i frequently observe people express concern that they're worried about getting language related to trans and genderqueer identities right. They don't want to offend or upset the person they're talking to, but they're not confident that they won't.

i certainly agree that language usage in this area can be particularly tricky. One significant reason for this is that trans and genderqueer people ourselves are usually having to work out appropriate language usages on the fly, because Western cultures, and certainly English languages in particular, haven't provided us with words and phrases to accurately describe our experiences. On the contrary: both Western culture and the English language have actively worked against us, imposing language on us that doesn't come from within our own communities, and which pathologises us.

Additionally, we can't, of course, completely control how people understand the language we create, and/or how it gets used in general. Terminology that had initially seemed good can turn out in practice to be problematic. Thus, for example, terminology like 'MtF' tends to be discouraged nowadays, and use of terminology like 'trans woman' is encouraged instead; this is because it became apparent that 'MtF' was (a) encouraging the idea that trans women are "really" men, and (b) keeping trans women in a state of "permanent transition", such that they would never be regarded as simply 'women'. Another example is the phrase 'trans woman' itself; many people don't like it being written as 'transwoman' (i.e. with no space between 'trans' and 'woman') because doing so encourages 'third-gendering', in which a trans woman isn't seen as an actual woman, but as a third gender that is 'really' neither woman nor man - a 'transwoman'1. So for a number of trans people, phrases like 'transperson' can feel like an invalidation of their sense of gender.

Finally, as much as it pains to say it, it's been my experience that many trans and genderqueer people totalise/universalise their experiences, together with the language related to it. This gets reflected in things like:

  • "You're 'cis[gendered]' if your genitals match the gender you were designated at birth", which incorrectly endorses the idea that gender is about one's genitals2, i.e. that having a cunt is what makes one a woman, and/or that having a cock is what makes one a man. The reality is, for many trans and/or genderqueer people, this is not the case. For example: i am happy having a cock, and don't see it as part of a putative "male/masculine side", but instead experience it as simply another part of being a woman3 (women's bodies are diverse, after all).

  • the phrase "gender reassignment surgery", which has the underlying implication that e.g. having a penectomy or orchiectomy inherently causes a change in one's gender. That might well be the case for some people; but for many others, it's simply modifying their body to better fit the gender they already know themselves to be. Consequently, a number of trans people use the phrase "gender confirmation surgery", to indicate that surgery is confirming their gender to themselves; but unfortunately, many non-trans people assume that it's about the trans person confirming their gender to society in general, i.e. 'proving' to society in general that they're 'serious' about their gender4.

It's also reflected in the idea that one isn't really trans unless one's life and experiences fits what i and others call "the standard trans narrative", or some variant thereof.

Fundamentally, however, trans and/or genderqueer people are people - and that, of course, means we're a diverse bunch. Although we might share a number of similarities, we also differ not only in our life experiences, but in our responses to those life experiences, and in how we think our life experiences as trans/genderqueer people might/can be improved. To me, this has several implications:

  • Those of us who are trans and/or genderqueer can only expect people who aren't trans/genderqueer to always get language right if there is a single, universal, eternally 'correct' language for all our lives and experiences and circumstances. i hope the preceding has demonstrated that this isn't the case, and indeed, can't be without erasing various trans/genderqueer people's lives, experiences and circumstances.

  • Given that it's not possible to "just know" whether or not a particular person is or isn't trans/genderqueer based solely on appearance, we generally need to move away from assuming/guessing the appropriate gender-related language for anyone, just as we need to be moving away from assuming/guessing whether or not someone is heterosexual / homosexual / bisexual / pansexual etc.

