How “transsexual” eclipsed “transgender”

In December I wrote about a phenomenon I call eclipsing, where a subset of a category can come to be thought of as equivalent to the entire category. This usually happens when the subcategory is particularly salient, or discussed much more frequently, than other members of the category. The example I gave was concentration camp, where the extermination camps of the Nazis eclipsed the camps used by the Spanish to isolate civilians in Cuba and by the US to incarcerate Japanese-Americans in California.

This eclipsing can be an effect of greater salience, which is a big factor in stereotypes. Assimilated immigrants routinely complain about being eclipsed by more recent arrivals. Not all Indian-Americans eat curry, not all Mexican-Americans listen to accordion music, and not all Dominican-Americans are good dancers. These notable examples don’t even need to be in the majority; they just need to be so memorable that we forget all the others.

Photo: NASA
Photo: NASA

There is an example of eclipsing that particularly upsets me, and it is the eclipsing of the transgender category by people that we used to call transsexuals. When I first encountered the term transgender, most of the people claiming it were cross-dressers. There were several transsexuals who considered themselves outside of, and sometimes superior to, transgender people. (There are a few who still do.)

In 2016 transgender is still used in the “umbrella” sense that includes cross-dressers, but many people explicitly reject that sense, insisting on transition (or a credible commitment to a future transition) as a necessary condition for trans status. How did this new, exclusionary sense arise? Through eclipsing.

Of all the subgroups of the broader definition of transgender, two groups are the least salient: cross-dressers and detransitioned transsexuals. We are the most likely to be closeted, and we spend the least amount of time being noticeable. Transitioned transsexuals who are “stealth,” or who have simply gotten on with their lives and been socialized in their new gender, are the next least noticeable group.

The most salient group under the “trans umbrella” are the transsexuals who are currently transitioning. They are not only among the most visible – trying out all the outfits they’ve wanted to wear in their entire life, and learning how to groom themselves in their new gender – but they are constantly thinking about their gender and their transition, and many of them are constantly talking about it. If you ask people about the trans people they’ve known, you’ll hear lots of transition stories before you hear about post-transition people or cross-dressers.

The second most salient subgroup of trans people is drag queens, which explains why a group of transitioners tried so hard a few years ago to get the drag queens kicked out of the transgender category.

So why does this eclipsing bother me so much? That’ll have to wait for another post.

When you’re the insult

Radical feminists have been critical of transgender beliefs and actions for years, going back at least to Janice Raymond in 1979. Trans people have had various responses to these critiques, from acceptance to outright demonization, and sometimes including substantive, thoughtful critiques of radical feminism. Frequently, arguments between trans activists and radfems degenerate into vicious name-calling and worse.

hello fellow1s

Third Way Trans has a compelling explanation for these fights: “this debate is not really about a scientific question, but it is about an emotional need, and both groups contain a lot of people that have been traumatized, particularly by men, and both need safety. However, these needs are also fundamentally incompatible in some ways which leads to the current impasse.”

I’m not interested in getting into arguments where either side is dehumanizing the other, so I’ve generally avoided the issue. At one point I did try to make common ground with some FTMTF detransitioners, but when those conversations turned into dehumanizing attacks on me I gave up. I found out last night that back in January the radical feminist blog GenderTrender reposted an entire post of mine without asking or telling me, for the sole purpose of mocking me and other trans people.

gallusmag-sheilag

The thing is that there are certain aspects of the radfem critique of trans beliefs that I agree with, and others that I find at least thought-provoking. I am open to discussions with people who are willing to show me basic respect and empathy, not scream at me and definitely not laugh at me behind my back.

Joel Nowak, a MFTM “retransitioner,” is someone I respect and doesn’t do dehumanizing, so I took it seriously when he recommended the website of Ms. Hell Bedlam. Sadly, after reading Hell Bedlam’s site, I found it to be just as essentialist and dehumanizing as all the other radfem critiques, even if it does have the advantage of succinctly stating all the main points in a single location.

