Brooklyn Based Insensitivity?


Dear Editors,

I am writing in response to the article entitled “Kiki Balls – the Teen Drag Scene,” written by contributor Zachary Kussin and posted to the Brooklyn Based listserv on December 6th, 2011. Although on the one hand I appreciate Mr. Kussin’s attempt to depict for BB readers the vibrant, community-oriented nature of New York City’s ballroom scene, I was especially disappointed to note his choice to include the word “tranny” – a divisive and culturally loaded term – in the piece.

[Ed. Note: While Zach did read through a final edit of the piece containing the phrase “tranny glam” to be exact, I added it in editing to describe the aesthetic of the kiki ballroom scene. –AG]

While it may be true that some members of the transgender community have reclaimed the term “tranny” in order to try and take back a fraction of the power that this word – along with myriad other transphobic slurs – has historically been used to diminish, I do not believe that this gives people not of a transgender experience the right to wield it casually. Given that Mr. Kussin did not explicitly position himself as a member of the trans community (or the ballroom scene) in his article, readers are left to understand that he writes from the perspective of an informed observer, a role that carries with it a great responsibility to the group being written about. Even if some of the individuals Mr. Kussin interviewed and interacted with for his article used the term “tranny” to refer to themselves or to name a particular style of dress or expression, Mr. Kussin’s position as an outsider looking in necessitates that he work to find ways to share what he learned about ballroom culture without appropriating what he saw or perpetuating the oppression of the people that make up this community through the use of labels or hurtful language. It is upsetting to me that Mr. Kussin chose to undermine his own opportunity to demonstrate true ally-ship to the members of the ballroom scene by including a word that carries such a history of violence and hate.

In light of the complexity of this issue, and my own position as a non-trans ally, I’m including below a link to a blog post written by a trans person about the troublesome nature of the recent proliferation of the term “tranny” as well as some ideas about who should be using this word and when.


Katie Moeller

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous -

    As a journalist who has reported on LBTQ issues, I too have received some criticism of those within the community (or allies) on my reporting. Understandable, because these topics are not often enough reported on with respect and tact. 

    On the other hand, I often find it frustrating that there is little acknowledgment from these critics of the difficulty of finding a middle road between PC, often very academic and dry language and a lively, succinct, journalistic writing style that gets the message across to a general audience (which is not restricted to the LGBTQ community). To be both a good journalist and a good queer (or queer ally) is no easy task. 

    I work as a journalist in the Netherlands, and I don’t know how it works in the United States, but to illustrate this difficulty I can say that in my country it might have been close to impossible to get the phrase “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities of color” (a phrase Zach Kussin uses) past the editor. He or she would probably argue that “black gay community” might have done just as well and been much shorter. 

    I can’t judge whether “tranny glam” is derogatory since I am not familiar with it, but I do believe that it is clear from Kussin’s piece over all that he is very respectful of the people he is writing about. There really is no room for misinterpretation.As long as the topics journalist write about are sensitive, people will be very sensitive about journalists’ language–sometimes overly sensitive. I think it is important to keep track of the big picture here–Kussin wrote and produced a piece on a topic that is rarely reported on at all, and almost never with equal respect and tact while keeping his piece interesting for an audience that stretches way beyond that of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities of color. For this he should be applauded.

  2. bernard -

    Inclusion of the word adds nothing to this piece, and the fact that it’s considered a “punchy” addition to an otherwise respectful article points to the depth and reach of transphobia in the world. Including this slur was irresponsible and takes away from the value of Zach’s story.

    Journalists don’t HAVE to perpetuate hate speech just to make articles interesting. It’s not “edgy and controversial” to use loaded words that aren’t part of your personal identity – it’s insensitive and short-sighted. No one would have missed the word if it wasn’t there, so why put it in when it has such a history of violence and oppression? 


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