Content Warning: Discussions of slurs, as well as discussions of erasure and violence against trans people. Be aware if you find these topics confronting in any way.
Okay, let’s get some things out of the way. I love anime, and I love it for its trashiness. And I think it’s totally cool and okay to like crossdressing characters in anime. But I have… an issue with the word “trap”. The word “trap” has been floating around online for over a decade now, particularly in western anime communities, but it’s especially picked up steam in recent years. It’s often used to refer to crossdressers and transgender people both in media and in real life. And heck, I know trans people who refer to THEMSELVES as “traps”. But even with the intent to reclaim the word it doesn’t sit right with me at all, so let’s talk about it.
One of the first known usages in this context came from a post on Urban Dictionary that refers to a “trap” as:
A man who dresses like a woman and is somewhat feminine in appearance. Could almost be mistaken for a woman until you are in the bedroom with one. Watch out for these types, they are usually afraid to get intimate because you might discover their little ‘secret’, but sooner or later you find out the truth!
So basically the word “trap” in theory refers to crossdressers who are deceiving people by presenting as a different gender, and for that should perhaps be seen as a threat. If you’re a trans person you probably already see what’s wrong with this. One of the pervasive and harmful stereotypes against trans people is that they’re deceiving people by presenting as a gender besides what they were assigned at birth. And not just harmful in a self-esteem sense, harmful in the sense that many trans people have been on the receiving end of violence at the hands of people who believe they’ve been tricked. This violence in many unfortunate situations has resulted in the deaths of trans people, and is occurring at a continually increasing rate. The fact that a term like “trap” fundamentally refers to being tricked in this usage makes it extremely concerning.
“But they’re not trans people”, you might say, “they’re crossdressers”. Indeed many characters identified as “traps” and individuals who self identify are in actual fact crossdressers, but as far as the perpetrators of violence against trans people are concerned there’s no distinction. To them trans people are just deceitful crossdressers, and the pervasiveness of that idea is precisely BECAUSE of cultural concepts like “traps”. It’s also true that many people who use the term don’t have that malicious intent, but many share that lack of a distinction between crossdressers and trans people. Because of that they ultimately still play a part in perpetuating scare tactics against trans people and the erasure of their existence. There’s a lot of explanations that seek to distance the term from transphobia, but the ones I’ve encountered have all been inadequate at coming to grips with how people view and refer to the trans community.
There are at least a few trans people in the western anime community who acknowledge these things but decide to use the term “trap” in direct response to it. This is rooted in the concept of cultural reclamation, that is the idea that by having trans people use the word it takes the power away from transphobes to use it against them. We’ve specifically seen this happen in LGBT+ culture with the word “queer”, which was historically a slur against the community but has evolved into a wide-reaching identification of the movement.
Unfortunately “trap” is a very different word to “queer”. “Queer” was an extremely broad derogatory term, ultimately meaning something to the effect of “strange” or “unusual”. Because of this it was an easy word to take proud ownership of, and had the flexibility to be shaped into an empowerment of LGBT+ people and their deviation from normative standards. By contrast “trap” is extremely specific in its harmful connotations. By its fundamental design it refers to the concept of deception, a concept that as I explained earlier threatens the lives of trans people. There’s no empowering way for trans people to collectively “own” the idea that they’re lying about their gender identity when one of the crucial ideas of dignifying their existence is respecting that their identities are real and valid.
But maybe you find calling yourself a “trap” personally empowering or comforting, and maybe it’s just something you do around your trans friends who share that meaning. And honestly that’s okay. But realise that most trans people outside the bubble of anime fandom (and many within) are definitely not okay with it. Many are uncomfortable and find it demeaning and harmful, especially those who’ve survived experiences of violence at the hands of people who deny their existence.
So if you’re a trans person and you want to call yourself or others “traps” be mindful of the connotations and consider what circumstances you’re using the word in. And as for cisgender people it’s probably best you don’t call anyone a “trap”. Not crossdressers, not trans people, not anyone. It cannot be stated enough how much the language we use to refer to trans people and other marginalised groups is both a symptom and a cause of real world harm. So don’t be a jerk!