I had a hard time getting across to Joel the main thing that bothered me about Hell Bedlam’s site. After all, she says that she doesn’t hate the good transsexuals! I’m not one of those misogynistic essentialists who wants to speak over feminists, so why should I take offense?

hellbedlam1

No, I’m not. I’m not the target of Ms. Hell Bedlam’s rage at all. I’m something much worse to her: I’m what she accuses the “anti-feminist trans activists” of secretly being: one of those “middle class white males with a cross-dressing fetish and great love for their penises,” a “be-penised cross-dresser.”

Wait, you may be saying. I thought Hell Bedlam’s site was all about trans woman who claim the right to unilaterally change the language and talk over feminists. What do cross-dressing, fetishes and penises have to do with these things?

The answer is nothing, it’s a complete non-sequitur. From what I can tell, Hell Bedlam brings it into the conversation (along with a long page about Ray Blanchard’s moronic “HSTS/autogynephilic” typology and lots of examples of transvestite erotica) primarily because the two things that upset transgender dogmatists the most are “You’re a fetishist,” and “You’re a MAN!”

I am not offended by either claim, because I freely acknowledge that I am both a man and a fetishist. I love my penis as much as I love my left arm or my right eye, or any other part of me. But I am offended by being so dehumanized that I’m not even a demon, I’m just the insult that Hell Bedlam uses to hurt the trans dogmatists.

Some of us don’t transition

In the past I’ve done verbal hygiene on the words “transgender” and “coming out,” and now I feel like I need to do some on the word “transition.” I have always thought of transition as meaning that someone takes on a new identity, with a new name and a new presentation, and a new gender marker to go with it. Almost twenty years ago I decided not to transition, meaning that even though I regularly feel gender dysphoria (a discomfort with living as a man) and transgender desire (a desire to live as a woman), I examined my options and concluded that I wanted to continue living as a man most of the time. Back then it seemed pretty clear to everyone what transition was, and I chose not to do it.

Maybe I'm transitioning to a new Centauri identity...
Maybe I’m transitioning to a new Centauri identity…
Once in a while when I tell people I’m transgender and out but not transitioning, I get a puzzled reaction about the “not transitioning.” The first time I recall was about ten years ago from Reid Vanderburgh, but I’ve heard it from several other people since. The general idea is that everyone’s idea of “transition” is personal. I can just decide that for me “transition” means not changing much of anything, so then I must have transitioned!

I guess this line of thinking is meant in a nice way, but there are a few things that bother me about it. The first is that it undermines its own claims to respect my definitions. In this view, I can have any definition of transition I want, as long as I transitioned. I am not allowed to define transition in such a way that I – or any trans person – have the option to not do it.

The second problem is that it erases very real prototype effects. Maybe Vanderburgh and friends will respect my personal definition of “transition,” but they have no power to compel anyone else to. Even if people do accept the idea, that means that nobody knows what I mean by “transition” until I tell them.

As I understand it, they think that I can talk about “my transition” and everyone will keep an open mind and not make any assumptions about what it entails. But that’s really not how anyone’s mind works. We always have an image for any category. If I mention “my dog,” you’re probably going to imagine a common breed like a yellow Lab or a German Shepherd, or maybe a pit bull or a Maltese if you know city dogs. If I then tell you I have a great Dane or a Bassett hound or a Chihuahua you might not be surprised, but you won’t envision one until I tell you, because they’re not prototypical dogs.

Similarly, if I mention “my transition,” you’re going to envision hormones, surgery and a name and document change, because that’s the common transition image. There are so many people doing it who are so vocal about it, that me saying, “I shave my legs more often now” is not going to budge the needle.

Finally, there’s a message I want to send: that you can be trans and lead a relatively happy life without hormones or surgery, and without significantly changing your gender presentation, name, pronouns or legal documentation. For me, the easiest way to say that is “I’m trans, and I decided long ago not to transition.” Take that away, and it makes it that much harder for me to say what I want to say.

