Language. It's a big deal within our little community, the vocabulary we use to refer to ourselves. Almost as many passionately held views as there are people to hold them. And boy, do we get some arguments!
A recent post from Mercedes Allen provided a very well-thought-out examination of the language used within our community in the context of the changing landscape. From where I'm sitting here in the UK some of it is more applicable to the North American community and it's certainly from a more activist perspective, but some of what emerges from the turmoil at the cutting edge will have sticking power.
I can't help having some concerns about the language debate though. There are two vocabularies at play here, the ever-changing internal vocabulary of our community of trans-whatever people, and the much simpler and more static one used about us by the wider population.
The word that gains the most widespread use for something becomes its accepted primary term in the wider language. Here's an example, the UK flag. It's the Union Jack, right? WRONG! It's the Union Flag, it's only correctly referred to as the Union Jack when flown from a Royal Navy ship. But in the popular mindset it's always going to be the Union Jack, outside a small community of flag pedants who can complain as much as they want but nobody's going to listen to them.
Google Ngram graph to see the prevalence of some of the most well-known in the wider language. Transvestite (Blue line) is well-established but in decline while Crossdresser (Red line) has never made it significantly beyond the boundaries of our community. Transsexual (Yellow line) peaked higher than any of the others in the 1990s but is now also in decline, while Transgender (Green line) has overtaken them all and is in constant rise.
So the public has spoken, and crafted the greater body of the language. And their verdict is that we are ever more often going to be referred to as transgender, whether we all like it or not. We're just like the British flag pedants in that respect. A word that started as a separatist word coined by a 1960s transvestite to differentiate herself from transsexuals has undergone a linguistic shift and become a collective term for all of us. No Transgender Borg were involved in this (if such a thing exists, getting more than one transperson to think the same way is like herding cats!), sadly the wider population do not consult minority groups when they formulate language to describe them. Instead the word was probably adopted for its convenience and perceived inoffensiveness in a world of political correctness, not to mention its linguistic root. I've heard the word in news bulletins, read it in the paper, even heard it used on CSI.
My concern in writing this piece is not whether or not we should be referred to as transgender, nor whether or not some people like it. Instead it is that whoever we are within the disparate threads of our community, the story we present to the wider world has to be credible to the people outside our community. Otherwise we are simply not going to be taken seriously. If we're telling the wider world we're not something which to their unsophisticated minds we rather blatantly are, then they are going to lose patience with us rather quickly and probably just reach for tired old language that we'd really rather not have them use. And that's no help to anyone.
As always I welcome comments on this piece. But it's probably worth stating, I take it as read that we all wish to be referred to as simply women or men. And that we all have personal takes on our own identities, and there are many times when revealing that identity is not relevant. All that goes without saying. Instead this piece is not on that topic of language within our community but on our interfacing with the language of those who are not within it, at those moments when we do have to talk about the wider identity of that community. Because it's an important consideration, and one that I think sometimes gets lost in the language wars.