Letters To and From Our Editors
We are always interested to hear from our readers. Unfortunately, there’s not room to publish their letters in our pages, but occasionally a bit of correspondence comes in that we think is worth addressing more generally on our blog. Such was the case with a letter about a story published in our summer issue (# 123), Andrew Tibbetts’ “The Hanged Man Café.” Our reader’s concern was his use of a word she felt was defamatory. With her permission, we’ve published her letter here along with my response and another from the author. We invite others to sound in. If you’ve not read the story—and don’t have the issue in hand—it can be found here on our website.
Hello Ms. Jernigan!
I’m a subscriber to TNQ. I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but the term "tranny" is considered very defamatory and offensive by the vast majority of transgender people (and many others in [the] queer community, including me). It is especially degrading to MTF transgender people. I was disappointed to see [both] the stereotypical portrayal of trans women in Andrew Tibbetts’ story, and the consistent use of the term “tranny” to describe them. I’m not sure how this transphobia related to the narrative. Tibbetts may be gay, but this is not at all the same as being trans, so he can’t claim a right to use this word.
If there is something in the meaning of transphobia in this story that I missed, I would be so grateful to hear your insights.
Dear Andrea Routley,
Thank you for writing. I was not aware that “tranny” is considered an offensive word in the transgendered community, and I am happy to be educated about it. However, I also want to make a defense of Andrew Tibbetts’ story, “The Hanged Man Café,” which I do not believe is transphobic, and of his use of this word.
We do think, at TNQ, about the implicit values in the work we publish and tend to eschew work that seems to us mean-spirited or to be using human misery of whatever sort and the human condition more generally in a way that feels vicarious, sensational, or exploitative. At the same time, we make a distinction between the attitudes expressed in a story (i.e. the attitudes or sensibility which the writer brings to the work) and those expressed by a character within the story. Writers must be free to depict attitudes they do not themselves endorse.
As to “The Hanged Man Café,” it is a story that has, in fact, to do with the language used to describe people from different communities, sexual or otherwise: the mother, for instance, is educated about which are the accurate or politically correct terms for, in her vocabulary, “hermaphrodites” or “mongoloids.” So I would assume that Tibbetts is sensitive to these issues and intentional in calling our attention to the way language can perpetuate discrimination or misunderstanding. My impression is also that the characters who are referred to as "trannies" or "t-girls" are transvestite, not transgendered (from my admittedly limited research, the term has broad application).
But most importantly, the story is a comedy, beginning in a world gone awry (the mother and son at odds, the “boyfriend” unhappy), but ending with stability and community restored. The transvestites operate as the agents of change, they are in a sense the heroes of the piece, finding the lost ring, bringing things full circle. Stereotype is the stuff of comedy (whether the comedy aims to undermine a stereotype or simply use it to some comedic end), which is another reason I assume the characters are transvestites, men making a parody of femininity. But it is their word for the mother, “Poodle,” which becomes the code word for tolerance at the story’s end, a code word the son, the mother, and the boyfriend vow to use to “call [each other] on it if [they] start to get bitchy.”
Aside from the particulars of this story, it’s an interesting and important issue, the degree to which fiction can be called upon to refrain from using language that’s potentially offensive even when, for better or worse, that language has currency in the world, and also the extent to which comedy, by nature transgressive, can be constrained by the injunction not to offend. I don’t presume to have the definitive answers to these questions, and I'd be interested to hear what others think.
Kim Jernigan, Fiction Editor
Andrew Tibbetts’ response:
Always happy to be read. Period. So I thank the reader for reading my work and also for writing in. As well, I thank her for being a strong ally of transfolk, as I aim to be. The story is set (vaguely) in the mid 90s and the narrator isn’t particularly socio-politically progressive—he’s definitely cis-centric in his perception of the world. Because I found some of his expressions and opinions jarring myself, I considered giving him a more up-to-date and sensitive attitude than he could have possibly had at that time, given who he is. But that felt, to me, dishonest. I’ve had the same feelings when I’ve written from the perspective of characters who have sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, or other ideas I find regressive. Crafting first-person narrators means writing from their perspective. When I think their perspectives are missing something, I do try to give hints around the edges of possibilities they aren’t fully registering. For example, in this story, the other characters refer to the two genderqueer characters as “trannys” and “hermaphrodites,” but please notice that they self-identify as T-Girls and correct the other characters as much as they can. As to being stereotypical, the things that the narrator notices—the make-up, the giggling—may seem conventional, but there are things that he pays less attention to: that one has an interest in esoteric readings of the Tarot and the other critical knowledge of the Brian Mulroney Airbus Kickback Scandal. Their humour and generosity do indeed make them the hero(ine)s of the story; they come to represent for the narrator a vision of a more beautiful world than he has imagined lately, and spur him on to being a better person. Thanks Kim, for sharing your affirming reading of my story and giving readers and writers an opportunity to discuss these important literary and social issues. As to your question about whether they are transvestites: I’m happy to use their own term T-Girls and ask not to have to check under their (fabulous) dresses. Love The New Quarterly!