Ahhh, terminology. Amongst queer folks, it’s a Pandora’s Box of potentially ugly arguments. For the transgender/genderqueer/gender-variant/gender-non-conforming (pick whichever umbrella term is your favorite of the day), some days it feels less like a Pandora’s Box, and more like big glass of nitroglycerin (you know, even breath wrong and it blows up in your face). One of the most interesting (and problematic) issues with the terminology that surrounding non-cis people is that, frankly, no one seems to be able to agree on what the terms actually mean. Hell, beyond the fact that people can debate all day about what exactly it means to be “genderqueer”, “gender-fluid”, or “transgender”, we really haven’t settled (as a community) on what exactly one is referring to with terms like “sex” and “gender”! (Here’s a hint, it’s a WHOLE LOT more complicated than “gender is between your ears, and sex is between your legs). At this juncture, I’m not even entirely sure I could give succinct definitions (based upon my own beliefs) of what exactly “sex” and “gender” mean to me. (Though that discussion would definitely make an excellent essay for another time). In any case, there are quite literally many dozens of glossaries of sex-and-gender-related terms all over the internet, written by everything from big national groups like The National Center for Transgender Equality and GLAAD, to smaller advocacy sites like TransWhat and TSRoadMap, to individual bloggers like Natalie Reed and Erin Houdini. Not shockingly, even amongst just those six, there’s pretty significant variation as to how the various terms are defined.
“So, TNF,” you might say, “how on earth are you going to talk about terminology and labels without an consensus views on what the terms even mean?” Well, random hypothetical person I made up, I’m going to circumvent that by not trying to assign a universal definition to ANY terminology. After all, I’m really just a random girl on the internet who decided to sit down at her laptop one day and start writing…it’s not really my place to start assigning concrete meaning to terms. Instead, I’m going to talk about the importance (and to some extend the non-importance) of labels, identities and terminology, and how the term I use to describe myself have evolved along with my personal understanding of myself as a person.
So, let me start off by saying what labels and terms SHOULDN’T be. They definitely shouldn’t be rigid boxes that place firm constraints on who and what people are. Once we start putting firm walls up around labels and identities, you’re also certainly going to fuck it up and screw somebody over. Human variation (from height, hair, and eye color to sex and sexual orientation) is impressively gradient. You can trust me on this, I’m a scientist! They also absolutely shouldn’t be used to injure, marginalize, exclude, or oppress others. Once we start projecting our own absolute definitions of various terminology onto others, it’s very easy to slide into “us vs them” types of thinking. After all, once we start drawing circles around who counts as “us,” pretty much everyone else becomes “them.” This sort of behavior seems to become particularly problematic among the least privileged of minorities. Trans people have some pretty heated arguments about who exactly is or isn’t trans, and whether or not someone is “trans enough” (I’ve heard this referred to as the “tranny-er than thou” argument.) I’ve certainly see similar behavior in lesbian circles as well (and even had some of it directed at me). I think it comes having to expend so much energy scratching out a little space in the world that we then feel compelled to defend that tiny space with the ferocity of a polar bear on PCP. Unfortunately, most of the rage is often misdirected at another marginalized group, instead of the actual source of oppression. The end result is a lot of energy spent (pretty much pointless) in-fighting instead of working to actually improve our effing situation. Of course, our individuals thoughts are important in the overall conversation of ideas that evolve (and create) our terminology. But, in grand scheme of things, how we decide a term is defined applies pretty much only to us as individuals.
Instead of “labels” on rigid metaphorical containers, I think it’s much more useful (and healthy) to think of the terminology as a descriptor, as succinct, convenient summaries. That is…instead of committing to our preferred terms as a closely-held identity, we ought to use think of them as “things we use to describe ourselves.” Very few of us think of “brown-haired person” or “blued eyed person” or “average height person” as important, intrinsic personal identities…our terms for our gender, sex, sexual orientation, etc shouldn’t be much different. If metaphors work for you (I love metaphors), instead of thinking of our terminology as something tattooed onto us -indelible, permanent, and unalterable things etched onto us…we should think of them like underwear- important, but only useful while it’s comfortable and easy to change once it starts to bind us up.
