AFAB trans women and the bog of eternal linguistic nihilism

Pizza is just a kind of very large cheese biscuit. An adequately large cheese biscuit is a pizza.

If you want to waste someone’s time in a debate, one of the best ways to do it is to hurl the balloon full of sticky goo we call linguistic nihilism at them. In terms of the value of the technique, I think my colleague Marcus characterizes it best: like “sneaking off the battlefield under cover of darkness.” Other suitable metaphors include “stepping into quicksand” or “navigating a quagmire.” If we imagine a debate to be a duel of swords, linguistic nihilism is not a technique of parrying or striking, but rather manoeuvring the opponent into knee-deep mud.

One iconic example of linguistic nihilism is captured in a low-stakes joke: “Hot pockets are a kind of sandwich.” The crux of the argument, not (typically) made with any seriousness, is that we can define a “sandwich” to possess certain attributes (e.g. a pair of bread slices with fillings in-between), and then label all things with those attributes “sandwiches.” Hot pockets, being quite literal bread products with cheese and meat stuffed in between, could arguably “be sandwiches.” But the vast majority of people reading the word “sandwich” probably don’t picture hot pockets. We can chase our tails all day as to whether or not we could argue that hot pockets are sandwiches, but it won’t change the fact that enough people, when polled, will picture distinct and different things when asked to imagine a hot pocket and a sandwich in their mind. The attributes of any given hot pocket and any given sandwich could all be described, but what those attributes mean is a linguistic and philosophical dispute, not an empirical one. There is no “essence of sandwich” one can detect in hot pockets to measure their sandwichness. What we call sandwiches is a negotiated, social process, meaning if it is suitable to all parties involved, we can decisively say one way or the other whether hot pockets are sandwiches, and then proceed with our discourse.

Of course, even if you and I come up with an answer, we’ll have to repeat the process when my colleague Marcus pops in and says “obviously hot pockets aren’t sandwiches.” Thus the circle closes. Maybe we actually wanted to discuss whether sandwiches had better nutritional potential than hot pockets, and now we’re bickering with Marcus over whether the distinction between the two is even meaningful. We’re back at the start of this post, having wasted time and ruined friendships over whether hot pockets are a kind of sandwich.

Balloon full of sticky goo. Quagmire. Quicksand. Knee-deep mud. Get it yet? It’s tedious as hell, and incidentally, an efficient way to waste someone’s time. Of course, with a limited number of hours in the day, it’s not a coincidence that linguistic nihilism is a technique you might use if you don’t actually want to hear what someone has to say. We see this with climate change denialists who constantly abuse the specific terms of art (all in bold text here by me) used to quickly communicate climate science.

The bottom line is, CO2 is not a poison to human beings, CO2 is not affecting the atmosphere, there is absolutely no evidence, I can say this with absolute confidence, there is no evidence of man-made global warming causing problems. We are actually going through a cooling period right now, which is going to increase over the next few years, it’s cyclical, it happens. I used to have a weatherman in my hometown who started the weather by saying ‘whether it’s cold or whether it’s hot, we’ll always have weather, whether or not’ and that’s exactly what this is. Every time we have a dry season or we have strong hurricanes or we have a really hot summer or a mild winter, these idiots start this drumbeat again, ‘global warming, see here’s what it is.’ They tried to say that this year is the warmest on record, it’s not. They will just keep coming up with his stuff, it’s just craziness.

In this scenario, the climate change scientist now has to correct the denialist on what the bold-text terms mean, in addition to explaining how the denialist’s reasoning is faulty. CO2 is not “poisonous” in the sense that ingesting it would make us ill, but if it was all we had to breathe, we’d suffocate. But whether or not CO2 is poisonous is also a claim that exactly zero climate scientists have actually made regarding anthropogenic climate change. In responding, the climate scientist could either: 1) waste time explaining that no one says CO2 is poisonous, specifically; or 2) glide over it and make ignorant observers think the denialist actually scored a point in order to discuss how the greenhouse effect actually works. Either way is lose/lose for the scientist, and win/win for the denialist. Maybe you can see why it’s such a popular debate technique, especially among positions that are less evidenced. If the denialist were approaching this debate in good faith, he would ask the scientist how he’s using the term “climate change,” and then focus on whether the actual information represented by the scientist’s response can be corroborated.