The bottom line is that people have images, schemas in their heads for every category. That’s the way the mind works, and saying, “everyone has their own definition” doesn’t make it so. There are some things you can legislate about language, but you can’t legislate prototypes out of existence.

The essential conflict between transitioners and non-transitioners

I’ve written here before that I believe most transgender people share the same basic feelings: gender dysphoria, transgender desire and gender fog. Whether you are transsexual, transvestite, drag queen, drag king, butch lesbian, genderqueer, non-binary or something else, you almost certainly experience one of those feelings, and probably all three. Whatever neurological claims you may have read about essential differences between one group and another, the fact remains that almost none of the trans people you will meet have been found to have a “female brain,” neurologically. People cross those subcategory boundaries all the time, and the only evidence currently accepted for membership is personal declaration.

We are the same, and yet we can be divided into two subgroups that are very different, with an essential conflict of interest between us that is impossible to erase. This difference is not based on biology or neurology, it is based on a simple difference of goals. Trans people who transition – who take a goal of becoming or being seen as a different gender – are often at odds with trans people whose goals do not include transitioning.

There are multiple conflicts between transitioners and non-transitioners, but the most common, the most salient, conflict is over destiny. Transitioners tend to believe that it is their destiny to transition, and to interpret facts as evidence for that destiny. Non-transitioners may believe that it is our destiny not to transition, or we may be agnostic on that issue.

For example, one time I was out with a friend, presenting as a woman. My friend remarked to me, “You’re not very feminine, are you?” At first I was hurt, but then I saw he had a point, and I thought to myself, “Actually, I’m getting tired of being a woman, and I’ll be glad when I can take this bra off and use my regular voice. Good thing I didn’t transition!” In contrast, Lal Zimman interviewed trans men who reported feeling devastated by the idea that they were failing as men. They couldn’t say, “good thing I didn’t transition,” because they did. Instead, they said things like, “I must just be a feminine man.”

And you know what? I completely understand the value of the destiny argument. Transition is hard. I’ve known transitioners for whom it was pretty obvious to everyone that they were on the right path, but still they encountered some very daunting challenges. There are many people who are politically and philosophically opposed to transition, and who will fight you on it, possibly including parents, employers and medical professionals. It’s hard to go through that constantly wondering if you’re doing the right thing.

The psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about an experiment where people who felt that they were stuck with a possession (an artistic print) decided that they liked it better than people who thought they could exchange it. When we’re stuck with something – and it’s something we can live with – we make peace with it. When we can change it at any time, the grass is always greener. Marriage works in similar ways. If you’re committed to a person it helps to believe that you’re destined for them, and if you’re committed to transitioning it’s helpful to believe that you’re destined to transition.

The conflict comes in when people start making universal destiny arguments, like the idea that “trans women are women,” not just when presenting as women, but essentially, eternally, from birth through death, whether we transition or not. Transition then is portrayed as not a change of gender, but as revealing the “real you,” or your “authentic self.” That implies that someone like me who chooses not to transition is hiding the real me, or denying my authentic self. And that is true for people who stay in the closet, but it’s not true for the rest of us.

If we are not denying our authentic selves, but we are still not transitioning, many conclude, we must not have that essence of womanhood (or manhood) that makes transition such a necessity. And that leads to bizarre twists of logic, where someone can be a “man who likes to wear dresses” one day, and be seen as essentially and forever male, and the next day declare a transition and be seen as essentially and forever female.

This essentialist view of non-transitioners leads people to declare that we are not truly trans, and therefore not part of LGBT. It leads them to deny the very real feelings of gender dysphoria, transgender desire and gender fog that we continue to feel, and to deny us any need for support or services. It leads them to speak on behalf of all transgender people, setting priorities and making declarations about terminology without any regard to our very real needs.

