Of the various reservations people express about transgender discourse and trans-feminism, or the justifications they provide as to their resistance to such conversations, one that I find notably frustrating is the idea that it’s primarily just sophistry, jockeying for relative intellectual status and empty debate over semantics and terminology.
I understand where that perception comes from. Admittedly, a great deal of the discussion in trans-feminism centers on terminologies and narratives, the means by which we articulate our identities and stories, and which identities and stories are given the greatest degree of visibility and “legitimacy”. But this isn’t empty debate of semantics. It’s very meaningful debate of terminology, voice, representation and narrative.
There’s frequently an element hypocrisy to it as well: the same people being so dismissive of trans-feminist discussion of the problems inherent to terms like “passing”, “en femme” or “post-transition” would likely be infuriated if someone were to describe their pronoun preference and gender identification as “mere semantics”, after all. Is there a difference there? Even a difference of degree of importance? And who are any of us to externally say which terminologies are “legitimate” for someone to discuss or prefer or reject, and which issues are to be dismissed as “mere semantics”?
I also reserve a very special and private fury for those who describe trans-feminist discourse as “academic”. Trans people have never been meaningfully included in academia. We’ve historically only ever been present in academic space, feminist or otherwise, “progressive” or “conservative”, as the subject of theory and text and debate. Never the agents. This is also very much our ongoing relationship to academia. Trans-feminism occurs primarily in online, activist and informal space largely because there’s never been room for us to speak for ourselves in the “established” and “legitimate” venues like academia or media. Your refusal to understand something, or the fact that it goes against your received notions of “common sense”, is not enough to disregard something as “academic”.
Trans isn’t academic. It isn’t theoretical. It is the lived experiences of actual human beings. And those lived experiences are very meaningfully, very directly, affected by the terminologies we have available to articulate ourselves, the assumptions made about our histories, the prevailing narratives that are seen as “legitimate”, that are granted visibility, that are connected to the assumed histories and assumed bodies, or that are simply “comprehensible” to the people around us and the people who are in a position to grant or deny us access to healthcare, housing, employment, social services, legal protections, or any other resources. Our lives are shaped by who amongst us gets to have a voice, and by how those voices are constrained by the available terms and concepts.
As an example of the very real significance that terminologies, and their concepts and definitions, have for the immediate, “street-level” realities and experiences of trans people, I’d like to mention Bill C-279, the “Canadian Trans Rights Bill”, that will grant explicit protection to transgender Canadians under our country’s federal human rights laws. Today, right now, in Ottawa, this bill is in committee, with various (cisgender, of course) politicians attempting to “iron out” their disagreements about perceived flaws in the bill and its phrasing. One of the principal disagreements, upon which the ability of the bill to move forward toward becoming actual law, is the inclusion of the term “gender expression” and its alleged vagueness, or level of flexibility impractical for federal human rights law.
The bill, as originally written, offered protection against discrimination on the basis of “gender identity” and “gender expression”. Despite the manner in which these terms have been popularly accepted as useful and meaningful within the dominant trans community and dominant trans discourse, those terms do have numerous problematic aspects, and the implied boundaries and specificities of these terms aren’t necessarily going to comphrensible for people who aren’t already “in the club” of the dominant trans community (I remember once describing “transgender” to my Dad as “anyone who significantly falls outside assumed cultural standards of the male and female binary” and he replied, in earnest, “so I’m transgender? Because I like to cook?”. Obviously no, he’s not, but the line between a very slight, insignificant deviation from a cultural archetype of perfect masculinity and a majour transgression from assigned gender role isn’t always going to be clear, and good luck defining it). As terrified as I am of this bill not passing, I think we (transgender Canadians, specifically those with enough political power to have pushed this bill and shaped its terms), need to accept accountability for the mess we’ve created by not suitably interrogated our own terminologies before gambling our rights, and the rights of every other trans person in our country, and those yet to come, on those terms.
There was a time where I happily accepted “gender identity” and “gender expression” as useful terms and concepts, and went along with the assumed definitions thereof. That’s no longer the case. I’ve since come to perceive a great deal of problems and failures in those terms and the concepts that prop them up: the bizarre insistence on clinging to an essentialism-without-conventional-essentialism that serves as scaffolding for “gender identity”, the inherent belief in codifiably gendered clothing or fashion intrinsic to “gender expression”, and the ultimate necessity of falling back on cissexist, oppositional conceptual frameworks whenever you push the definitions of both terms to the lines that eventually need to be drawn.
