Learning How to Talk Trans

Yesterday I found a quote in my Tumblr feed and was surprised to find that the person being quoted was me. You might be thinking, “oh cool, you’re like, famous… in that ‘I’m on tumblr’ sort of way…” And while I’m appreciative that something I have said has touched people, I’m not excited about it like I maybe could/should be. I’m not ashamed of the quote, but I’m not exactly proud of it either.

“We’re two boys, which makes us gay; and then we’re two female-bodied people, which makes us gay; and then we’re trans, which makes us, you know, a whole other side of gay. And so you have this whole trifecta of queerness working for us. So when someone drives by and screams “faggot” I’m just like “you have no fuckin’ IDEA!”

The quote is sourced from the video GenderQueer in the Midwest, which was filmed in early 2009 by Stewart Productions. Overall, the quote is fine. While I’ve never thought it was an exceptionally clever comment, the only concern I have is that the language isn’t what I would consider the best example inclusive, accessible language.  The video is a nice little project, but it is definitely a portrait of a younger, less educated me. One of the downsides of being a published writer/speaker is that your past blunders are out in the universe, completely beyond your reach for correction or follow-up. I want to jump on this opportunity to clarify my language, and own that a lot of the terms/perspectives I express in this video are what I would now consider outdated and (at some points) kinda problematic. The language I used back then is drastically different from how I speak now. This video is an example of how a person can have the same goals and intentions, but learn to talk about them in very different ways.

Since coming out, I have made it a regular priority to stay up on language and identity politics of the trans* community in order to be as representative and “politically correct” in my work as possible. Doesn’t mean I always have gotten it right. 2009 wasn’t that long ago, but so many things have changed our community in that very short time. With the growth of things like tumblr and heightened media visibility, I think we fool ourselves into thinking that trans* educational resources are easily accessible, and that they have always been easily accessible. My early years out as a trans person were poignantly defined by significant struggles to find information, both for myself and for other people. My situation then was similar to how I live now; I was in the Midwest and wasn’t around a lot of trans* people regularly. The difference was in the greater trans* community environment; what it was talking about and how easy it was to hear what was being said. My learning disabilities make me a weak reader, so I’ve never successfully capitalized on what seems to be an isolated queer’s best ticket to education: books. There weren’t really any major online media sources to spew all the new words and opinions in the trans* community like we have now in tumblr and twitter, and there certainly wasn’t much visibility for voices similar to mine who challenged the binary, gender normalcy, and oppressive systems. I knew that the systems presented to me were problematic, but I hadn’t found the language to talk about it yet. So, I used the old terms I was given, like “female bodied,” all the while knowing there had to be a better option out there. And I wasn’t alone, this is how most of us spoke back then, and a lot of us were frustrated about it. The years around 2008-2010 brought a lot of changes for the trans* community’s language  and more new words started to appear including transmasculine/transfeminine and a wider use of genderqueer. Within a few months of that video being filmed, I had a whole new vocabulary to use different words to describe myself and others. Guess we should have waited a little longer to immortalize me on youtube…

One of the biggest obstacles I run into as an educator and as an organizer is language differences. It is hard to unite a community that can’t even agree what to call ourselves. Most of us are never taught what to say all at once, and even then we may not be satisfied with the lesson plan. No joke, every year or two the trans* community rejects a term or phrase used to describe ourselves, and replaces it with a new one. And as confusing as it may be, this is a necessary process. Because we, the trans* community, are always changing, our language must continue to change too. Since language is subjective, I don’t think I have the right to say that there are certain “bad” or “wrong” words in our community. However, I do strongly feel that some concepts are more useful or inclusive than others, and that a couple words may be better off retired. A lot of our language is based on “old” ideas rooted in gender normalcy and oppression, like the idea that there are only two genders, that being trans* is a mental illness, or the requirements for how we label our bodies and experiences based on a dominant narrative. Language is used to represent the realities of our community, describe our identities, and communicate our needs. If the language is too outdated to accurately describe us, both conceptually and contextually, it becomes useless or even harmful.  Doesn’t mean we have to give up on any “old” words if we like them, but in order for things to change, we must be brave enough to learn new things.

