Transgender Verbal Hygiene: Feelings or Actions?

I first posted this on May 6, 2006, and I’m surprised I haven’t reposted it here. Thanks to various people from the My Husband Betty Message Boards for helpful feedback.


In linguistics, there are many who frown on the idea of conscious control of language use, individual or collective, such as in the book published in 1950 called Leave Your Language Alone. People who try to control language are sometimes called prescriptivists, a term that conjures up images of stuffy grammarians writing pedantic articles about punctuation. However, in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene, Deborah Cameron argued that there are all kinds of reasons to advocate or attempt language change, and some are good (eliminating sexist generic statements like “A good doctor talks to his patients”) and some are bad (using natural variations as shibboleths to discriminate against people from stigmatized ethnic groups). Cameron’s point is that the important thing is to be aware of the reasons and to subject them to an open decision-making process.

With that in mind, I have some things to say about the use of the word transgender. I am not doing this to discriminate or belittle people, or out of blind deference to tradition. I’m also not out to demonize anyone or blame anyone else for these problems. I have specific reasons for arguing against a current change in usage, and for a specific way of thinking about the term. I also want people to be aware of the effects of the language that they use, and the consequences of their choices. I’m going to be drawing on the field of lexical semantics, which itself draws on psychology, artificial intelligence, computer science and philosophy. Continue reading “Transgender Verbal Hygiene: Feelings or Actions?”

Why regret matters

I was hoping not to have to write this post, but recently I’ve noticed a tendency for some transpeople to dismiss stories of transgender regret. I’ve seen a couple of blog posts that attribute regret concerns primarily to “people who think transition is bad,” and criticize regretters who claim they were deceived. I don’t think there’s any malice intended, but it’s not a good thing.

A lot of transgender politics is based on the idea that MTF transpeople are women, and FTM transpeople are men, and thus that anything that interferes with transition is thwarting their destinies, and amounts to a crime against nature. Figuring out which gender-variant people are “really trans” and thus deserving of this categorizational boost is tricky, and the subject of endless flamewars, but what seems to matter most are action and intention: if you live full-time or have concrete plans to do so in the near future, a lot of transpeople will admit you to the club.

(As an aside, I have a fairly fluid, Roschian definition of “man” and “woman” that seems to please nobody but me: I believe that everyone is a woman in some ways and a man in others, and everyone’s balance varies. It’s not even the same for a single person from day to day. I just want to go on record that I am not interested in denying anyone’s claim to be either a man or a woman. What bothers some transpeople is that I’m also not interested in helping them to repudiate their categorization in the other gender.)

What causes a bit of a problem for the transgender worldview is that there are people who were once considered “really trans,” went all or partway through transition and became dissatisfied and regretted transitioning. There is a range of actions in response to this regret, just as there is a wide range of actions in response to transgender feelings. If they can manage and/or afford it, some will have surgery to undo or reconstruct as many of the body modifications they’ve done. Others will quietly share their feelings with their loved ones. Most people seem to be somewhere in the middle. No one knows how many cases of regret there are (Principle One), but I personally know of at least five, and there have been others documented by David Batty of the Guardian. Five people have recently come forward to accuse English gender psychiatrist Russell Reid of encouraging them to transition and have body modifications that they later regretted. (For balance, you can read testimonials from some of Dr. Reid’s satisfied patients.) Continue reading “Why regret matters”