The Angry Tranny: Tone Arguments and Trans Women
Despite being a mostly-unknown trans activist and blogger whose target audience is usually quite small, I recently found myself at the centre of some internet drama over a piece I wrote at my blog critiquing Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video for what I perceived as transmisogynist content. My arguments were initially picked up and discussed on a few feminist blogs, Twitter, and the typical places I was used to seeing these kinds of ideas debated. A few days after I put up the post, though, it was cross-posted in its entirety to Oh No They Didn’t, a pop culture community on Livejournal. Almost immediately, my page hits increased by orders of magnitude. With the shift from academic/queer/Feminist/oppression politics sites to a mainstream audience came a nearly complete disintegration of argument, and my inbox and comment queue began to fill with hate mail. In almost every letter the author concluded with an accusation like “And maybe you ****ing trannies would get somewhere if you weren’t so ****ing angry!”
I get the irony.
The Angry Tranny trope is a variation of the classic tone argument aimed specifically at trans women (it is used against trans men too, but as I suggest later I see the implication is specifically to de-gender trans women as angry men), a derail which suggests people would listen to you, if only you were nicer. This is never attainable, however, as the dominant groups retains the right to decide what is and isn’t acceptable tone, and dissenting ideas are inevitably considered impolite, rude, or angry. Angry Tranny takes this one step further, and beyond merely classifying arguments as angry trans women themselves are framed as threatening.
While they can be applied to any dissenting voice, tone arguments contain deeply transmisogynist implications when used against trans women. They imply that trans women aren’t just angry, but dangerous, feeding cissexual fears of trans women being threatening. In a number of comments cis commenters expressed fear for expressing their thoughts on the subject. This fear of trans women expressing themselves, especially in feminist spaces, is based on seeing trans women as men, and then applying to them the cis person’s expectations (while denying the lived experience of the trans woman). To suggest that trans women are in a position of social privilege which can silence cis voices is ridiculous on its face, as it is to suggest I had – as an unknown trans activist and blogger – privilege over the literally thousands of cis voices disagreeing with me. Like most derails in oppression politics tone arguments are riddled with doublespeak and knee-jerk accusations of the same behavior being pointed out in the first place. The anger against threatening cis dominance is projected back on those trans people speaking up.
Having been around discussions of trans inclusion politics for some time, especially those conversations which have happened in queer and feminist spaces, I feel I have a deep familiarity with Angry Tranny. Its consistency of use has shaped my own activism, pushing it to a more radical stance – although I am sure some cis people might gasp and point fingers at this assertion, arguing they’re being silenced, but honestly when it comes to trans inclusivity and rights activism I do not care what cis people think. That is not to say that cis people are not a part of my politics and are often close allies in the actions I take part in, or that some cis people have strongly influenced my ideas about fighting oppression, but the average cis person on the street, or even an average commenter on a progressive blog? Nope. Cultural investment in the dominance of cis voices over trans does not imply good faith in discussions, so with cis people I approach with caution.
The ultimate aim of tone arguments against trans women is to present our voices as unreasonable and thus remove us from discourse. This is so deeply woven into our culture it is nearly impossible to not be influenced by that bias without doing any work to identify and acknowledge it – work the vast majority of people just haven’t done. Until I know people have done that work I don’t expect them to have their own ideas or voice in discussing cis/trans issues, instead I expect them to repeat the silencing and erasing arguments they’ve learned from their cissexist culture. And they do.
While it is clear in the instantaneously angry dismissals in a place like ONTD, trans-focused tone arguments happen in any environment dominated by cis people. Academic and intellectual discussion takes on a more polite language, but the implication of anger or being unreasonable is still common. While it might not be flat-out assertions of anger (That still happens, mind you, the amount of anger people read into my comments at a place like Feministe might not seem apparent to a cis audience but I imagine those used to arguing marginalized positions are familiar with the behaviours) there is the tendency to frame dissenting trans voices as unreasonable or external to discourse. I think of this as taking away the middle ground.
Taking away the middle ground suggests unreasonableness by focusing only on the extremes of one’s position. One of the common responses to my critique of Lady Gaga was the sense I was comparing her video to violent transphobes. By willfully ignoring degrees of transphobic and transmisogynist behaviours this allows any criticism by trans people to be waved away as unrealistic or unreasonable. In a similar vein, one LGBT blog reported on my piece alongside a homophobic FOX News segment, and this was picked up on a few sites. The implication there was clear, dissenting trans voice = right wing homophobes. The well was poisoned, and although I hadn’t explicitly been called angry (well, the commenters did, but that always happens) the blog succeeded in making trans people seem unreasonable by association.
Dissenting ideas will provoke anger before they provoke discussion, so if they provoke anger in dominant groups you can’t expect much more than that. When I see discussion happen in the wake of that anger I’m glad, because that is where change happens, but I certainly don’t expect to see it immediately. Instead I’m used to hate mail and being shouted down, because I know the most we can hope for is to get ideas into the mainstream culture. In a culture which so violently enforces gender norms being trans is a revolutionary act whether we want it to be or not, and the act of silencing is just one of the ways we’re erased. The greater the challenge to dominance all the louder we’ll be shouted down. The Angry Tranny response will exist as long as cis dominance exists.