There are three big improvements in thinking about terms this way. First, it helps us accept the idea that the descriptor doesn’t have to fit perfectly, that sometimes we’re just hunting for a best-fit descriptor. As an example: when I’m dealing with lots of straight folks who aren’t terribly well acquainted with queer culture, I tend to describe myself as a lesbian. This is far from a perfect descriptor, but “queer and attracted to female-identified and female-leaning people regardless of assigned sex, and evolving somewhere in the poorly defined area between sexual and demisexual” is a mouthful. I actually just prefer the term “queer”, but that just invites irritating questions in that kind of company, and I’m not often looking to give a “Queer 101” lesson in random conversation. So, sometimes, lesbian works just fine. But because I see lesbian (and queer) as a descriptive term instead of a label on a bin, I don’t have any inherent need to give much thought to policing who or who isn’t “really” lesbian or queer.
Secondly, it helps us be more open to evolution, both in our descriptions of ourselves, and our personal understanding of our terminology. After all, if we think of our current preferred term as a clear label with firm boundaries, we’re going to find it a lot harder to change labels, even if our understanding of ourselves has changed. It might even prevent us from seeking a deeper understanding of our identity out of fear of finding that a label we’re heavily invested in no longer applies to us. However, if we view our terms as simply short convenient summaries of our current general position, it becomes much easier to swap out those terms when they’re no longer feeling accurate. And if we’re not committed to an unyielding definition of a particular term, it’s possible that how we look at that term can evolve through experience, research, and conversation. Perhaps a book, an interview, a talk, a personal experience (or a blog post!) presents a new way of looking at the terms we’re currently adopted (or maybe even previously adopted, or maybe even have never adopted but still think about). I think we’re much more likely to allow that experience to change your mind if you’re open the malleability of descriptive terminology.
Finally, it frees us from policing the behavior and identities of ourselves and others. When we’re invested in a rigid identity labels, we become incredibly conscious of any violations of those definitions. We judge and criticize others for not fitting exactly into our notions of what is “transsexual”, “transgender”, “queer”, or even “female”. Even worse, we restrict our behavior to fit within that box, to become someone we might not really be for the sake for fitting neatly into the square we (or others) have drawn. I find that notion particularly tragic for trans folks, as we’ve often literally risked everything- including our lives- to live genuinely, only to cram ourselves into yet another imperfect box. Letting go of that rigid commitment frees us to accept the broad variation in others, to be less concerned about how other behave- and most importantly- to just be our damn selves without compromise or contrition.
Like so many other trans people, I spent many years meandering amongst different labels and descriptive terms for myself, and oscillating between accepting and rejecting the idea of giving a label at all. I don’t think I even knew what a transsexual was until I got access to the Internet when i was 16 (I’m in my 30s, okay?). Even then, I rejected that label for myself. (Back then, internet information about “how to know if you are transsexual” was pretty awful). I think my first identity description was something vaguely mumbled about “being kinda like a girl who looks like a boy” when I came out a girlfriend at 20. I tried on a lot of different labels in my early explorations of my gender identity, including “pangender”, “third gender”, and (in a few moments of real self-hate) “cisgender pervert who is making this all up”. I proudly wore the term “genderqueer” for a few years, mostly because I was flatly refusing to consider anything else because I was convinced I’d be a very ugly monster of a girl if I transitioned. It certainly sounded better than “male assigned at birth who knows she’s really a girl but is fucking terrified of transition so she’s currently elected not to pursue it.” The first time I went out in public presenting as female pretty much tossed all of that in the trash, and I began to refer to myself as transgender pretty quickly there after. (I find this kinda funny to reflect on, because I definitely have pictures from those early days, and OH GODS am I embarrassed of how I looked!). I was on the road to physical transition a year or so later.
