Reclaiming slurs and why it’s okay for transgender people to use the words that oppress them

The internet is a wild place, and just recently it blew up because one of my favorite internet celebrities used a slur. ContraPoints, a transgender woman who makes YouTube videos about social justice, posted the titles of her next three videos. One of which is titled after an alt-right meme, “Are Traps Gay?”

The slur in question, for anyone who might not follow neo-nazi internet lingo, is “trap” which is intended to refer to transgender people as if they are for some reason setting up a trap just to trick other people into having sex with them. It’s just as laughable of a concept as it sounds.

ContraPoints, unfortunately, opened up a whirlwind of hate from all sides. She got attacked by the alt-right, because she always gets attacked by the alt-right, and she got attacked by the left, because she used a slur, and she got attacked by other transgender people because she quoted an alt-right meme.

My initial gut reaction to her post was one of horror. While I have yet to have the experience of that word being used against me, it’s still a word that instinctively causes me, and I’m sure most transgender people, to recoil in horror. However, unlike much of the internet, I stopped and thought about it for a while before diving face first into the fold.

Obviously, ContraPoints was not using the slur in a derogatory way. She was using the exact phrase that the alt-right uses as a meme as a simple explanation of what her April video was going to be about. It wasn’t, necessarily, the actual title of the video (not that there’d be anything wrong if it was). And this is Twitter we’re talking about. There aren’t a lot of characters to get a whole well thought out point across.

I’m not going to go into more details about this particular incident of internet drama, because ContraPoints herself responded far more eloquently, and succinctly, than I ever could. In fact, her response to the drama on Twitter itself was phenomenal. While most of that response has been removed, it caused every little bit of worry that she might not handle the topic as well as I would personally like to be completely cleansed from my mind.

What I do want to talk about is the nuance of reclaiming slurs. It’s something that not everyone is capable, comfortable, or even willing to attempt. The two major slurs in question are “tranny” and of course “trap.” I have different opinions about each, but first I want to go into what it means to reclaim a term.

In short, reclaiming a term is taking a term that has a negative connotation and/or meaning to a group of people, and turning it around in a way that the group of people who are hurt by it are instead empowered. “Queer” is an excellent example of a word that has been successfully reclaimed. Regardless of your own personal feelings about the word, a large portion of the LGBTQ community has accepted the term as an identity. So much so that it’s included in many of the very various acronyms that refer to the community.

Reclaiming something is hard, and often almost impossible. There are plenty of slurs out there that have been used against people of color and other minorities for centuries that still aren’t reclaimed, despite those communities best efforts. However, that impossibility doesn’t mean that an effort shouldn’t, or can’t be made.

“Trap” is not a slur that I, personally, think can be reclaimed. I think the connotation of it is too vile to be used in a way that is in any way positive, but I am not going to stop other transgender individuals from trying, or from using the word in their own contexts. It isn’t my place, or anyone else’s for that matter, to police how individual transgender people cope with the weapons of their oppressors and abusers.

Did you notice how I said “other transgender individuals” there? Those individuals are the only people capable of reclaiming the terms that their oppressors use against them. A transgender person using the words “trap” or “tranny” does not give someone not of that group a free pass to use the term as well, and someone who is not a member of that group should not attempt to police the usage of those terms.

Some people claim that a transgender person using those terms gives an unspoken permission to others to use them as well. It’s completely wrong. Someone who uses a term such as “trap” in a derogatory way doesn’t need “permission” to do just that. They’re not going to stop and think, “Hey, I wonder if it’s okay for me to say this.” They’re just going to say it, and ignore any consequences or criticism they might get for doing so.

Another claim that often gets made about attempts to reclaim a term is that using those words gives them power. That is such a backwards way of looking at the problem of slurs. Words like “trap” and “tranny” already have power. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t need to reclaim them. Using them in a way that can reclaim them takes the power away, or alternatively changes whose hands that power is in. If a term is used frequently enough in a way that the person being targeted by it is shown to have the opposite effect, the power starts to shift.

However, all of that being said, I do think that transgender people should be cognizant of how they use those terms. Quoting their oppressors, and to using their own language against them is perfectly legitimate, but using that same language to attack other members of the community in the same way should be seen as just as vile as though it came from the mouth of an oppressor.

As I’ve already said, I personally feel that “trap” is a slur that has no redeemable qualities, and cannot be reclaimed. The very notion that my identity is nothing but a clever ruse to get into someone’s pants bothers me on a fundamental level. It’s a term that I very much dislike, and outside of this blog and similar discussions of the term, it’s one that I’ll likely never use. I can’t think of a single way that I, personally, would want to use the term.

“Tranny,” however, is different. At its core, it’s simply a shortened version of transgender. It really has no deeper meaning than that. There’s no connotation beyond the history of using the term as a slur against transgender people. Fundamentally this makes it seem like a perfect candidate for reclaiming.

Unlike “trap,” I can definitely see myself using “tranny” in a joking way referring to myself. Self-deprecation is an excellent way to begin reclaiming a term. If a transgender person frequently uses it to refer to themselves, then the power is taken away from those who try to use it as an insult. It eventually stops being an insult, and instead becomes a badge of pride. This is exactly what happened to the word “queer.”

Reclaiming a term is a slow and arduous process. Queer started it’s reclamation in the late 80s and early 90s, and many would argue that it is still being reclaimed. One of the earliest uses of “queer” being reclaimed is by a group called the Queer Nation. They spread a flier around with an amazing quote.

“Ah, do we really have to use that word? It’s trouble. Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious […] And for others “queer” conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering […] Well, yes, “gay” is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using “queer” is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.”

The same can be argued for words such as “tranny” and “trap.” The Transgender Revolution is really just beginning. The transfer of power from the oppressor to the oppressed is the entire point of a revolution, be it social or political, and therefore reclaiming words is inherently a revolutionary act. Look at the gay rights movement, and how far it has come since the 1970s. Who is to say what the next 20 or 30 years bring the transgender community?

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