Oh and Cis, Transgender and Transman — these are just some of the words that have cropped up to define the complexities of gender identification. But even with so many options, we still don't have a definitive vocabulary for transitioning.
For many people, him, her and it seem like simple enough words. However, this deceptive simplicity can cause a good deal of grief when trying to describe anyone who falls outside the acceptable limits of gender identity. Especially when, as so often happens, the speaker doesn't fully understand (or is unwilling to accept) the process of changing one's pronouns. To make matters worse, the terms to describe a transitioning individual are at best vague, and at worse offensive.
According to Roz Kaveney at the Guardian, "transitioning" is the only term we can all really accept. It makes a certain kind of sense; "transitioning" is a word that least challenges our notions of sex and gender. It keeps the binary system firmly in place. Someone is in transition, they are between genders, moving from one clearly defined space to another. They're on their way to becoming like everyone else, labeled with a new, gender-indicating name and the "correct" genitals. Similarly, "sex change" is often used as shorthand for the process, though it often simplifies a very complicated transformation into "surgery," which, for many transpeople, is not actually an option.
However, though we may be able to describe the process, there is still a lot of debate surrounding the individual labels. More difficult than pronouns (simple rule: you use whatever pronoun they prefer) is the question of nouns. "Transgender" works, but is a little too vague. "Trans," when used as an adjective or a prefix, can sound either like a person who "happens to be trans" or "some special and distinct order of being," depending on the use. "Tranny," while initially promising, turned out to be too hard to reclaim. Basically, there the words we have are imperfect.
To many, this seems like a minor problem. "One way of looking at this is to say that when trans people are being murdered all over the planet, arguing about words is staggeringly trivial-minded," Kaveney writes. But, she argues, prejudice "starts with name-calling, but it doesn't always end there." Violence begins with words, starting with hate-speech and slurs. Furthermore, the words we use are always important, even within a community. As a writer, feminist, and former English major, I have an almost religious respect for the power of words. The language we use to describe things shapes the way we think about it - it can color our interactions with others simply by virtue of the underlying connotations in a name, pronoun, or descriptor. "Tranny" might refer to the same person as "transman," but it doesn't mean the same thing. Neither does "trans man." The confusion surrounding names reflects a more general confusing surrounding gender identity. Or, perhaps, it is the other way around. Ultimately, we're in a chicken-and-egg scenario; so long as we don't have words to describe the growing fluidity of gender, it will be difficult to fully integrate it into our cultural consciousness. "There is no word for it," wrote one playwright in attempts to describe the life of a trans person. There is no word - but there are many words. It just comes down to choosing the right ones, and, if all else fails, making new words for our new situation.
Why Trans Is In But Tranny Is Out [Guardian]
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