(Related tangent: This is why among many other reasons I think debate has no value for learning.)

It should come to no surprise then that those adhering to the evidence-deficient strains of feminism hostile to the existence of trans people frequently deploy this technique. I wasn’t exactly being subtle about it, but “are hot pockets sandwiches” is literally just “are trans women women” re-skinned, and the debate would be just as silly were it not for the substantial number of people trying to organize laws around their answer. I normally block the users of this technique and move on–debating them is about as productive as debating a Simon Says toy–but apparently enough digital spaces are actually diving into this quagmire headfirst under the claim that “an AFAB person can be a trans woman,” to the point where large portions of my feed are practically on fire.

The debate is perhaps best described in the wise words of Admiral Ackbar: “it’s a trap.”

The parallels to the climate change denialist are immediately obvious to me. Gender variance, as a multi-disciplinary topic of study, has a number of relatively consistent terms of art that are used within the discourse in order to speed things along. However, detractors to the existence of trans people seldom make the effort to acquaint themselves with our theory. They encounter the terms of art, and, just like the denialist, abuse them constantly in order to make our communications as unclear as possible, and waste our time defining terms that are already well-understood to those within the discourse. Now instead of discussing specific findings, we backpedal and waste time defining our terms (see: this post).

The most common example I can think of is the phrase “gender identity.” Most trans theorists use it to describe “a subjective experience of one’s sexed attributes,” but trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) have developed entire conspiracy theories around treating the term as synonymous with “the expectations thrust upon you specifically because of your assigned sex.” Thus the argument by TERFs that trans people can be especially held to account for “confirming gender stereotypes” despite contributing to them no more than every single person does every single day (including TERFs, ironically), supposedly because the only motive we could possibly have for transitioning is a desire to perform the expectations of an assigned sex rather than adapting to our experience of our own sexed attributes and using those expectations to communicate as much.

If you were paying attention, I demonstrated my favourite counter-technique to linguistic nihilism, which is to taboo your words. This is the part where dealing with the nihilism is tedious, if not especially complex. If your opponent refuses to acknowledge how the words are commonly used in context, then don’t use them at all. That’s how you get unwieldy sentences like the one above, but it at least demonstrates that your opponent is (possibly deliberately) using a word in a way that is inconsistent with its function in detailed discourse. If nothing else, it should become apparent to an undecided viewer that your opponent is on an unrelated tangent.

This brings us to the latest phrase to set my feed on fire, that a person assigned female at birth (AFAB) can call themselves a transgender woman. It’s important to note that even if this question was proposed in good faith (and I have good reason to doubt that), its consequence is still the same as those deliberately abusing terms of art. We can actually sidestep the motives of asking the question altogether–the prevailing theory in the discourse seems to be this is another attempt by TERFs to run interference–and still arrive to a conclusion regarding the consequences of this inquiry (approximately 1,500 words as of this point in the post).

See what I mean? Time-wasting. Really I’m only going through this so that more readers recognise the technique and make an informed decision as to how to engage. Most of the time my answer is this, because I’m not being paid enough to use my time this way:

(I didn’t actually block Zinnia)

Gender variance & terms of art

“Assigned sex at birth” (ASAB) is generally the preferred vocabulary used in trans feminist analysis to refer to the sexed bodily attributes by which the doctor determine (assigned) your sex after your birth. It is preferred for two reasons: 1) It captures the notion that ideas about my sex, specifically, were always external and imposed upon me; and 2) it includes a temporal element, to capture the observations that our sexed attributes do, in fact, change over time. In the vast majority of countries on our planet, all babies born will be assigned male (AMAB) or female (AFAB) after their birth, with infants of “indeterminate sex” typically being subject to a mostly arbitrary flow-chart concluding in the same two options. We are only now starting to see legal systems adapt to allow “intersex” to be an option available for sex assignment at birth where relevant, meaning in the future there will be people articulating that they were, literally, assigned intersex at birth (tentatively reduced to AXAB for the comparable initialism).