Transgender essentialism also leads people to marginalize and ignore non-transitioners. Because the choice not to transition results in people tending to become less passable over time, non-transitioners are caricatured as embarrassing, and negative characteristics that are found across the transgender spectrum are pushed into caricatures of cross-dressers and drag queens as big clumsy insensitive objectifying men in short skirts, and of transmasculine genderqueer people as childish “transtrenders” who claim gender variance only to attract attention.

Detransitioners are usually kicked right out of the transgender club. The fact that they weren’t happy with their transition leads many people (including many detransitioners themselves) to declare that they were “never really trans” in the first place. But of course the feelings of dysphoria and desire and fog don’t vanish, and the detransitioners are left to cope with them with very little support.

In short, the essentialist way of thinking about trans issues is a big problem for non-transitioners and detransitioners. I used to think that it was just confined to a particular subgroup, and I had friends, many of them non-transitioning trans people, who were skeptical of it. But then a funny thing happened. Many of these friends transitioned, and as each one began to commit to building new lives in a new gender they and their families started repeating essentialist claims. Each time I heard one of these claims I objected, but the result was that over time they began to think of me as a combative stickler. This pattern is repeated in most of my interactions with transitioners.

I used to take some of this personally, but now I realize that the transitioners are just protecting their interests. They don’t seem to be capable of realizing how much their actions threaten my interests (this kind of egotism is a hallmark of gender fog), and thus they tend to dismiss my complaints as cranky contrarianism.

It is not cranky contrarianism. It is the one essential difference between trans people who transition and those who don’t: transitioners have an interest in justifying transition, and non-transitioners often have an interest in justifying not transitioning. It is not biology, it is simple psychology.

Can we still be friends? Yes, despite this difference, we have many of the same feelings, and many of the same needs. We face many of the same dangers, and we inhabit many of the same spaces. I have friends who have transitioned or are transitioning, and I respect their choices about what path to follow. (That is all I can do; I cannot accept that they have no choice. I think this is clear.)

There is room for us to form alliances of common interest, and alliances of the hearth. But there will always come a Yalta, a time when that essential conflict of interests will manifest itself, when the alliances will break down. Some people – Righteous Ones – will be able to put things in perspective and sacrifice their own interests for someone with a greater need.

It will not always be obvious whose need is greater, and we may take actions that are at odds with each other’s interests. But what is absolutely critical is to acknowledge and respect them. If a transitioner tells me that something I do or say affects her interests, I may keep doing it, but I will try to accept that the conflict exists and respect her interests. I ask the same from transitioners. If we all do that, there’s a chance we may be able to stay friends and keep the door open to future alliances.

The Righteous Ones

I was a bit too glib writing about the “myth of the Righteous Person.” Let me walk that back and say that there is such a thing as a Righteous Person: someone who stands up for trans people not because they want to get invited to the Queer Students’ Party, and not because they worry they might be mistaken for a “tranny” some day, but because they believe we are people who deserve respect and fair treatment. Those are the best kinds of allies, the ones who do it out of a heartfelt commitment.

The Medal of the Righteous: "Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe"
The Medal of the Righteous: “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe”
I call them Righteous People based on three concepts from Jewish philosophy: the Righteous Ones, the Righteous Gentiles and the Righteous Among the Nations. The Righteous Among the Nations is an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked “life, liberty or position” to protect Jews during the Nazi holocaust. It specifically excludes anyone who acted for personal gain.

The Righteous Among Nations is said to be based on an earlier notion of the Righteous Gentile, one who is not Jewish but lives among Jews and follows the laws of the community, as shown in the common Hebrew word chasid, which is translated as “righteous,” but also sometimes as “pious.” This is the same word that is used for Hasidic Jews, people who define themselves by a greater adherence to Jewish law than assimilated European and American Jews.

There is another word, tzadik, that is translated as “righteous.” In the words of Maimonides, “One whose merit surpasses his iniquity is a tzadik.” This word comes down to us in the names of Neil Sedaka and Janette Sadik-Khan, who are both apparently descended from Righteous Ones.

