Please apologize for your Transphobic language

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Please apologize for your Transphobic language

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Below you will find a wonderfully written note from a dear friend of mine, Ms Judy Virago, through which she explains the trouble and discomfort felt by many regarding your most recent episode of Rupaul's Drag Race. We feel that this mockery of Trans Individuals leads to further oppression, especially from those in our own LGBTQQA community. I hope you take these words to heart and reconsider your actions and words in the future. 

Female or Shemale: Are you fucking kidding me?! March 19, 2014 at 1:26am

I’ve always been a political person. I’ve worked in government and I’ve worked in not-for profit animal and sex worker advocacy. Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a crusade against a specific word that I take issue with: “Shemale”.

I have spent the past two months lobbying the advertising department at NOW magazine to get their back page section changed from "Shemales" to Transsexual Escorts. They previously had sections for “Asian Escorts”, “Upscale Escorts”, “Fetish & Fantasy” and “Shemales”. Not even “Shemale Escorts”, just “Shemales”. Trans women weren’t even “a kind of escort”. “Shemale" was its own distinct category. 

The word has a longstanding history in the sex industry. First recorded as derogatory term for a masculine woman in the 19th century, “she male” wasn’t used in reference to transsexual women till the 1970s. It was first adopted by pornographers as a term for transwomen that could titillate heterosexual men without triggering internalized homophobia. It was then used by transphobic feminist Janice Raymond in her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. It’s even been used by academics in charge of psychiatric policy regarding trans people and their access to healthcare. But I’m done with it. 

Nearly a year ago I was on the cover of NOW magazine for the pride edition. The cover title read “The End of Gender As We Know It” and I gave an interview, along with nine other people, on my personal gender identity and experience. I argued that that gender would not disappear, but multiply.

So you can imagine my dismay when, a  week later I'm watching my favourite surreality TV show and RuPaul invites the contestants to play a game called “Female or Shemale”. I wasn’t just angry; I was disappointed. I’ve heard that words only have power if you give it to them, or if you let them them hurt you. Well RuPaul has a lot of power and I’ve never heard the word “faggot” on her show. 


“Female or Shemale” is not the first time “shemale” has been used on RPDR. Every episode begins with “She-mail” from Rupaul, like Tyra Mail on America’s Next top model. And I’ve let that slide because I like puns. Like eating a cake with raisins in it because I like cake but hate raisins so I just gag on them a little bit and swallow anyway. In the game, contestants had to guess whether zoomed in images of body parts belonged to a “biological woman” (female) or a “psychological woman” (she male). The game featured images of previous contestants on the show as well as cisgendered women.

This is where it gets fuzzy. Some drag queens are transsexual women, and some transsexual women are drag queens. There is a grey area (death to binaries!). And at least four Drag Race alumni have gone on to live their lives as full time women, not just characters for the stage and screen.  And guess what? No-one in the game passed all the time. Many of the parts belonging to cisgender women were labelled “she male”. The whole game was transphobic and grossly misogynistic, entering a realm of body policing that I’ve never seen (or let myself see) on the show before. Many women of trans* experience are faced with the often daunting task of passing, every day. Passing is not a goal for all of us, but the validity and reality of our bodies is put under constant scrutiny.  

I haven’t always felt like I’m hearing fingernails down a chalkboard when I hear this word; for several years I was identifying as androgynous, genderqueer, genderblender (basically anything but male or female). As I became more fixed in my identity as a kind of woman, not just a kind of mix-gender person, I felt less comfortable with the word  “shemale” being used in the context of transsexual women. I’m not speaking for all women of trans experience when I protest this term. As I said earlier, “shemale” has a long standing history in the sex industry and many women adopt this moniker for socioeconomic reasons, or maybe they just DGAF. I do not feel the same way. And I do not feel like a blend of male and female. I am a woman. I am a woman of trans* experience and I am happy with that. I’m not trying to be any more or less of a woman than any woman born with a vagina, or assigned female at birth. 

I went out to a gay “college-night” in the Church-Wellesley Village last week. I hadn’t been out to a “boy-bar” in a long time and it was… interesting. I felt like I was visiting family in rural New Zealand. I was greeted by the same brand of well-meaning-but-kind-of-offensive “compliments” I received when I came out to my family the first time. 

"Wow! Are you a real girl?"
     "Yes. I am real. Yes I am a girl"
"Oh but you know what I mean, I meant it as a compliment! You look fish, girl!"

Yes, thank you for validating my “realness”. Thank you for commenting on my passability. Thank you for describing my gender presentation as what you think a vagina smells like. I try to be patient. I try to accept this in the spirit it’s given, which I know is well meaning. I try to understand that these boys haven’t had the lifetime of gender education I’ve had. But it’s not just about benevolent transphobia. It’s about culture too. All these gay men watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. They all hear and see this language used. And they model it. Monkey see, monkey shante you and your catch phrases stay.  

I lobbied for change in a local magazine and I succeeded. Because advertisers might be arseholes, but they're not idiots. You won’t see “Shemales” as a heading in NOW magazine again. So I’m asking all of you, my chosen family, to join me in moving our community forward and ask RuPaul to pull the plug on her transphobia and Rupologize. Let’s make like Transsexual Escorts and put that word to bed. #byefelicia 

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