Vocabulary’s got nothin’ to do with it

Content Notice: Victim blaming, trans-antagonism, reclamation of t-word slur

Perhaps it was good fortune that I caught a bug and started drowning in my lungs. I recognized earlier this week that I was very tense from working back-to-back for such a protracted period of time and even though I earmarked some time this weekend to unwind, my body decided an illness was needed earlier to get me back on my ass. During this time I’ve had a lot to fret over regarding the fragile and precarious place trans people are in, as a community, and I’m fairly certain only some of it was a fever dream. I don’t know if this marks my “return” proper, since my schedule is supposed to be daily, but I nonetheless feel compelled to say something in the interim.

Previously our struggle as trans folk was chiefly defined by a life of falling through the cracks. We existed in a constant gray area, largely omitted from laws and policies both good and bad. This omission created structural barriers that denied us access to the machinery of prosperity that Western democracies supposedly enjoy, leaving many of us to survival sex work or chronic poverty in underemployment. In essence, it used to be somewhat inaccurate to call us “second-class citizens,” not because we weren’t subordinate but because we barely qualified as citizens to begin with. It was an apartheid, only not one limited by geography or ethnicity. Just a slow genocide of omission, rather than the grand theatrics of fascism.

It had its disadvantages and I certainly wouldn’t keep things that way or seek to return them to that way. But, at the very least, when the village needed a scapegoat, we were largely overlooked outside of the occasional punchline from dickheaded comedians.

The story of the scapegoat was perhaps my favourite contribution from the Bible. It went something like this: Things would go poorly and this would be attributed to sin. Rather than punish villagers, which would surely create more strife and make the matter worse, the village would agree to burden a goat with all their sin, which would then be cast out into the desert to perish of thirst. I liked it not because I celebrated the inane violence thrust upon an innocent goat; I liked it because it demonstrated the lengths to which a human will go to avoid doing the right thing, as long as “the right thing” takes time and effort and work. The goat, being a safe victim who can’t fight back, represents the easy thing.

So I am disappointed, but entirely unphased, to find a Centrist hit my feed scapegoating gender variant folk for the victory of Trump.

During the “Weekend Update” segment, co-anchor Colin Jost made what may have seemed to many like a routine joke playing off both Tinder’s recent update and Democrat Hillary Clinton loss in the presidential election.

“The dating app Tinder announced a new feature this week, which gives users 37 different gender identity options,” Jost set up the joke, his permanent smirk on prominent display.

Then, the punchline: “It’s called, ‘Why Democrats lost the election.’”

The logic goes something like this: 1) Gender plurality is “ridiculous,” 2) The Democrats were supportive of gender plurality; 3) Therefore, the Democrats are ridiculous.

Haha, so funny. /s

Jost, of course, responded predictably when people challenged him on his “joke.” He carried on to do what all assholes do and I probably don’t have to tell you the rest: Doubling down, gaslighting, yada yada, y’all know the drill forwards and backwards.

Just a joke” is a weak-ass excuse, and in general I’m glad more people aren’t buying it anymore. What it does is observe what sits outside the boundaries of socially acceptable and then propose an environment where those boundaries are instead moved to accommodate those unacceptable things. That is the function of a joke.

Most of the time prejudiced people conceal their true beliefs and attitudes because they fear others’ criticism. They express prejudice only when the norms in a given context clearly communicate approval to do so. They need something in the immediate environment to signal that it is safe to freely express their prejudice.

Disparagement humor appears to do just that by affecting people’s understanding of the social norms – implicit rules of acceptable conduct – in the immediate context. And in a variety of experiments, my colleagues and I have found support for this idea, which we call prejudiced norm theory.

Now “tranny jokes” have been popular for decades, and were still popular when people were starting to challenge anti-woman and anti-black jokes. And at the core of all these anti-minority jokes are a number of tiresome themes progressives have been wrestling with for dog-knows-how-long: This notion that the equitable participation of minorities constitutes “political correctness,” implying that it is only by government intervention that We, the Majority, grant access to the machinery of prosperity to those yucky Others.

I just want to make something abundantly clear: I do not believe for a single moment that Jost’s joke has anything at all to do with the ongoing expansion of vocabulary to describe gender plurality; nor do I believe that the people opposed to equal treatment of trans folk do so because they’re called “mean names” like “transphobe.”

That’s because this has never been a debate about which words to use. Language has always been descriptive and is ever changing. For a community as rare and disparate and disconnected as the gender variant community, it makes perfect sense for our community to start organizing with the advent of the internet, a device which allows us to surpass the limitations of geography. It’s only logical that having been omitted from inclusion in broader society and how that manifests in the lack of vocabulary for us that we would create our own language when we came together. This is all predictable and entirely supported by the function and history of language. No one who has even the shallowest background in linguistics is surprised by this.