Also in the vast majority of cultures and contexts across the planet, there exist a system of heuristics collaboratively developed as a result of the tendency for human psychology to recognise patterns. When applied to people based off their apparent sexed attributes, we might refer to this system of heuristics as a component of “gender.” Say I need to find a bottle of mustard for an upcoming barbecue. When I go to the grocery store, there is both an aisle labelled “barbecue” and another aisle labelled “condiments.” This is an example of heuristics, in this case both the grocery store in its logic of where it actually stores the mustard, and also myself in guessing where the mustard is shelved.

For most of us, we expect certain qualities in a person based off attributes we can observe, and how many qualities we associate with the attributes will vary depending on our beliefs in gender. Thus, most trans theorists include in their analysis a component of gender described by “expectations thrust upon us specifically because of our assumed assigned sex at birth.”

Now, what happens when those expectations are not met? If the expectation is a social one, for example, beliefs in “proper behaviour” in one presumed to be assigned female at birth, the penalties are thoroughly described by most existing feminist analysis. But overlooked by most forms of analysis outside trans theorists includes how these expectations based on our assumed assigned sex at birth also include our sexed attributes. In order to defy these sexed attribute expectations, one must possess (or have previously possessed) the generally understood qualities of one sex assigned at birth, but currently or in actuality exhibit qualities generally considered to belong to another sex assigned at birth. 

Knowing this, someone who was assigned female at birth, exhibiting sexed qualities that are frequently assumed to be present in those assigned female at birth, will not defy expectations of said sexed qualities, and therefore will not be penalized in this specific way for these specific reasons. Since penalties specific to possessing one set of sexed attributes, but exhibiting another set of sexed attributes, are the foundation of trans theory, such a person is not the sort of person who is the subject of such analysis.

In other words, such a person may be subject to the same forces of social expectations derived from their presumed assigned sex at birth, but will be exempt from hostility derived from unmet expectations regarding their sexed attributes. While I could (and do) happily accept solidarity from such a person on the former, the latter is a more specific force that necessitates its own specific response, starting with recognition that this force exists and on which conditions the force applies.

See what I mean about wordy and time-wasting? Regardless of whether or not I concede that a person assigned female at birth who identifies as a woman can conceivably be a transgender woman, the mere fact that this person has presented themselves this way has, with a single move, entirely demolished the actual meaning of specific terms of art. So I just wasted 600 words drawing out the phrase “transgender is used within knowledgeable analysis to mean possessing, currently or historically, traits of one socially recognised sex whilst possessing traits of another socially recognised sex.” I can easily argue that the self-styled AFAB trans woman is bastardizing terms as they have been painstakingly developed over the past few decades while side-stepping the issue altogether of whether or not such a person is “really trans.”

At the end of the day I don’t think it matters whether we make the case for the AFAB trans woman even being possible. What’s important, both for someone claiming to be this and for those of us observing this, is that it applies vocabulary developed as a result of sustained experimentation and analysis in a way that is not recognisable to those who practice either. Regardless of intention, it actually damages clarity rather than provides it. Even if someone wanted to make the claim in good faith, it’s arguable per above to point them elsewhere in trans discourse, where more precise vocabulary has been proposed to capture such an experience.

Of course, like I said, we have good reason to believe this conversation was not started in good faith. Gallus Mag [NOTE: DO NOT EVER LINK DIRECTLY TO MAG ON THIS BLAG], writer of Gender Trender, has an October 26, 2017 post called “There is only one protected class of women and it is men,” making the argument that cisgender women should identify as transgender women, for the same reason climate change denialists lift their vocabulary from climate research without taking time to understand what they actually mean. We know Mag’s motives are to oppress trans people, especially trans women. We know her motives are to destroy meaning, not clarify it. She freely admits as much.


Anticipating the denialists

Even though I’ve made my point, I have to conclude with one last argument about how cisgender people antagonistic to transgender rights tend to use these very word games against us. At the crux of these word games is a fundamental denial that we all possess a subjective experience of our sexed attributes, or more succinctly, a denial that gender identity exists. TERFs that have the sense to avoid their less subtle foaming-at-the-mouth genocidal colleagues thrive in this territory.

