Celebrity and singer Kelly Osbourne, daughter of rocker Ozzy Osbourne, recently has gotten herself in some trouble after she described the trans woman her ex-fiancé cheated on her with using derogatory anti-trans slurs. The background is that her former lover Luke Worrall two-timed her with another woman who, apparently, knew nothing about his pre-existing relationship with Osbourne. The other woman is a model and happens to be trans.
In an interview, Osbourne describes the woman in question as a “tranny” as well as a “chick with a dick” and further misgenders her. Anyone who is educated on basic trans issues will immediately recognize these phrasings as slurs; their use is intended to stigmatize a certain social group: trans people (and trans women especially).
Now, there is a lot of confusion around these words in the mainstream media. This is in large part due to the fact that the word “tranny” is thrown around casually (and sometimes as an insult) among gay cis* men. Further, gay cis men have become visible in media in a way that trans people still have not. Gay men occupy space on talk shows and reality tv programs galore, while trans people are largely absent. As a result, gay cis men often effectively act as the arbiters in the public eye of what is acceptable (and what is not) around LGBTI issues. Unfortunately, many of these men are actually totally clueless when it comes to trans issues; hence playing this role often creates more confusion than it does anything else.
Further it might be confusing because sometimes trans women do themselves use the word “tranny.” One point is that some people have tried to compare this T-word to the N-word, and usually I think that is over-simplistic. However, in this respect it is the same: us trans women can use the word tranny all we want. Osbourne and other cis people cannot use the word at all, end of story. Especially if they want to call themselves allies.
However, in the debate around these phrasings, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that using those words, while bad in and of itself, is by far not the real problem with Osbourne’s statements.
Osbourne claims that it was uniquely humiliating to explain to her parents that her former lover cheated on her with a trans woman, stating, “It’s hard enough to get your head around someone cheating on you, but when someone is a chick with a dick? Up until then, I’d always thought that the worst way to get cheated on would be with an ugly girl. Don’t you think?… Because at least if they cheat on you with a gorgeous girl it makes some kind of sense.”
What Osbourne is suggesting here is that any given trans woman should be automatically valued less than herself. This is the point about her words that goes beyond merely offensive. Think about it… if Osbourne had said she was particularly humiliated to tell her parents that her boyfriend cheated on her with a woman of color, wouldn’t we describe those words as racist? So how do we describe it when she says that she was humiliated in particular that her fiancé cheated on her with a trans woman? The answer is that her words are deeply transphobic.
When confronted on twitter about the interview she gave, Osbourne initially apologized, although my impression is that she was merely apologizing for her word choice, not the deeper meaning behind those words. At a later point she balked at the description of her words as being bigoted, which in my mind confirms my suspicion: she still doesn’t get it.
That having been said, I do think it is important to say that we shouldn’t go too far in this criticism. On one blog, another trans woman criticized Osbourne’s words by stating, “Angie Zapata was an eighteen year old trans woman that was brutally beaten to death by Allen Ray Andrade. When he was arrested Andrade said he killed “it”… I’m not comparing what Andrade did to what Osbourne said. That would be absurd. But her bigoted language does contribute to a society that sees trans people as less than human. It may be a drop in the bucket, but it does matter.”
I want to make a delicate point in response to this. Osbourne’s words are indeed stigmatizing, and there are larger consequences to that type of language. However, introducing our sister Angie Zapata’s death into this is not going to help the discussion. It’s too emotional, and it’s too much weight— no matter how qualified— to put on one person’s shoulders in the present context.
Further, we can explain why Osbourne’s words were totally unacceptable without relying on that particular argument. Speaking from a personal perspective, her words were reprehensible because they hurt. Personally, I can say that most of the time when I hear the words that Osbourne used on the street, it comes from someone who wants to belittle me or isolate me; if I hear “tranny” or “chick with a dick,” usually “freak” isn’t far behind.
But of course, that is only addressing Osbourne’s word choice and not her core message, which implies that trans women are inferior. Now, keep in mind that part of the story is that she ended up becoming friends with the trans woman in question. However, becoming friends with an individual is not necessarily the same thing as unlearning an old prejudice. It is perfectly possible, for example, for a white casual racist to have friends of color.
Further, given the constant dehumanizing media depictions of trans women as being nothing more than sex objects, drug addicts, freaks, etc. the suggestion that a person should feel shame for being (even indirectly) associated with a trans woman is deeply harmful terrain. Of course, Kelly Osbourne has every right to feel hurt or even shame that her fiancé cheated on her. However, unless she is prejudiced, the fact that the woman in question was trans should make absolutely no difference whatsoever. This is especially true given that Osbourne claims to be an ally.
Finally, I would like to end this piece by speaking directly** to Kelly, assuming (I hope) that she will read this.
Kelly, I know you are feeling hurt right now over this. You feel like you’re being attacked, and it’s okay to feel that way for now. But the reason people are responding this way is because your words truly were bigoted. And until you accept that and embrace that, you will not be capable of apologizing in a way that has any meaning to the people that you hurt, and you will not truly be capable of moving on, and most importantly, I will not be able to call you my ally.
*cis (cisgender) means opposite of trans (transgender), in case anyone reading this is not familiar. Cissexism (as in the title) refers to a belief among some cis individuals that they are superior to trans people.
**As one further point, I would say that if Osbourne decides to give any donations in relation to an apology, such a donation should be given to a trans-specific organization, not a mainstream LGBTI organization, which all too often is only peripherally involved in trans issues. One suggestion I would make is the NY-based Sylvia Rivera Law Project.