This is Doris Fish, San Francisco's pre-eminent drag queen in the 1980's. She died in 1991 from AIDS-related diseases. She was generous, flamboyant, kind, and ultra talented. Her charisma rating was off the top of the chart. She'd moved to San Francisco from Sydney, Australia—then (and some say now) the undisputed home of the world's most fabulous drag queens. Doris took me under her delightfully feathered wings.
I was afraid of her raw sexuality, but bowled over by her courage. Doris was amused by my quest to become a real woman.
I learned from Doris that in Australia, from the 1960's through the 1970's, most all of the male-to-female spectrum of gender outlaw began their transition in the fabulous world of sexy, over-the top drag performance. Like me in the late 80’s in San Francisco, the majority of MTF transsexuals just wanted to live their lives as closely as possible to whatever their notion was of "a real woman." They considered drag queens beneath them. The drag queens were amused by the MTFs pursuing the dream of real woman.
No matter what ideas you might have about transsexuals or drag queens, if you were M headed toward F in any fashion at all, you moved into, through, up and out of the drag queen community. So there was always a bond between the drag queens and the MTF transsexuals in Sydney. The bond was so strong, they invented a name for the identity they shared: tranny. It was a name that said family. Doris Fish taught me that she and I were family.
Years earlier, when I went through my gender change from male to female, I glided through life under the commonly accepted assumption: I was finally a real woman! That worked for me until I ran into a group of politically smart lesbians who told me that I wasn't allowed to co-opt the word "woman." Woman was not a family word that included me. My answer to this exclusion was to call myself a gender outlaw: I wasn't a man, I wasn't a woman. By calling myself a gender outlaw, I had unknowingly reclaimed the right to name myself outside the language generated by the bi-polar gender system. Under that system, each of us needed to fit neatly into a pre-fab sex/gender identity.
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and The Rest of Us was first published in hardcover by Routledge in 1994, just over 15 years ago. The book hit the world of academics, feminists, and sex and gender activists at a critical time—feminists were getting tired of being alone as gender's only activists. Gender Outlaw made it okay for more and more people to name themselves outside of a system that would rather see them dead for disobeying its rigid binary rules. The people who stepped outside their lines early on added a new energy to feminism by giving feminists allies and resources to tear down the sex and gender system that was—and still is—oppressing all of us.
Over the past decade and a half, people have been using Gender Outlaw as a stepping-off point on their personal gender odysseys. People of all sorts of birth-assigned genders have been naming themselves, and they've been getting together with groups of people who've done the same sort of self-naming. And now we’ve arrived at a time when the next generation of gender outlaws get to call the shots. To that aim, Seal Press has commissioned what we hope will be a ground-breaking new book: Gender Outlaws, the Next Generation, edited by S. Bear Bergman and yours truly, the older generation.
Four weeks ago, Bear posted a call for submissions on his blog. In the interests of keeping the call as open as possible, we agreed to include as many trans-identities as we knew, so we used the word "tranny." And that's where the activist shit hit the postmodern fan base. People have been pissed. Here's their argument: FTMs are co-opting a word that belongs to MTFs. The word "tranny" belongs to MTFs, reason those who were hurt by our use of the word, because it was a denigrating term reclaimed by MTFs—ergo, only MTFs could be known as trannies. I spoke with Bear, and we agree that’s wrong on several counts:
- Tranny began as a uniting term amongst ourselves. Of course it’s going to be picked up and used as a denigrating term by mean people in the world. But even if we manage to get them to stop saying tranny like a thrown rock, mean people will come up with another word to wound us with. So, let’s get back to using tranny as a uniting term amongst ourselves. That would make Doris Fish very happy.
- It's our first own language word for ourselves that has no medical-legacy.
- Even if (like gay) hate-filled people try to make tranny into a bad word, our most positive response is to own the word (a word invented by the queerest of the queer of their day). We have the opportunity to re-create tranny as a positive in the world.
- Saying that FTMs can’t call themselves trannies eerily echoes the 1980s lesbians who said I couldn’t use the word woman to identify myself, and the 1990s lesbians who said I couldn’t use the word dyke.
At one phase in the evolution of transpeople-as-tribe, it was the male-to-females who were visible and representative of trans to the rest of the world. They were the trannies. Today? Ironically true to the binary we’re in the process of shattering, the pendulum has swung so that it's now female-to-males who are the archetypal trannies of the day. The generation coming up beyond the next generation, i.e. my tribal grandchildren are the young boys who transition to young girls at the age of five or six. They’re the next trannies. None of us can own the word. We can only be grateful that our tribe is so much larger than we had thought it would be. How to come together—now that’s the job of the next generation of gender outlaws.
Labels aren't all that bad when they're used consciously, but a major downside of using labels to describe an identity—even the labels we wear proudly as badges of courage—is that lables set up us-versus-them scenarios. The next generation of gender outlaws is seeking to dismantle us-versus-them. As a people, none of us deserves to hear the words “You’re not welcome here,” or “You’re not good enough,” or “You’re not real.” My Goddess, we just have to stop saying that to each other, all of us whose identity somehow hinges on gender or sexuality. We have to stop beating up on each other. The Sydney drag queens and transsexuals knew that when they came up with the word tranny to encourage mutual respect.
What’s more, the time has come for those who are coping with sex and gender oppression to raise ourselves up to a level of respectability of other marginalized groups—those working for equity along the lines of class, race, age, looks, religion, ability, family status, and citizenship. We’re not taken seriously precisely because our focus is on sex and gender. In the eyes of this culture that makes us morally suspect. What the fuck does our sex or our gender have to do with our morality?! We need to de-Puritanize this fucking culture, that’s what we’ve got to do. It's time to reclaim more than names. It's time to reclaim the moral high ground.
Those are the sort of topics I’d like to see in Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. The first generation of gender outlaws made themselves known in the world. The job of the next generation of gender outlaws is to weave all of us gender and sex positivists together as a globally recognized tribe. I'd like to be around to see substantial progress made along those lines.
TO BE CLEAR: Nothing I've said here or anywhere else should be taken as permission to call another person tranny until you know that's a word they use for their own identity—some people find the word extremely hurtful. So, please err on the side of caution and compassion.
"Tranny," revisited by me five years later (2014), here:
Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation Submission Details
Submission Deadline: Sept 1 (early submissions are encouraged). Submissions should be unpublished; query if you have a reprint that you think we’ll swoon for. While we hesitate to list a maximum, please query first for pieces over 4,000 words. If you have an idea and need help writing it out, contact us to discuss an interview-style piece or other accommodations.
Submit as a Word document or black/white JPEG (no files over 2MB). Please include a cover letter with a brief bio and full contact information (mailing address, phone number, pseudonym if appropriate) when you submit. Submissions without complete contact information will be deleted unread. Payment will be $50 and 2 copies of the book upon publication in Fall 2010. Contributors retain the rights to their pieces. Send your submission as an attachment to email@example.com.