Sunday, 5 June 2011

Our language, their language

    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.
    The wider population of non-trans people have not got many polite words to describe us. Take a look at the 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.


  1. The modern day "media" disseminate changes in language use to the masses so rapidly so that pedants like us who loved words like" which, we or decimate" find them un used or useless with new incorrect meanings replacing the original or poor grammar becoming the norm.

    Love your graphs as usual they show which words we need to use to communicate to those outside of our small ghetto.

    Personally I never used any "T" words when I spread the word about my change, I did not think any would be of real use in a world where I could not be sure which definition they would understand. Perhaps not using any scary "T" words helped my near universal acceptance!

  2. One thing I'd seek to tell the greater public is that I'm not different than any other woman. If I may steal and slightly modify a quote from your post...

    "Alas, it seems that I'm telling the wider world I'm not something which to their unsophisticated minds I rather blatantly am, and they are going to lose patience with me rather quickly and probably just reach for tired old language that I really rather not have them use," like "man."

    Is that a reason for me to acquiesce? Heck no. I'm not going to give in to being referred to as something I'm not simply to appease the masses.

  3. @Caroline: tell me about it, I'm a professional pedant who works in an industry of pedantry :)

    Still, it was handy when I came out to my boss, being able to say "I suffer from gender dysphoria" and having her instantly know what I meant.

    @Teagan: As I tried to say in my final paragraph the point I was trying to make was not one of personal identity. Of course you're blatantly a woman.

    Instead I'm trying to make the collective point about language as applied to our community. Because what works within it doesn't always work outside it.

  4. Well... I suppose this is why some of leave the community, for better or worse. For me, and without judgment of those who are comfortable with the word "transgender," when applied to me, I hate it, I really do. When applied to me.

    I understand that your post was about the group. I hope that others understand why, at some point, many of us choose to leave the group.

    Nothing people haven't heard a million times before in this comment, eh? :)

  5. I don't care what you call me, as long as you call me for dinner. ;)

    Melissa XX

  6. You are right about wanting to be called male or female, in my case female but that is only a personal preference. As long as I am not called by a name in an offensive or derogatory way I am pretty much happy. Oh, and yes, like Melissa me for dinner...LOL

    Shirley Anne xxx

  7. The problem with trans ANYTHING is that they are all front loaded! They carry the automatic assumption you are a "Not" as in Not a woman or Not a man... Which is exactly how they perceive us no matter what the label! Something which has been made only worse by the transgender umbrella. Teagan is right! You are a man or you are a woman and it is NOT anyones business what you history was but you!

  8. It seems the term transgender is being used two different ways, and maybe that's so on your side of the pond as well. In the mainstream media, it seems to be a euphemistic term for "transsexual." Whereas among activists and such, it's a term that includes transsexualism and all kinds of gender variance.

    When ordinary people see the term "transgender," they think transsexual. They think of people transitioning and having a "sex change." And as Liz demonstrated the other day, some at least are surprised when it ends up including people they didn't think about.

    I was born transsexual. I'm a woman now. I'm so glad to be past all that! But it would be nice if there weren't so much confusion and/or deliberate obfuscation behind me.

  9. Jenny, you make some very relevant points!

    (How did you know about that word graph thing? That's so cool!)

    The "transgender umbrella", Miz Know It All?

    We are not all men or women. There are some who feel they neither between nor betwixt; your words deny them their identity. What say thee to that?

    Besides, "trans" is not front-loaded; it's back loaded. It's not about "not", in your context, it's about gossip and people trying to grapple with issues they know little about, and usually aren't particularly interested in knowing. (Are you interested in things that don't affect you?)

    I agree that personal history is your own business; I disagree that it is no one else's. I've got various certifications in medical stuff. I know "your" medical history is your doctor's business as well! Am I being pedantic? Yes. Am I accurate? Yes. for most purposes, however, how you identify yourself is no matter for me. Where it does get interesting is when you deny others a similar ability. And you do when you proclaim the binary gender identifications as the only possible ones.

    Ariel, I think you've hit a few of the nails on their heads. Yes, when "ordinary people" see transgender, they do lump the transsexual in there as well. But I don't think "activists", not all of them anyway, consider "transsexual" to be among the transgendered. If they do, it's because of some clearly misguided intention to extend the political efforts at equality to all people who don't quite conform to the (mathematically defined) "norm". At least that's what I've seen; although I am not au fait with any discussions on forums and the like.

    Some of these "activists" might not be as articulate or as expressive as desired. While that's not particularly good for an activist, it's life.

    Is that so bad? Is that something to take umbrage over? Apparently it is.

    (Jenny, let me advance an apology. My words, these days, seem to incite others. Sorry.)

  10. I feel I should reiterate, my point is *NOT* about personal identification or what extent of your history you reveal but about the vocabulary used by outsiders when referring to us collectively.

    Transgender seems to be more than a synonym for transsexual in the public eye, at least over here. I certainly take it to be a catch-all that includes me just as much as it does the wearer of a PVC maid's outfit. Whether I like it or not, that's just the way the language has evolved.
    It may not be as wide for some of the public as it is for us, but that's mainly because they don't realise either how numerous or varied we are.

    Where did I find the graphs? I'm a geek with a keen professional interest in language! :)

    Controversial comments? Don't worry, I don't censor my comments. Only three things make me see red: spam, intentional and gratuitous misgendering, or picking on people based on their appearance. Would-be trolls take note, do any of those here and you're history.

    Now, about that dinner...

  11. i like your graph! (google = fun toys!) i would love to be able to add 'trans' to the list of words charted, but unfortunately it's used in so many other contexts that it wouldn't be possible.

    (on a side note, not every trans person wants to be simply a man or a woman, male or female. and some people identify more strongly with the 'trans' part of the terminology.)

  12. I appreciate that identity is significantly more complex than the binary. It's simpler (Lazier?) to express it thus, particularly when you are doing your best to avoid pitfalls.

    Or maybe I'm just perpetuating the tyrany of the gender binary! :)

    I too wish it were possible to look at a fragment like 'trans'. The pros probably have tools in which they can construce selective queries, but Google haven't let us have a play.

  13. This binary lark is a pain when clearly we are not defining our selves by a distinct frequency somewhere along the spectrum but are saying if M2F that the world saw us as in the cold blue half but we "know" that we should be in the warmer red half. There are a lot of different colours in each half!

  14. Good question. "we" as in "all of us who have some stake in this" rather than "all of us who shelter under any particular umbrella". If that makes any sense at all.

  15. Hi ho.