I mention these distinctions because I think the concepts are also reflected in our concept of “ally.” There is the brother in arms, who is like the Allied Powers, fighting a common enemy. There is the ally of the hearth, who comes to meetings and parties, and makes an effort to get all the pronouns and terminology right. They are like the Pious Gentile, the one who is not one of us but lives among us and follows our laws. Then there are the ones like the employees of the Maryland McDonald’s who tried to defend Chrissy Lee Polis from her attackers, with no motivation but human decency. Those are the Righteous Ones.

The key is that a Pious One is not necessarily a Righteous One. Just as importantly, a Righteous One is not necessarily a Pious One. This is why we need to be careful which kind of ally we are talking about when we use the word.

What is an ally?

What is an ally? No, really. The way people have been using the term in identity politics is a significant extension over previous uses. It’s important to understand this, and its implications.

Allies have been a tricky topic in trans politics lately: how should they be treated? Do allies have rights or responsibilities? How does someone earn ally status? Are lesbian, gay and bisexual people automatically allies? What about bondage, domination and sadomasochism fetishists? Are different kinds of trans people (transvestites, transsexuals, genderqueer) automatically allies with each other? Can ally status be revoked? What does it mean to be an ally, anyway?

Patriotic_World_War_2_Poster_US_Allies_RussiaLGWhen I hear the word “ally” outside of identity politics, I think of the Allies of the Second World War. The thing about them is that they were allied for a very specific reason: to win the war against the Axis. Maybe there were noises about Freedom and Civilization, but 75 years later it seems pretty clear that those were just propaganda. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies for the partition of Poland, but once that was over the Nazis didn’t need the Soviets, and the alliance was over. The Soviets joined the Allied Powers, and after the Nazis were defeated we went right into the Cold War. The countries were allied while they shared a goal, and when they didn’t share that goal any more, they were no longer allies.

An example of an alliance like this is gay men and MTF trans people uniting for greater police protection, because bashers don’t respect our categories and will target us as “faggots” or “trannies” regardless of what words we use. There is a shared goal that unites us, regardless of ideology, and that is personally relevant for us.

Allyship in identity politics is usually not like the Allies of World War Two. On the surface, at least, it’s about shared goals, but these goals are not equally relevant to both groups. Bathroom rights are tangible to me but abstract to a gay man who never imagines using the women’s room. Same-sex marriage is important to my gay and lesbian friends, and even to my trans friends who may be in a relationship that would be denied recognition under certain laws, but to me it’s abstract.

On the surface, again, there is often an appeal to principles. Just as the Allies in World War II talked about Freedom and Civilization, allies in today’s identity politics appeal to Equality, Fairness, Acceptance and Mutual Respect. In theory that should be enough. Don’t you want fairness for everyone? Just sign onto our agenda!

In practice, high-minded principles like Fairness and Acceptance go out the window when they conflict with Our Goals, just like Freedom and Civilization went out the window when it looked like the Soviet Union might take over all of Germany. You can expect some individuals to hold to principles, but politicians rarely do. We kind of understood that after World War II, but we have trouble with it when it comes to LGBT alliances.

On a deeper level there’s more to alliances than that. I’ll get to it in a future post.

They’re my women’s dresses

In 2011, transgender comedian Eddie Izzard was interviewed on the Australian talk show The Project. As clips from Izzard’s live shows played, one of the interviewers said, “It’s wonderful watching these highlights, it’s a journey of outfits for you. Famously, you’ve dressed up in women’s dresses.” Izzard responded, “No, I wear dresses. They’re my dresses, I buy them. It’s like when women wear trousers, they’re not cross-dressing. They’re not wearing men’s trousers, they’re wearing trousers.”
No, I wear dresses. They're not "women's dresses."
Someone liked that quote enough that they made one of those distracting animated gif sets that are all over Tumblr, and people have been reblogging it around the world. After it showed up on my dash for the third or fourth time I said, “I gotta write a post about this. Izzard is probably the trans person I admire most in the world, but I disagree with him on this.” The Transfeminist Geometer said, “Let me know if you write a post. I agree pretty strongly with Eddie Izzard, so I’d be interested to read it.” And here it is.

