Karl Stefanovic has offered an unreserved, on-air apology after repeatedly using the words 'transvestite' and 'tranny' while making a string of transphobic jokes during Thursday's Today Show broadcast.
Admitting he was "an ignorant tool" this morning, the veteran host says, "yesterday I got it very wrong. By using the word 'tranny' I annoyed an awful lot of beautiful sensitive people."
"I honestly didn't know the negative and deeply hurtful impact that word has not only on members of the LGBTQI community but on their family and friends. Therein lies the problem I reckon, I never bothered to ask."
Social media was awash with condemnation for Stefanovic after he used the language during a segment about a Nine Network crew being assaulted in Rio de Janeiro.
However, many others were left unsure about what term is most suitable, as 'transvestite' is a word that some in the cross-dressing and transgender community accept, while others find antiquated and offensive.
— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) July 28, 2016
People who dress in the clothing of the opposite gender are not to be confused with people who are transgender, which is when a person feels they have been born the wrong gender and takes steps to live as their true self.
'Transvestite' has largely been replaced by the term 'cross-dresser' which can apply to a person of any gender but typically refers to a heterosexual man who wears clothing traditionally associated with women.
Cross-dressing is a means of gender expression rather than sexuality, and the people who engage in it do not necessarily wish to change their gender as a transgender person would, nor are they doing it for entertainment purposes like a drag queen.
Transgender Victoria defines ‘transvestite’ as a term that “usually refers to men who dress up for sexual pleasure”, which is the reason why Kristine Johnson, the secretary of the Australian Transgender Support Association of Queensland, finds it offensive.
“I do [find 'transvestite' offensive] actually, mainly because that was used as a psychiatric term for cross-dressers, those that were heterosexual men who got a thrill out of dressing up in female clothing," she tells SBS.
"The preferred term is ‘cross-dressers’," she explains, “Don’t get me wrong, [cross-dressing for sexual pleasure] still happens but it’s not perverted, they don’t go out looking for sex everywhere.”
Ms Johnson adds that the portion of people who do derive sexual pleasure from cross-dressing do not represent the majority of cross-dressers.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the debate is Katherine Cummings, an information worker at the Sydney based Gender Centre, and she tells SBS she does not find the term ‘transvestite’ offensive.
“It is still used as a word, I don’t know who finds it offensive,’” she says.
“There are people who are transvestite and people who are transgender, but ‘transvestite’ is still a perfectly acceptable term for transvestites.”
“It’s a term that describes a certain group of people who cross-dress,” she explains, “I used to be a transvestite myself until I realised I was transgender.”
Ms Cummings notes that in the case Stefanovic was reporting on, it seems unclear whether the assailants who approached the Nine crew were transgender or cross-dressers, but agrees with the Today host that in less aggressive circumstances, “the logical thing is to ask”.
What about 'tranny'?
While she isn’t fazed by the term ‘transvestite’, the word ‘tranny’ elicited a completely different response from Ms Cummings.
“I find that offensive because it’s a put down like ‘homo’ or ‘leso’ or almost every abbreviation which is not used by the person or the group themselves,” she says.
GLAAD lists ‘tranny’ under ‘defamatory terms’ saying it is “derogatory” and “dehumanises transgender people”, but although it is widely considered as an offensive word, not everyone sees it that way.
Ms Johnson explains, “I transitioned in the late 70s, early 80s – to me, being called a ‘tranny’ was one up above being called a ‘poofta’ or a ‘sissy’.
"To be called a ‘tranny’ in the street was like acknowledgment that I am above a ‘poofta’ that’s how it was then and I still personally don’t find the term offensive but a lot of our members do.”
She adds that it is a subjective term that some people don’t mind and others hate but says, “if I was to speak on behalf of the community, ‘tranny’ is a very offensive term.”