Articles / General News / Verbal Hygiene

Who owns “transvestite”?

Courtney O’Donnell blogs about media representation of trans people, and serves a useful watchdog role. It’s possible to go overboard with that, and normally she recognizes it. Last September she wrote, “As for ‘transvestite’, some have made it know they find this word offensive, too, however, I’m also aware that it’s usage as an umbrella term is rather widespread — particularly in the United Kingdom. I’d be curious to hear what trans people from the other side of the pond feel about the term.” Last week in a post about Rosalinda Rebolledo, she asked whether Rebolledo’s story counted as “transgender news.”


In a post today, O’Donnell goes overboard. The actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s actually less silly than a lot of Hollywood people, was asked by USA Today, “But seriously, how can she look so fresh the day after partying until near-sunrise for the Met Gala?” Paltrow replied, “Are you crazy? I’m like RuPaul! I have so much makeup on. Foundation! Last night, I was literally a transvestite.”

(Don’t even start on the “literally.” That battle is lost, people. We’ve got plenty of words that mean “in the real world, not metaphorically or metonymically.” Use them, and forget this one.)

O’Donnell created an image saying that Paltrow “Ridicules Trans People,” and writes, “Trans people are not objects to ridicule. While it may appear to be a thoughtless comment by an ignorant person, however, a celebrity of her stature yields quite a bit of influence among her fans, so she’s going to have to own up to committing this very public blunder. I wouldn’t go so far to say Paltrow is transphobic, but she in dire need of education. If we can get her to apologize, she can redeem herself and send a bit of good PR our way.”

A lot of O’Donnell’s commenters said she was making too big a deal of it, to which O’Donnell replied, “Remember, those that do violence against trans people do not check for labels — crossdressers, transvestites, transsexuals — trans people are all one and the same to them. Being mocked in the media by a celebrity, no matter how slight, normalizes this behavior. While readers are free to give Paltrow a pass, I’d like to think I’m helping ensure that mocking trans people isn’t so easily blurted out during interviews anymore.”

I’m not really sure what ignorance Paltrow is exhibiting, let alone mockery, and what kind of “education” O’Donnell has in mind for her. Beyond that, though, where does O’Donnell get off policing the word “transvestite”? It’s clear from her September post that she doesn’t identify as one, and doesn’t understand the nuances of the word. Why not leave it to someone who does?
IMG_0535When I was a cute young thing I didn’t need to wear any makeup at all. But at 41, I’m not just a transvestite but an aging transvestite. I have to spend an hour slathering the stuff on just so that I don’t see my beard shadow in the mirror. It’s a pain in the ass, and it’s kind of nice to know that People‘s “Most Beautiful Woman” has to put up with it much more often than I do.

I don’t feel at all ridiculed by the comparison. I don’t feel mocked by someone who wears a lot of makeup pointing out that we do too. I don’t see how it could encourage people to violently attack us. In fact, I feel sympathy and validation from Paltrow.

I’d appreciate it if O’Donnell and (any other non-transvestite activists) could back off from the term “transvestite” and focus on whatever flavor of trans she identifies with. If we want her help, we can ask for it. And actually, if she wants to give a signal boost to this effort, that’d be nice.

(P.S. See also Jeremy Feist’s take.)