I had my second celebrity encounter on Twitter recently. (I mentioned in my What color is ‘flesh’? post that I got a message from Sophia Bush.) My latest reply was from Seamus Dever, who plays Detective Kevin Ryan on ABC’s “Castle.” He tweeted “Counting the trannies on Santa Monica Blvd. Working on those night moves.” When I read it I was very disappointed that someone who espoused liberal causes did not know that “trannies” is a slur and an offensive word to call someone who is transsexual or transgender. I replied telling him that and asked him not to use it. Then he responded, saying, “so what do you call a transsexual prostitute?”
It sounded like the set-up to a joke, but it wasn’t funny to me at all. One of my first thoughts was, “Why do you have to call them anything? They’re human beings. They’re sex workers. What’s wrong with ‘transsexual prostitute’? Why do you have to shorten that to anything?” That wasn’t what I said to him, but I might have if I’d had more than 140 characters. Instead I said that “trans man” and “trans woman” were the preferred terms, and pointed him to a blog post about why “tranny” is considered hateful. I also thanked him for asking what the proper term is, and told him I’d pointed it out in the first place because I know that he knows the power words can hold. As an actor, Dever knows how changing one or two words can completely alter a scene.
I often see and hear people use words that I wish they wouldn’t — “retarded,” “gay” as a pejorative, etc. I myself have trouble finding words to describe something that’s out there without using a word like “crazy” or “nuts.” And of course I don’t point out to everyone that their language is offensive, but I did to Seamus and Sophia because they both seem like people who wouldn’t knowingly use hurtful words. And a lot of the time, people don’t know that their words are offensive. But if I were carelessly throwing around language that furthered the oppression of a marginalized group, I’d want someone to call me on it. Really, the only reason you need to omit a particular word from your vocabulary is that someone asks you to.