The opposition to “political correctness” was, always has been, and always will be, about avoiding culpability for one’s own prejudice. They oppose efforts to acquire equitable access to society for minorities not necessarily because they believe minorities are inherently inferior and deserve inequality, but because they refuse to admit inequality exists to begin with*. They don’t want to face the prospect of having at least some of their success attributed to the dumb luck of the station of their birth. They don’t want to admit they are complicit in the continuation of the structures that created this hierarchy to begin with, a hierarchy that they benefit from even if it doesn’t manifest in giant mansions and a coterie of servants at their whim.

That’s why I can write a 2200 word article without once uttering the word “transphobia” and nonetheless have it met with the signature frothy-mouthed resistance of anti-PC types. It’s why I can tiptoe around the word “misogyny” in a post about the ridiculous shit my female Premier is accused of and nonetheless have it met with the desperate flailing of “not sexist” conservatives. The calls to destroy “political correctness” aren’t merely about the elimination of an expanding vocabulary, but moreso represent the restoration of denial regarding inequality to begin with. That’s why you can be nice and patient and diplomatic and nonetheless be accused of namecalling: They aren’t offended by the word “transphobe,” they’re offended by the idea that their inaction has caused harm and continues to do so.

It ain’t about words, meng. Laws that create an environment of legal hostility for trans and gender variant folk only sprang up when we began to gain visibility. They aren’t a punitive response to the words of gender plurality–they’re a punitive response to our demands for equality, designed to punish us for suggesting things were unequal to begin with. Given that we are so badly outnumbered and our “allies” practically evaporated into thin air after Obergefell, we’re a safe victim for this message. We’re the goat onto which the sins of America are thrust. “Don’t ask for equal treatment because we’ll make it unequal just to punish you.” Which, of course, only makes sense if your belief is predicated on the notion that equality has to have existed to begin with.

I suspect this is the sentiment underlying “Make America Great Again.” Go back to the good old days when people were still in widespread denial of inequality. Go back to the good old days when you could coast on the unpaid labour of your wife while working jobs built on the unpaid labour of your black neighbour’s ancestors. Go back to the good old days when words like “sexist” and “racist” didn’t exist because the assumed superiority of white men was simply the air you breathed. Go back to the good old days when nobody compared Thanksgiving to the brutality occurring at Standing Rock. Go back to the good old days when minorities couldn’t even participate in public life, as leaders and politicians and policywriters, because their station never gave them that option.

It’s not the vainglorious, ruckus type of supremacy. No mobs chasing you out of homes or armies marching in lockstep, no smashed windows or broken knees, no torturers or kidnappings. It’s a quieter supremacy. The kind that tuts tuts at protesters protecting clean drinking water, the kind that overlooks police brutality because only “criminals” are targeted by the police, the kind that smugly claims it can agree with our ends but not our means from the safety of an ivory tower. It’s not the supremacy of murder and violence. It’s just the supremacy of inaction and complicity, whispering in your ear that somehow apathy has no moral consequences.

But inaction, too, is a choice.

I don’t think you can logically conclude that the affirmation of 0.6% of the population is what cost the Democrats the election. But I think you can conclude that, if all you’re looking for is a knee-jerk, feel-good answer to failure. Hey, even if we narrow our scope to milquetoast liberals and centrists, trans people are still outnumbered. It won’t be the first time we are blamed for something and cast out from a movement.

Really, our only recourse is that in time, we’ll see you in the desert too.



*This sentence was more directed at Centrists or Moderates, the “not-racist” Trump supporters. There are, of course, supremacists of many stripes who do believe in the superiority of one class, and therefore the inferiority of another. Please bear in mind that’s an entirely separate can of worms and is not the subject of this post.


  1. samihawkins says

    So from what I’ve gathered cis white dudes like Jost’s election analysis can be summed up with three statements:

    1. Those rural whites who flocked to an openly bigoted candidate where motivated by economic reasons and were in no way just bigots angry about us minorities not knowing our place.

    2. It’s minorities fault we lost because they angered those rural by not knowing their place.

    3. Anyone who even suggests theirs a contradiction between 1 and 2 is a dumb whiny SJW who should be ignored.

    And a 4th that applies specifically to Jost:

    4. Ignore the fact that the hugely popular TVshow I work on spent months normalizing a bigoted authoritarian as just being a kooky uncle type, to the point that we let him host a goddamn episode. Its the fault of that uppity minority who make up less than 1% of the population!