There is one interpretation of “they’re my dresses” that could be said by someone who identifies as a woman. It means that of course they’re women’s dresses, because I’m a woman, so there’s nothing noteworthy about me wearing them.

I don’t think Izzard is identifying as a woman here, with his beard and all (although it would be damn radical if he did). I think he’s saying it as a statement of sartorial freedom, along the lines of the people who make utilikilts, and the fashionistas who tell us every so often that this is the year when men will start wearing skirts again. It means that these dresses may have been designed for women, but once I pay for them they’re mine, so they’re men’s dresses or transvestite’s dresses or something.

I disagree with Izzard here because for me the point is that they are women’s dresses. I don’t have any particular interest in a utilikilt or a men’s skirt. In fact, last week I went out wearing leggings under a sweater and jacket, but I’m thinking I don’t feel like wearing that anymore because they looked too much like the kind of spandex pants a guy might wear.

It’s like if you imagine a society in the future where everyone wears identical jumpsuits, but the women’s jumpsuits have one button more than the men’s. The transvestites will all want that extra button. Not because they like an extra button, but because it’s a woman’s button. That’s why I have women’s dresses in my closet. My women’s dresses.

Obviously, Izzard has a right to his own feelings about his dresses. He’s not wrong for that, and neither is the dude in a utilikilt, or the transwoman who buys her women’s pants at the Men’s Wearhouse. My disagreement with them is purely that I having different feelings.

But I wonder how different Izzard’s feelings really are. It’s possible that he thought that up just because he was tired of answering the same question about “women’s dresses” for so many years and wanted to say something different, just to mix things up and be funny. Kind of like I’m pretty sure he was joking when he told Greg Kilborn that the police shot him for shoplifting a makeup kit when he was a teenager.

We don’t hold elections

After I posted my take on the “transgender/transgendered” debate on Facebook, a friend-of-a-friend who’s a gay man with some inside knowledge mentioned that in deciding to endorse “transgender,” his organization talked to representatives of several national transgender organizations. While that’s way better than nothing, it’s not enough information for them to be able to say “this is what the trans community wants.” These “leaders” don’t actually represent any of us. There is no way to find out what “the trans community” wants, because we don’t have a collective decision-making process.

old-voting-machine-adWhether it’s the “-ed” suffix, the space in “trans woman,” the use of the “cis-” prefix, the declaration of “transvestite” as taboo, the freakout over “princex,” generally the proclamation du jour of this term or that as being preferred, dispreferred, offensive, indispensable, etc. – it’s all one single person’s opinion, more or less well informed. If it gets picked up by two people, then it’s three people’s opinion. It never gets to be what “the trans community” wants.

None of these people asked me if, as a linguist, I approved of the term “cis.” Nobody asked me if, as a sociolinguist, I agreed that it would be good for trans rights to declare “transvestite” taboo. Nobody asked me if, as a trans person, I wanted people to use the space in “trans woman” to browbeat potential allies. I never got a ballot for the referendum, and I never got to vote for a rep to the Trans Grand Council.

More importantly, nobody sends magical owls to make sure that all the closeted transvestites and stealth transsexuals get their ballots. Nobody badgers the trans people who might be kind of busy with work, or raising kids, or next week’s model railroad exhibition, to make sure they take the time to register their opinions on the matter.

No, what we get are the voices of people who are thinking about this stuff all the time. Those who spend their hours on Tumblr and Facebook puzzling out the optimal arrangement of acronyms, affixes and punctuation to finally bring down the patriarchy. Those who collect dues with the promise of lobbying our elected officials to pass laws protecting us, and can’t stop thinking about it on their downtime. And of course, those who are in mid-transition and living with the trans nonstop and completely unable to think of anything else. Not exactly representative of all trans people.

