There's a poem I do at gigs, 25/5/13. It's named after the day the EDL marched through Newcastle last year, and based on my experience of having to walk past a bunch of hooting, flag-waving racists on my way to get the Metro to an IPL appointment in Sunderland that day. It ends with the t-slur, a word that's been discussed a lot lately, and it ends with that word because I was suddenly struck by a parallel between my experience and that of, of all people, Muhammad Ali. You see, walking past the fascists, I realised those who chucked the t-slur at me had all been white, British people - the supposedly salt-of-the-Earth sorts who were even claiming to have an LGBT division in order to defend me from rampant Islamic transphobia. And yet - no Muslim I'd encountered had ever called me 'tranny'. Just as Muhammad Ali, decades earlier, observed he wouldn't fight in Vietnam because, as he put it, 'no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.' It's a line I quote in the poem - on the page. When I do it at gigs, I end that line with a dignified beat's silence. It's clear to the audience what word is meant to be used - the quote itself is pretty well-known, and to make it really clear the preceding line ends with the word 'triggers' - but it's a word I can't bring myself to say on stage. Why? Because it isn't. My. Word.
Understand: what I'm not doing here is saying tranny and nigger are equivalent words. Nor am I saying my struggle as a trans woman is identical to Ali's struggle as a black man during the civil rights era. What I am saying is I can't bring myself to say the n-word on stage because I know that word has been the cause of a vast amount of pain to people whose experiences I can never fully comprehend, and I do not want to be a further source of that pain, even in a poem which is clearly taking a very firm stand against racist thuggery and in favour of multiculturalism and the celebration of difference. I could handwave it, I could say it's acceptable because 'I'm not racist', I could say my intent is positive, I could accuse people who object to the word's use of 'language-policing', I could ask them why they're focusing on my use of the n-word when real racists (not like nice little non-racist old me) are going around invading mosques and abusing people they consider 'immigrants' - heck, I could probably find half a dozen Genuine Black People who would happily tell you it wasn't racist of me to say the n-word and anyone who says otherwise is just 'dividing the community'. But I don't.
Why? Because whatever spurious justification I came up with for saying the word - and whatever justification I came up with would be spurious - I myself would not be able to look in the mirror again knowing I'd used the same word that, as Dean Atta movingly points out, was 'one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard, so don't tell me it's a reclaimed word'.
Don't tell me 'tranny' is a reclaimed word either. It isn't a reclaimed word when I use it at the end of that poem. It's one of the last words CeCe McDonald had shouted at her before she was attacked. You know CeCe's name because there was a global campaign against her unjust imprisonment for defending herself against a transphobic and racist attack. But do you know Crain Conaway's name? Do you know Deoni Jones' name? Do you know the names of Rosita Hidalgo, Coko Williams, Tyrell Jackson, Paige Clay, Brandy Martell, Lorena Escalera, Tracy Johnson, Tiffany Gooden, Deja Jones, Kendall Hampton, or Kyra Cordova? No. Why should you? I can reel off that list because I do it at just about every gig I do, when I perform the poem I wrote about CeCe, 'Letter to a Minnesota Prison'. Those are the names from the hundreds on the Transgender Day of Remembrance list I restricted myself to using in that poem: only the murders in 2012, just the (North) American names. Want to take a wild guess as to the last word they heard before they were murdered?
Evidently RuPaul can look himself in the mirror after using that word. Probably sleeps like a baby too. He certainly throws his toys out of the pram like one when people dare to call him out on his language choices. But the cynic in me wonders what might disturb his sleep. Because the weird thing is, before Ru went on-air for an interview and tried to paint himself as the victim in all of this, things seemed to be calming down. Logo had deleted the transmisogynist (and, let's face it, just straight up misogynist) 'Female or She-male' segment that was the catalyst for all this to start with; Alaska Thunderfuck had apologised for the vile skit he filmed mocking Parker Molloy for her criticism of said segment; there was a sense things might calm down, the trans and drag communities might get over ourselves and focus on what we had in common. There was even, in Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, a new drag icon who said positive, respectful things about trans women even as she iterated that she wasn't one herself. Peace was, it seemed, breaking out.
But there was just one problem: the new mood was happening without RuPaul Charles being the centre of attention, and that would never do. So Ru went on the radio, it all kicked off again, and here we all are tearing strips off each other while that narcissist basks in the chaos.
Well, Ru, you can rest easy, because I wrote a poem about you, too. In fact, I even quoted you in it. It's called Bitch, get stronger. Enjoy.