Through all of transition, I was pretty adamant about my preference for the term “transgender”, and my rejection of term “transsexual”. Years of exposure to stereotypes and horrible media cliche had soured me on the word “transsexual.” It sounded lurid, provocative, almost pornographic to my ears. It reminded me of the generally pretty disgusting portrayals of trans people in pornography. It felt like a reminder of all the ways people misinterpret the reasons for transition as being based upon prurient desire and deviant sexual behavior. I felt like using it to describe myself to other would immediate put in THEIR minds all of those awful media stereotypes pushed into the public mind by the likes of Jerry Springer. In essence, I felt like the rest of the world had sullied the word transsexual to a degree where it was unsalvageable. I knew pretty early on that large number other people viewed the term “transgender” as an umbrella for all people of non-cis gender identities, but I put those out of my mind. I had little arguments here and there about how I felt that “transgender” shouldn’t be an umbrella term, how it should be reserved for those who at least socially transition, and that we should adopt something like “genderqueer” as a blanket term for non-cisgender people. I even admitted, first to myself and then to others, that I pretty well fit the “classic” notion of a what a transsexual person is. So, I stuck firmly to “transgender” and “trans” as my descriptors.
And then, while writing a different (as yet unpublished) piece about the politics of gender labels, I came across this brilliant blog post from Julia Serano. I’ll admit, Julia’s the sort of writing I’m predisposed to be being influenced by, and her book “Whipping Girl” had been fundamental to my coming to understand myself as a trans woman. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to suddenly and succinctly have my views on the word “transsexual” turned completely on their head. She writes:
“A final objection to the word “transsexual” has to do with the presence of the word “sex” within it. There is a popular misconception that trans people transition for sexual reasons (e.g., to prey on innocent straight folks, to fulfill some bizarre sexual fantasy, etc.), and many trans folks seem to fear that the word transsexual (because of the word “sex”) enables those assumptions. One can see the de-sexualization of transsexuality in the growing use of the phrase “gender confirmation surgery” to replace “sex reassignment surgery.” I think it also plays a role in why many physically-transitioned folks prefer transgender to transsexual. It’s as if the words “gender/transgender” simply sound more polite and respectable than the words “sex/transsexual.””
Immediately after reading that, I kinda felt like I had been kicked in the head; I was reeling. She had hit on pretty much exactly the sorts of feels I had about term. (She also takes down a number of other objections I had in other parts of the article…you really should go read it). It’s one thing to read something that helps you evolve your understanding of topic…it’s quite another to suddenly have that understanding completely called into question. She continues:
“While many trans people use “gender” as shorthand for gender identity, in these other areas the word is more commonly used to refer to gender expression or roles (i.e., masculinity, femininity, androgyny). This confusion leads many people to presume that transsexuals transition in order to become gender-conforming or because we uncritically want to perpetuate sexist gender roles, and so on. This is not the case, at least not for me and most transsexuals I’ve spoken with. I experimented with and expressed my femininity plenty when I was male-bodied. For me, transitioning was first and foremost about my physical sex, not gender expression. Being male-bodied felt wrong to me and being female-bodied feels right.” [emphasis mine]
Well, fuck me. Game, set, match for Julia on this one. Dumbfounded is a pretty accurate description of how I felt afterwards…how had I completely missed such a simple idea until now? It honestly took me a few days to process this new set of thoughts…to roll it around in my brain and see if how well I could deal with the sudden shift in view…to see if it really stuck. And, despite feeling a little dizzy from the metaphorical head blow, it really did stick with me. It seems like a such a small bit of insight, but it dramatically altered my views of a word that I previously harboured downright revulsion towards. (There’s the importance of evolution I talked about earlier.) So, while I’m still not 100% comfortable with the “baggage” that comes along with calling myself transsexual, I’m marching forward with it anyway. I’m “taking it back” as the kids say.
I’m a transsexual woman, and I’m proud to say so.