How much more useful might C-279 have been if we simply said “gender”, and then defined that? Simply in opposition to “sex”?
Right now my human rights hinge on a bunch of cisgender politicians coming up with workable definitions of “gender identity” and “gender expression” in the space of a few hours. In a committee somewhere in Ottawa. Two words I’d rather see buried anyway. There’s no way they can define “gender expression” within the narrow range necessary for legal definition without hurting and excluding a lot of people. There’s no way they can drop “gender expression” and leave the bill simply protecting “gender identity” without hurting and excluding a lot of people. And even if a successful negotiation is reached, it will irrevocably bind our rights to those terms, rendering them utterly dependent on their long-term efficacy… an efficacy I don’t believe they have. If it negotiation isn’t successful, I don’t even dare speculate on how many trans Canadians will be hurt between now and the next opportunity for such a bill to be passed.
But it’s just semantics, right?
Admittedly, C-279 is an unusually
extreme obvious instance of the degree to which terms and their attendant concepts and definitions have a meaningful impact on the lives of trans people, there are far wider and subtler aspects of this as well, that are the typical subject of our debate and why it’s relevant. Aspects that are very comparable to questions of “semantics” like pronoun preference and misgendering. These are mostly about gender, identity, and voice (those commas are important!).
Gender is nothing if not the need to express and understand oneself, in relation to sex and sexuality. It’s nothing if not a system of communication. Whether it’s immediately obvious to you or not, every term related to gender, even those related to gender variance and gender minorities, carry baggage and assumptions. “Trans woman” implies numerous assumptions: designated-male-at-birth, XY, not intersex, “socialized as male”, linearly “transitioned”, through “social transition” and “physical transition”, from a Point A (“male”) to a Point B (“female”), etc. These assumptions are rendered a bit more obvious in the way that “trans woman” is considered synonymous with (though perhaps less crass than) “Male-to-female transsexual”. But those assumptions of history, of narrative, of linearity, of biology… those aren’t universally applicable to everyone for whom the concept of “trans woman” is meaningful, useful or significant. Just like how not everyone who feels the term “woman” is a useful, meaningful and important self-descriptor necessarily has the assumptions that often go with that term, such as a vagina, a 46-XX karyotype, and a “female socialization”.
What we are attempting to do through our genders is have ourselves be understood, voiced, asserted, actualized… ideally to have that voice and actualization as true to our own sense of ourselves as it possibly can be. While the terminologies that trans communities have developed are at least superfically accurate and comfortable for most of us, they also carry with them a whole lot of baggage, associations and limitations, and many people are simply left without any terms through which to truly honestly describe, assert and actualize themselves…at least not without taking on an uncomfortable heap of unwanted associations. To be left only able to express one’s gender through terms and concepts that don’t feel genuine is to be left unable to truly express one’s gender at all. It’s very much an extension of precisely the same circumstance, and same tragedy, as a woman being forced through cultural convention to present herself, describe herself, and be described and understood, as a man. The fight for concepts through which one’s gender can be accurately described and reflected, free from unwanted associations or assumptions, is the fight for self-determination and expression of one’s gender itself: the fight that underscores almost everything that it is and means to be trans.
Beyond the fundamental question of being able to determine and assert one’s gender, there is also the question of voice and visibility: who amongst us gets heard and seen, who amongst us is silenced and erased, and how our visibility is seen by our culture. If the only terminologies and concepts that are understood by our culture (understanding being a pretty essential aspect of communication, obviously), and the only terms and concepts given to them to understand, the only terms and concepts included in our little glossaries (I’m more than a little embarassed by my own) are ones that only apply to certain genders, certain narratives, and certain experiences, we are very directly excluding significant portions of our community from being able to engage in the cultural discourse at all. We’re consigning them to remaining unnoticed, unable to speak their own perspectives and advocate on their own behalf, and remaining incomprehensible, anomalous and monstrous for the culture as a whole.
Alternately, we oblige people to speak through means that don’t and can’t reflect their actual perspectives, lives and experiences. They end up having to present a version of themselves and their ideas distorted by the limited tools available with which to have a voice at all. Even harder is how often we end up being put in the position of only being able to speak and advocate through terms we consider destructive and problematic themselves, ending up having to make the choice between speaking through terms that reinforce the very concepts that constrain and oppress us, or not speaking at all, and having everyone else speak over us.
Do you speak through your oppressor’s voice and language, lending him legitimacy, or do you remain silent as he and others continue to speak for you, against your actual wishes and interests?