What is especially interesting is that while the language I use in the video may seem outdated to me, for many people in the trans* community, this is still the most common language. Forget 2009. Today, in 2012, I hear terms like “female bodied” or “bio male” more frequently than anything else. Many trans* people I meet don’t think of bodies and sex as socially constructed; they don’t know (or believe) that that gender identity is a spectrum and not a binary; and they never thought that they could or should expand their gender expression outside of gender norms. This is the TRANS* people I meet; don’t even try to guess about the non-trans* folks. This is an understandably frustrating reality for folks who are working hard to support and change our community. An unfortunate result of this is that there is a lot of judgment and aggression surrounding whether or not people use the “right” language. I am a little surprised that the most criticism my quote seems to have gotten is a comment about transmisogyny. I am grateful it hasn’t gotten worse because, yikes, those Tumblr attacks are vicious! (Honestly, part of the purpose of this post is to hopefully circumvent any such thing from happening.) And while I understand the motivation and passion behind strictly calling people out for using the “wrong” language, I think we could adopt some better methods to promote education and accountability. What we see is people trying to promote uphold a safe space in the community and teach people how to speak using inclusive language. What we don’t see is the educational privilege that is being thrown around, and the impact it has on our people when it lands. Maybe this is my Midwestern baggage showing, but no one ever sat me down and told me the right things to say, or explained why it was right to say them. I had to figure it out on my own. This seems to be the majority of people’s experiences, and yet we continue to hold ourselves to unrealistic and unforgiving high standards. The commonly forgotten reality is that our community’s masses are not in San Francisco vegan co-ops or liberal arts college classrooms where talking about misogyny, privilege, and appropriation is the norm. They are hanging out at the local bar, or the hippie coffee shop, or on the massive 50,000 student campus in the middle of nowhere using whatever words they can get their hands on to describe the confusing, often painful experience that is being different, and being trans*.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about language or correct people when they say something problematic or outdated. If I was saying that, I’d be out of a job. What I am saying is that we must look at language, and its uses, with a broader lens. If you come out and you don’t know what to type into google, the only words you may find are on an outdated geocities website; maybe the only trans* people you know are 40 years your senior so you use whatever words they use. Those “old” concepts will become yours because they are all you have. Maybe going to queer conferences isn’t your thing; maybe you never looked up what gender neutral pronouns were because you didn’t even know they existed. This doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t make you stupid. It just means you are under-educated due to a lack of resources. I will boldly state that being under-educated or generally isolated is not an excuse for problematic language or a free pass to say whatever you want because it “is not your fault” because you “didn’t know any better.” That is not living responsibly. What I am saying is that the isolation and lack of education our people experience en masse is one of many reasons why language discrepancies occur and why the words we wish would die out continue to survive. Is it reasonable to punish a child for using a swear word when they had no idea what it meant? And if we punish before asking, how do we know what the child was actually trying to say? If we can figure out where a person is coming from, the better we will be at meeting them where they are and it is only by meeting someone where they are, that we can ever hope to bring them to where we would all like to be going.

I make no excuses for myself or the language I use in this video. I am also trying very hard to not punish myself for it either. This video is a portrait of me at a different time when I was still clamoring for the knowledge that others already had, but I couldn’t figure out how to get for myself. I changed the way I speak not because it was easy or convenient, but because I knew the words I was using weren’t enough. I pushed myself to find as much information as I could, where ever I could. I recognize my education to be a privilege I have been afforded. I also know that the knowledge I have obtained it is a right I fought hell and high water to get (and keep). And despite the fact that I did fight for it, I don’t think I have done anything more than what we all should be able to do. Language is so powerful that learning just one word can change you forever. We all deserve the chance to understand ourselves better. Language is a tool. It can be a crutch we cling to for security or a cage that suffocates us; it can be used to punish us, and it can be used to empower us so that we may live the lives we never thought were possible. An old, rusted tool will break when you try to use it; maybe it will injure you; or it might even destroy whatever it is you are trying to build. But language is not like any other tool or object; language is alive and we have to feed it in order to keep it active and useful. And like any living thing, we cannot control it entirely, but we can guide it with the most positivity possible. Language has no body or shape. It exists only in us. Therefore, we are responsible for it. I ask forgiveness for all my past and inevitable future fuck ups that may or may not be immortalized by the internet. I must own the language I use, including apologizing for what was or wasn’t said. I promise to continue to learn without fear, and I will strive to teach without judgement. If we call can do this, we will easily learn all we need in order to improve our community, and our own lives too.

2 comments

  • So what are the alternatives to “female bodied” and “bio-male”? I understand the social construction of sex and gender, but I’m not sure how else to describe my body.

    • Great question, Glen! Well, for options, there are several people have created. One duo that is growing in popularity is “DFAB” and “DMAB” (designated female/male at birth) and its now less used precursor “FAAB” and “MAAB” (female/male assigned at birth). Others, though a little more old school, are “natal-female” / “natal male” and “GG” (genetic gal/girl). Some people also may use expressions like “female sexed” or “male sexed.” Terms like bio-boy / bio-gal or female-bodied / male-bodied are still commonly used, and not “incorrect” or “bad.” However, since many of us recognize that there really is no such thing as a “female body” or “male body” we prefer not to use language that may give that impression. I think that when choosing language for oneself, the (equally) most important parts of the process are 1) personal identification and 2) how one conceptualizes themselves as a greater part of a human community. Is my language descriptive of myself while also respecting the existence of others? It may be that “female bodied” is the right set of words for you, or even is the right set at the time and maybe don’t be later. As long as you can take ownership of it, and be respectful and communicative to others, I think it works. There is no way to have the perfect words for everyone, but we can try to be a conscious as possible while still empowering ourselves. Another great way to see what language options there are is to explore blogs and forums (like Tumblr) where you can see what words other people are using, and what might fit you!
      Hope that answers your question!
      JAC

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