Diversity of Language

NOTE: This post discusses anti-trans slurs, some censored so I could write this out.

One of the common criticisms the trans community makes of cis feminism is in regards to the myth of the “universal female experience”. I personally am realizing that I have unknowingly subscribed to a myth of a universal trans female experience. This myth is based on my own, genuine experience: I knew I was female since the beginning. I disown most established trans language in favor of terms like CAMAB and CAFAB. I don’t believe in pure sexual dyadism or terms like “male-bodied”.

While these parameters genuinely fit most trans women I know personally, they don’t apply to everyone. Applying them to everyone else isn’t helping me interact with the greater trans community. It’s causing unnecessary arguments and unproductive battles of trigger versus trigger. It is still important to debunk the myths surrounding the binary essentialism of “male” and “female”. It’s important to deconstruct cis language and find our own. It’s important to empower ourselves. But it’s also important to recognize the trans community has a wide range of perspectives. What’s most important is that we respect each other, and define ourselves without projecting onto others.

Just as some people knew they were trans since birth, some didn’t. Some trans women are also genderqueer or female non-gendered. Some binary-identified trans people consider themselves “gender variant”. Some people identify as MtF. Some people describe themselves as male-bodied. Some people identify as transmisogynistic slurs, including she**** and tr***y. Some people identify as transmen and transwomen, regardless of how intensely that lack of a space sets off my OCD (I’m sad to say that is not hyperbole).

The trans community has a wide range of perspectives. What’s most important is that we respect each other, and define ourselves without projecting onto others.

I’ve failed to handle these truths many times, and some of them I still struggle with. But my perspective is becoming a very strong “let people identify themselves”. I’m adjusting my rhetoric to accommodate this. Rather than telling others what to say and what not to say, I find it more helpful to explain the range of experiences trans people have. Some trans women aren’t “born male”, but some are. Some find MtF insulting, others don’t. A similar range of experience (on different subjects) exists among cis people regarding their own genders. What’s important is that we respect the individual and support each other as a community. The message changes from “Don’t make x assumption about me, because trans people aren’t like that”, to “don’t make x assumption about anyone, because people are individuals”. If there is one truth with the power to disarm stereotypes, it’s how different we can be from each other, even those of us who use the same labels.

This shift in perspective is hard. It’s possibly one of the hardest challenges I’ve faced when writing “for the community” and not just myself. This process is also messy. While I am learning the theory, in practice I am certainly no expert. Most of us have sore spots, sensitive topics, and certain words we just cannot bear to hear. Words that have been weaponized so many times we can’t take it anymore. We get angry at each other, we get triggered, we fly off the handle. Sometimes because the offending person is intentionally malicious, other times unintentionally malicious, and sometimes it’s just a plain old misunderstanding. Regardless, the pain is real. The problem often is that, even if we all speak the same language, we don’t necessarily speak the same language. Sometimes we use the same word to mean different things, or use different words to mean the same thing. These mismatched meanings become layered on top of each other, creating a confusing glut of mixed messages.

Rather than telling others what to say and what not to say, I find it more helpful to explain the range of experiences trans people have.

Some women (trans and cis alike) are too hurt by “slut” or “whore” to reclaim those words. Some GLBT people carry deep complicated histories with the word “queer”. Some gay men never want to hear the word “fag” in any context. And many trans women, including myself, get panic attacks just hearing certain trans slurs on the street. By the same token, some women reclaim “slut”. Some gay men call themselves “faggots” and find political relevance behind it. And we all know how well “queer” has been reclaimed. Is there a wrong way to do this? When the same word empowers some but hurts others, is there a right answer?

I believe it’s possible to empower all of us without invoking 2nd wave accusations of “false consciousness” or adopting patronizing savior attitudes. I should warn you, this won’t be a hand-holding Kumbaya moment. Anger, hurt feelings, and bitterness are inevitable when we have these conversations. Even when we try our best to smooth out disagreements, some personalities just don’t mix. People who are triggered by a word generally shouldn’t share space with those who identify with that word. Doing so would practically be a form of self-harm. However, when divisions like this happen, I believe it’s possible to keep necessary distance, while simultaneously understanding that not everybody experiences these terms the same way, and that these differences aren’t necessarily out of spite, malice, or miseducation.

While some of us are on a progressive journey away from oppressive cis language to newer forms of self-definition, not everyone shares this goal. Some people are earlier in the journey, and cannot be rushed before they’re ready. They need time, strength, luck, and hard work in the face of oppression. Most of all, they need support. Not condescending holier-than-thou support, but genuine support. Even if their self-identification grates against one’s own sense of self. Not every difference in opinion is due to a lack of education. Some people are on different journeys, and those should be respected too. The key is that we don’t step on others, and we remind them to not step on us. Whether we walk together holding hands, at arms’ length, or on completely separate paths, we all walk the same earth.

3 thoughts on “Diversity of Language

  1. This is a great article, and it’s great to know other Trans* people identify as either Genderqueer or Gender Varient, it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one.

  2. Hi Amy,

    I saw one of your videos linked on Twitter and you’re my new favourite person. You can really put into words all the niggling things I find so hard to explain to Cis people.
    I was curious if you’d ever experienced the well-meaning “So, what do you identify as?” question from Cis feminists? I get this a LOT from people who’ve been around a lot of trans/intersex people and I can’t quite explain why I find it so fucking rude. I suppose it’s something to do with it not being a question they’d ask anyone they read as Cis.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you like my material! I hope by detailing my own experience I can continue to help others understand themselves.

      I know that, personally, I find the “how do you identify” question icky because it subtly creates a hierarchy of “realness” between trans people and cis people. Cis people are never described as “identifying” as men or women, they just are men and women, and it’s accepted as fact without question. Trans people, on the other hand, are described as “identifying as [x]” which implies that they’re “really [y]”. It’s a subtle way for cis people to define trans people by their (assumed) genitalia–by the sex they were assigned at birth. Just as cis women are women, a trans woman doesn’t “identify” as a woman, she simply is one.

      There is a deeper layer to this conversation that lies outside the scope of this comment, so I won’t go into it in detail. But in the piece Disowning Labels from my chapbook Bite, I deconstruct these concepts even further to describe what my experience is really like apart from the shorthand we use in day-to-day life.

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