Every morning on my way in to work, Diamond passed judgment on me. She was tall and gorgeous, with long black hair, dark skin, and the best back-of-the-truck Louis Vuitton that Chinatown could fashion. Her breasts she'd also gotten on the cheap — hormones from shady doctors or birth-control pills stolen from female relatives — but she knew how to work all those fakes into a real package.

Most mornings, she'd take one look at my sorry social-work ass — no-brand jeans, scuffed black shoes, second-hand button-down shirt — and utter a devastating two-syllable critique.

"Mmmhmm," she'd say, a sound made at the back of the mouth, up towards the nose, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Not to be confused with the positive "mmmhmm," made at the front of the mouth and an affirmation I rarely received.

Each time, I cringed. I was twenty-three, fresh from college, and had long repressed the cruelty of high-school fashion fascism. Now here it was, thrown right back at me, magnified a hundred times. There were many ways in which the Harvey Milk School, New York's high school for at-risk lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, was a safe haven. But when it came to appearance (especially that of the teachers and staff), it was a war zone with a cafeteria.

But then there were those magic days, few and far between, when I had just the right amount of product in my hair, or wore shoes that complemented my belt and bag. Diamond would look at me in the elevator as we rode in to school together, or pass me in the hallway, and break out in a big smile.

"You look cunt!" she'd say. Or sometimes just the abbreviated, "Cunty!" If I was really on, she'd add a snap of her fingers, or she'd pop her tongue.

I cringed those times, too, but for different reasons. I'd do a quick check to see if anyone else had heard. We had strict rules against cursing in school, and I'd be in trouble if I didn't correct her. But I was just five years older than Diamond, and a white guy from the suburbs — was I really going to reprimand her for complimenting me? Not if I could get away with avoiding it. At most, I'd cock my head and say "Diamond," in a voice I had modeled off the principal on Saved by the Bell.

Among the staff, we called it "the C-bomb." Most of us had no idea how to handle it.

At most, I'd cock my head and say "Diamond," in a voice I had modeled off the principal on Saved by the Bell.

If it had been used as an insult, we'd be on them like the outspoken feminists we were. But a compliment? It was too difficult to parse — like when I meet gay Christians who are pro-choice but voted twice for Bush. I couldn't figure out what was right or wrong.

I had an undergraduate degree in Feminist Studies. I had read (and loved) Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. But my only experiences with hearing the word "cunt" aloud revolved around performance art that invoked the word to shock. I put "cunt," like "faggot," in a category of words that were "problematic" and made me revert to my most academic self, so I could talk around them without ever issuing a judgment on who "could" or "should" use them. I saw it as a good excuse to use words like "reclamation" and "subjectivity." Don't even get me started on the N-word.

When called upon, I discoursed easily on the history of cunt: its contested origin (the Proto-Germanic kunton or the Latin cunnus, both of which refer to female genitalia), its history as a derogatory term (traceable back to a seedy alley in thirteenth-century London named Gropecunt Lane), and its possible relationship to words like "country" and "kin." But I would never, ever, have uttered it myself.

One day, I found Diamond and a few of the other transgirls gathered around a computer looking at a hardcore-porn site. The kind with slogans like "split wet beavers," and other combinations of degrading animal metaphors and synonyms for "lubricious." This was definitely against the rules, and moreover, we could have lost our funding or gotten arrested had the wrong person caught them.

"Oh," said Natasha, one of the younger girls, as I approached to shut down the computer. "They're so beautiful." She reached out a tentative hand to stroke the image of a clinically-bright close-up on a woman's stretched vag. Natasha was crying. It was the kind of picture that would have been disgusting under most circumstances, but the reverence in her voice made it seem a work of art. After that, I let them look up all the vaginas they wanted — but in my office, where they wouldn't get us all in trouble.

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Commentarium (16 Comments)

Apr 02 09 - 6:52am
sm

One of the best constructed, most original essays I have read in a long time. Sets an entirely new standard for thinking about words and how we understand them. Thanks for posting this.

Apr 02 09 - 9:20am
GE

Beautiful essay. Thank you.

Apr 02 09 - 9:48am
VF

Fantastic essay. I love that it has an almost academic tone to it, while still remaining so vivid and personal. Also a really interesting take on linguistics. Cheers!

Apr 02 09 - 11:09am
FT

That essay was cunt!

Apr 02 09 - 3:53pm
AC

This summer, a very sexually explicit book of mine is being published. For the years that it took me to write it, I used the word cunt exclusively to refer to lady parts. I wanted the strongest word in our language to represent my favorite part of the human form. But the word became a stumbling block in editorial.
After doing a little field testing of my own, I wholeheartedly got on board with the decision to replace cunt with strong alternatives: several people I showed the book to had nearly violent reactions against that word, so much so that none of the rest of the book even got through to them. (One woman got tears in her eyes she was so offended.)
I had become so steeped in the cunt-friendly feminist literature (Ensor's cunt rant in the Vagina Monologues along with the pieces you mention here), that I thought the word had been broadly reclaimed by sex-positive feminism. Net yet apparently.
All this is to say thanks for this wonderful contribution to cunt-pride. I love, love, love it.

Apr 02 09 - 4:23pm
AL

im getting an m.a. in psychology right now and am about to start training with populations very different than myself- this story really calmed some of my fears and realize that there can be an eventual ease about dealing with sticky situations. awesome essay- thanks!!

Apr 02 09 - 8:24pm
www

We need to see more Hugh Ryan.

Apr 02 09 - 8:24pm
dwp

and the point of this would be?

Apr 03 09 - 10:44am
lko

This essay was so touching in an unexpected way. I second the cry, more Hugh Ryan!

Apr 04 09 - 4:50pm
KsZ

A transgendered "Entre les muir." Good stuff.

Apr 05 09 - 9:11am
mb

I loved this piece! If only I could get my mother to say "Everybody say cunt!"

Apr 07 09 - 1:51am
ew

I frickin love it. great job hugh, i really really like your writing. you have any more i can check out?

-- eric rmo

Apr 23 09 - 2:07pm
MC

I love this essay. It brought tears to my eyes. :)

Aug 22 11 - 3:26am
Shirazzi G.

I love this, I hope to see more of this in mainstream media.

Oct 22 11 - 8:53pm
Chanel

What a beautiful essay. Is there a way to get it in published form? It's amazing.