Developing ways of articulating transgender experience and perspectives that can genuinely reflect the full breadth of those experiences and perspectives, and that can do so without relying upon or reinforcing the cissexist, binarist, misogynistic or heteronormative worldviews that oppressed us in the first place, is not simply a question of trying to out-sophisticate one another. It is an issue that sits at the fundamental core of who we are, and how and why we are oppressed. The fact that certain very simple linguistic concessions may be enough for one trans person to feel validated and actualized, such as being granted female pronouns, the word “woman”, and the title “Ms.”, does not by any means grant them the right to scoff at those for whom the language we presently have is not sufficient to see themselves genuinely reflected or understood within it.
We have to be careful in how we approach the present lexicon, and attempt to improve it and make room for us all to find our voices and stories within it. Some terms are imposed upon us externally, and function as tools of cis-patriarchy (“biologically male”). Some terms are used to directly dehumanize, denigrate, sexually objectify or other us (“trannies”, “shemales”, “chicks-with-dicks”, “constructed female” etc.) We don’t have a whole lot of say in what terms others impose on us or use to subjugate us. But some terms “of our own” are also overtly problematic and oppressive… “passing”, for instance, directly and inherently reinforces cisnormativity, cissexism, narrow and heirarchially codified standards of female appearance, positions our existence as inherently deceptive, positions us as not “really” being whomever we are or appear to be, and places responsibility for how we are read unfairly on the shoulders of whomsoever is read- regardless of fact that they have almost no control over it at all. It is also utterly fucking meaningless for any non-binary trans people, and denigrates them regardless of what their appearance or choices are, no matter what. “En femme”, “boymode”, “girlmode”; these terms codify forms of clothing and presentation as somehow inherently male or female, “boy clothes” and “girlclothes”, and covers up the truth that presentation and the gendering of a person, a body, a fashion, is always a negotiation between the individual, those around them, and a complex, nuanced range of cultural context. Those terms we could (and maybe should?) just make an effort to get rid of, even though some of the related concepts (presentation, conditional cis privilege, gendering, etc.) are necessary to our discourse.
But some terms are only problematic in certain usage. “Designated-male-at-birth”/DMAB and “designated-female-at-birth”/DFAB can certainly be problematic, wheresoever these are used as simply stand-ins for the binary, an excuse to continue seeing the world in the same old cissexist ways, but with just a slight tweak to keep people from noticing and give you an excuse in the event that they do (much like how “gender identity” is often just an excuse to continue looking at people as being somehow intrinsically a man or a woman or something else, without having to interrogate what those concepts actually mean, while insulating oneself from questions of essentialism). They can also be highly problematic whenever we treat them as internally consistent, like “DMAB experiences include such-and-such events and blahblahblah” or “DFAB people often had issues with thing-a-ma-jingy during swithinsdays”). However, these terms can be very valid and useful when and where we treat them as meaningful in relation and contrast to one another. DMAB identities, bodies and experiences aren’t consistent, and DFAB identities, bodies and experiences aren’t consistent either… but DMAB and DFAB are consistently different relative to each other. A bit like “warm” and “cool”. Warm isn’t any one specific temperature, nor is cool, but the two terms have meaning in their contrast from one another. It means something different to be designated male as an infant than it does to be designated female.
And some terms, while failing to accommodate all identities, experiences and narratives are not only meaningful, but essential, to articulating those of some of us. Some people did experience a meaningful difference between their “pre-transition” and “post-transition” lives (but not all of us). Some people can describe a moment at which they went “full-time” in making a deliberate effort to express their gender differently (but not all of us). Some people lived “transitions” that they feel can be best and most meaningfully described as “male-to-female” (but not all of us). Most of us feel that we “transitioned”, that we are “transgender” or “transsexual” (but not all of us).
We don’t need to dismantle those terms, but we do need to create more space and diversity. Of the terms we do need to dismantle, we can’t do so with a sledgehammer. And we can’t risk condemning ourselves collectively to silence. But those of us who aren’t most of us need voices too. We need words. We need language. We need means to articulate, express, define and determine our identities and genders and lives, and to have those be understood. We need means to tell our stories… not simply tell someone else’s story as a close approximation, or define ourselves by someone else’s gender that happens to be “close enough”. We need to be able to shout and sing and scream and assert and demand these things.
And we need to be able to do so in our own words.
That any trans person… with hir chosen name, hir chosen pronouns, hir chosen title, hir chosen identity… could dismiss this need, both deeply personal and immediately political, as “mere sophistry and semantics”, is as incomprehensible to me as the unspoken genders and stories of our community remain to our wider culture.