So if you’re not trans, please do me a favor: the next time you read about the Words Not to Say on Buzzfeed, or get your ear bent by your buddy Kyle about how appropriative some punctuation mark is, or hear from the Legislative Director of the National Council on Trans Women-Gender/Rights that “trans” is exclusionary, please take it with a grain of salt. And if you are trans, the next time you get that great idea about How the Ampersand Oppresses the People, please use I statements. Don’t claim that you, or anyone, knows what “the trans community” thinks or wants or believes. We don’t hold elections, and we definitely didn’t elect you.

Why I prefer “transgendered”

The “transgender/transgendered” debate popped up tonight, first on a Q&A by Zinnia Jones (aka Lauren McNamara):

Point: The structure of “transgendered” suggests action, as if it were something you were subject to – that you are a person who has been “transgendered” and that is the reason why you exist in your present state. We wouldn’t say “gayed” or “lesbianed”.

Counter-point: Other words of similar construction, like “gifted” or “left-handed”, do not imply action, or that you’re only this way because you were subjected to something.

Meta-point: “Transgendered” bothers some people and use of it will lead to this coming up and distracting from whatever you were originally talking about. “Transgender” does not pose this issue. Therefore, use of “transgender” is preferred.

Ali Edwards expanded on it for her transgenderscience Tumblr:

All excellent points. To add a linguistic angle:

Adjectives with -ed endings tend to express emotions and feelings. “I am frightened,” “That is amazing,” etc. Adjectives with -ed were also almost always originally verbs (to frighten, to amaze). In fact, that’s why “gifted” has the -ed — it’s built of the old verb form of to gift.  

Transgender is not a verb. You can’t “transgender” something. A lot of transphobes believe you can, (“These durn libbruls are gonna transgender my boy if we don’t stop ‘em!”), but you can’t. 

Transgender is an adjective, though, and as Lauren pointed out it describes a “state.” Like most adjectives that describe qualities of a noun, it doesn’t take a suffix. The sky is not “blued,” it’s “blue.” The glass is not “half-fulled,” it’s “half-full”. My mom isn’t “femaled,” she’s “female.” And I am not “transgendered,” I am “transgender.”

For a real linguistic angle, let me as a linguist endorse the explanation of my friend Pauline Park (who is not a linguist):

Adding an ‘ed’ to a verb to create an adjective is in fact a very common construction in English, and the fact that an adjective is created from a verb doesn’t mean that it isn’t an adjective. Similarly with ‘transgendered.’ When we talk about people, we ordinarily say that they are ‘gendered,’ using an adjective created by adding ‘ed’ to ‘gender.’ It would be both grammatically incorrect as well as bizarre to say that a child is ‘gender,’ while it makes perfect sense to say that a child is ‘gendered.’

Now, I do use ‘transgender’ as an adjective to describe certain entities that are abstract, such as ‘transgender law,’ ‘transgender studies,’ and ‘transgender community,’ because it is the people — not the law, the studies, or the community — that are transgendered. So it is not at all inconsistent when I refer to myself as a ‘transgendered woman’ and also as a ‘transgender activist,’ because in the latter case, it is I who am transgendered, not my activism. Similarly, NYAGRA is a transgender organization, not a ‘transgendered’ organization, because an organization itself cannot be transgendered, only its members.

Trousered, not pantsed.
Trousered, not pantsed. And yes, this spot in my apartment has good lighting.

Expanding on Pauline’s perspective, and on Jones’s counter-point, there are lots of nouns that get “verbed” (Calvin and Hobbes, 1993) and then have -ed added to make them adjectives, like “armored, varicolored, half-timbered, leisured, trousered.” There’s no implication of action. You can’t transgender someone, but neither can you leisure, varicolor or trouser them. (You can pants them, but that’s something else.)

