I can understand if someone’s confused, especially because some drag queens refer to themselves as “trannys.”

However, most drag queens don’t identify as transgendered. When they’re in drag, they’re playing a character. They don’t consider themselves female any more than Zach Quinto and Leonard Nimoy identify as Vulcans. (And some—not all—transwomen think about drag the way people of color think about blackface.)

In other words, I don’t know if you should give a lot of weight to a drag queen’s use of “tranny,” any more than you’d trust—without question—a white person’s opinion on the N-word.

You should probably treat “shemale” and “tranny” like you treat “fag” or “dyke.” If someone wants to adopt that identity for herself, well, let her, but please, don’t you assign her that identity.

Now, here’s the weird part for me. I didn’t see the episode of “Mike and Molly” in question. (Believe me, I’m not a “no-TV” snob, I just don’t usually watch “Mike and Molly.”)

But as a writer who has occasionally tried her hand at fiction, I can almost—almost!—justify putting the word “shemale” into the mouths of Mike and Carl, who are not depicted on the show as being very sensitive or progressive. As a couple of macho guys who’ve maybe seen their share of porn, it’s the kind of word they might use.

Unfortunately, I’m reminded of the Archie Bunker problem. When “All in the Family” first went on TV, and Archie was railing against minorities and feminists, lots of people got the joke and realized Archie was meant to be a bigot. But other people who shared Archie’s viewpoints didn’t get the joke at all. They loved hearing someone on TV voice the same opinions they had. (More recently, some conservatives apparently love “The Colbert Report” and don’t entirely understand how Stephen Colbert is satirizing their values.)

So, when Mike and Carl use “shemale,” some percentage of the audience understand they’re using the word because they’re supposed to be crude. But another portion of the audience doesn’t get their subtext and just accepts the slur as “the way it should be.”

Which is why “shemale” (like other slurs) should be treated as radioactive. You’re playing with dangerous stuff when you sling those words around, and unless you’ve been called those names in anger, you’re better off leaving them alone.


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  • Trish,
    Thanks for posting. You make some thoughtful points and a useful guide for folks confused about “the words.”
    Your impression of the characters of Carl & Mike are interesting – Mike is supposed to have “evolved” because of his relationship with Molly. You wouldn’t know that and made a reasonable conclusion that reflects one reason why the word was a poor choice – its not the kind of thing Mike would say. It is the kind of thing Carl would say (and do) but people who watch the show already know that and the rest of the scene made it clear. 
    Another important point – Mike & Carl are police officers. The troubled relationship between the police and the LGBTQ community, especially when it comes to hate crimes, is often attritbuted to personal bias trumping professional duty. Their policing is often comical, but there is a vibe of sincerity. 
    I have gay male friends who insist that they have a “right” to use these slurs as some sort of executive gay privilege that trumps the LBTQ parts of the equation, I suppose. I personally don’t understand drag culture enough to comment, but I do understand that just because one person in the LGBTQ umbrella uses a term – it doesn’t make it okay for others to do so. That’s a very poor criteria for selecting respectful language.

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