  • Those who aren't trans/genderqueer need to accept that trans/genderqueer people are typically in a difficult situation with respect to language; that it's something we're typically forced to wrestle with continually and that we don't have the luxury of avoiding; and that our diversity means that we are "trying on" a diversity of approaches to deal with this. Consequently, those who aren't trans/genderqueer need to accept that different trans/genderqueer people will have different thoughts and feelings about the applicability of various language usages to their own situations. Just because genderqueer person A is okay with, or advocates, language usage B, doesn't mean that trans person C will necessarily be okay with it also. (And i wish i didn't have to say this, but apparently i do: non-trans/non-genderqueer person D shouldn't demand that C accept language usage B on the basis that A does - at least if D wants to show respect to trans/genderqueer people in general, rather than a select few of D's own choosing.) This means, of course, keeping different language usages in mind when conversing with different people. Doing so might seem to some like a burden; but keep in mind the burdens faced by trans/genderqueer people in cisnormative/cissexist society, which regularly inflicts physical violence on trans/genderqueer people for not meeting cisnormative/cissexist expectations. Anyway, it's not like humans don't already typically keep individual-specific information in mind during conversations: not only information such as other people's names, but also things such as their social/biological connections with others, life experiences which have made them particularly sensitive about certain topics (e.g. death), and their personal beliefs (spiritual, ideological etc.). Using / avoiding specific language when talking to particular trans/genderqueer people is simply a new context for such behaviours.

So: trans/genderqueer people are individuals, and each of us has distinct personal experiences and preferences regarding language. Thus, one should minimise assumptions about appropriate language to use in discussions with a given trans/genderqueer person or group of people. But occasional mistakes (as distinct from ongoing disrespect) are probably inevitable; trans/genderqueer people need to remember that there's no 'obviously' universally eternally correct language that can be used. Non-trans/non-genderqueer people should try to accept corrections gracefully, rather than getting defensive and prioritising their own feelings/concerns/worries ("But I'm not a bad person!") over the feelings of trans and/or genderqueer people, who have to live, every day, with the associations and consequences of language used to describe us.

ETA, 2013.04.15: If you'd like a general introduction to trans-related language, I suggest Erin's Trans Glossary. But, further to what I've written above, this glossary should only be considered a starting point; I encourage non-trans/non-genderqueer people to explore the plethora of online writings by trans and genderqueer people about language issues, and not expect individual trans/genderqueer people to essentially function as private tutors on this (large) topic. Simply trying to survive in cisnormative / cissexist society can be draining enough without being forced to take on such a role!

ETA, 2013.05.17: A discussion with @redlightvoices on Twitter made me wish to note another relevant issue: people who are native speakers of English - whether trans/genderqueer or not - need to make allowances for NESB/ESL people. A good example is the Spanish word 'travesti'; a literal translation to English would be 'transvestite', but it has developed a more complex set of connotations in a number of Spanish-speaking regions. A Spanish speaker for whom English is a second language might thus try using the English word 'transvestite' in contexts where they want to convey the concepts they associate with 'travesti', not knowing that 'transvestite' does not necessarily convey those same concepts. Assuming the Spanish speaker is intending to be disrespectful would thus be both inappropriate and Anglocentric.

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1. Of course, some trans people do identify as a 'third [or fourth, or fifth etc.] gender'. And there are people such as myself, who identify not as a third gender, but as both woman and man simultaneously, all the time. But the point is, that's not the case for all trans people.

2. A better definition, in my opinion, would be "You're 'cis[gendered]' if your sense of your gender completely matches the gender you were designated at birth." Note i use "your sense of your gender" and not "gender identity". One might change the gender identity label(s) one uses for oneself without one's underlying sense of gender having changed; this blog post discusses this issue. Also note my use of the word "completely", which acknowledges that one might partially relate to the gender one was designated at birth (as is the case for me).

3. Nonetheless, i do experience body dysmorphia around not having a cunt.

4. The notion that one must 'prove' one's 'seriousness' about one's gender via bodily modification is problematic for several reasons. One of those reasons is that it's classist: the surgical procedures involved are often expensive, and in Australia at least, a shortage of suitable surgeons means that some Australian trans people have to fly to e.g. Thailand or the United States for surgery, which further adds to the cost. And all this is on top of trans people having much higher unemployment rates than average due to anti-trans discrimination.


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