To Jones’s meta-point: Yeah, people are ignorant about language. Sometimes it’s a distraction, and you use the terms they want and move on. Sometimes (especially on Tumblr) language is the focus of discussion, and that’s the time to bring the science.

Two points: (1) Note that both Jones and Edwards use the passive (“is preferred”) and similar constructions in their prescriptions, to deflect attention away from their roles and onto the wishes of the amorphous community. (2) Note that Edwards (who is not a linguist) cites no linguistic papers for her “linguistic angle.” I don’t either, and neither does Jones, but there’s a huge contrast between this post and her heavily-linked posts on biology and psychology.

In fact, it would be nice to get the perspective of an actual trained morphologist on this. Anybody want to go there?

Finally, anyone who thinks that these “-ed” adjectives are an insult? Well, they sound like very gifted and cultured people.

Colonizing ontologies

Brin pointed me to a great blog post about how we relate to other people’s categories, especially the categorical systems used by other cultures. (The author, posting as “Boldly Go,”* calls them “epistemologies,” but they seem to be what I’ve heard called “ontologies” or “taxonomies.” I think “categories” is the most straightforward term. And yes, I do recognize the irony there.) Boldly Go also makes the point that these categories are referred to as “social constructs,” which mean that they’re not essential and can vary from culture to culture – and, critically, that they change over time, even in a single individual.

Boldly Go argues persuasively that abolishing gender is not a realistic approach. We all have a basic need to categorize people: who is a potential ally, sex partner, life partner, co-parent, leader, friend, collaborator? Who is a potential attacker, rival, rapist, burden? Figuring all those things out based on the individual characteristics of everyone we encounter would be exhausting and time-consuming, so we use roles and spaces based on gender and other categories as shortcuts. This becomes truly problematic when we forget that these categories are only shortcuts, when we essentialize them.

Here’s my favorite part of Boldly Go’s post:

Hidras of Panscheel Park II, New Delhi, India, 1994. Photo: R. Barrez D'Lucca / Flickr.
Hidras of Panscheel Park II, New Delhi, India, 1994. Photo: R. Barrez D’Lucca / Flickr.

For example, a great many people familiar with the trans* community may have heard of hijras, a concept of gender that exists within South Asia. A great many usually white trans* people have called hijra’s “trans*” or put them under the trans* label. Regardless of their intention, to take the epistemology of “trans*” and apply it to something like the hijra can be seen as an oppressive or colonising act. The hijra are hijra. That is their name. Unless a hijra specifically identifies as transgender or trans*, applying our own concepts of gender and sexuality constructed within white supremacist cultures to people outside of our epistemological framework is redefining them on our own terms for our own benefit.

They (that’s Boldly Go’s preferred pronoun) go on to talk about two-spirits and quote their friend Tiara’s thoughts about gender in Malaysia and Bangladesh, and to argue that gender abolitionism is colonization in the same way.

Much as I agree that it’s not realistic to abolish gender, I think it’s not realistic to ignore our own gender categories when trying to understand people from other cultures. We may say, “that’s kind of like our idea of ‘transgender,'” but it becomes problematic when we ignore the way others categorize themselves. It becomes colonization when we seek to replace their categories with our own. And it’s downright offensive when we act as though our way is the One True Way of categorizing the world.

This is not to say that it’s all relative, and all categorization systems are equal. Some may have particular virtues relative to others. But we can’t just assume that our own categorization system is superior. We have to make a coherent argument for it.

I’m less concerned with borrowing another culture’s categories. If it’s done respectfully and with full credit and an open mind, it isn’t appropriation. It’s just recognizing that other people may have come up with a better way of doing it than we did.

I’ll have more to say on this in the future.

* Boldly Go seems to have let her domain expire, so I’ve changed the link to point to a copy she posted on Medium under the name Lola Phoenix.