Remember that linguistic nihilism functions by obscuring quick references to phenomena that exist. Regardless of the labels we use to apply to a concept, the concept persists. For example, “the force that attracts objects in proportion to their mass” exists regardless if we call it garbledina or gravity. The gravity-denialist, asserting that the true force binding mass together is really garbledina, is ultimately attempting to dispute a real, physical phenomena. He’s largely toothless, because we readily observe in our every day actions the consequences of gravity regardless of whether we believe it exists.

It’s easy to lose sight of this when trying to make a bigger argument, but it’s one reason trans discourse doesn’t have to be stuck forever in the Bog of Eternal Linguistic Nihilism. People experience their sexed attributes, and being distressed at this experience is a pan-cultural, pan-historical phenomenon that occurs at comparable rates. Twin studies where at least one sibling is trans show a ~40% chance for the twin pair to be concordant with gender dysphoria. As I stated in a previous analysis of twin studies: (emphasis added)

Perhaps my favourite consequence of this data is how it blows large holes in many iterations of so-called “gender critical” theory, which usually claims that trans people have internalized gendered oppression and that gender dysphoria is a manifestation of that oppression.

Were this the case, the probability two monozygotic twins separated at birth would both be trans (“concordant”) should be the same as the general population (~0.6%). If gendercrit had any predictive power, we would see dizygotic twins transitioning at the same rate as monozygotic ones, since the proposed mechanism of action is internalized oppression which both sets of twins would experience, given that they are raised in the same culture. Yet the study demonstrates that monozygotic twins are much more likely to both be transgender if at least one of them is trans, even if they’ve been separated at birth–while dizygotic twins and non-twin siblings also exhibit higher probabilities of gender variance than the general population.

Other researchers discuss correlations with certain fetal development events and gender variant adulthood. Either set of data is not the subject of this post–you examine them in detail at the links I’ve provided if you care–I only needed to demonstrate there is reason to believe a real, observable thing is happening, and to deny its existence is a denialism on par with denying gravity.

Since the phenomenon exists, all that’s left is to recognise the difference between: 1) Quibbling over the vocabulary used to refer to it; or 2) denying or accepting whether it exists at all. “AFAB trans women,” regardless of its deviation from the discourse, is #1, not #2. Much of the vocabulary proposed under trans discourse is an attempt to account for previously neglected aspects in the English language. It has to do with describing in greater accuracy phenomena that exist, but were erased by the lack of words to describe them. This is the vital difference between the word games played by TERFs and the vocabulary debates within trans discourse. The intent of the former is to render a concept suspect by abusing the terms used to refer to it; the intent of the latter is to articulate concepts under-served by language in order to discuss important and specific differences in a way that doesn’t necessitate 3,000 words.




  1. says

    I appreciate this article.

    In the community survey I run, there’s a tiny group of people (~0.1%) who identify as trans despite also identifying with the gender corresponding to their ASAB. (For comparison, about 10% of respondents identify as trans.) It’s not in my interest to attack or discourage a subset of our participants, but I do note that they appear to be using “trans” in a non-standard way. I’m curious about it, but obviously it’s an anonymous survey and I don’t have the opportunity to ask. Maybe most of them just made a clicking error for all I know.

    The Ana Mardoll thread is interesting because it offers one possible explanation. The survey question asked about current gender, and I suppose a genderfluid trans person could identify as an AFAB woman at the moment they took the survey.

  2. says

    we’ll have to repeat the process when my colleague Marcus pops in and says “obviously hot pockets aren’t sandwiches.”

    The only thing worse is when someone shows up and starts throwing pyrhhonian tropes:
    “I am unconvinced about hot pockets. Please explain to me how you know what hot pockets are.”

    If someone does that to me, I usually just block them, because I can’t punch them over the internet.

  3. says

    You’ve tackled a thing I’ve always feared to touch (more power to you!) – which is the use of language to manipulate norms. In an ideal world, I think we would all use language only to communicate clearly, but if someone with an agenda starts to try to alter our vocabulary about “normal” is, they’re redefining the playing-field as: “the rules are I win.” That seems to me to collapse down to privilege: “normal is what I am.”

    Reading this, I realize that my approach to norms is to treat them as undefined, and mostly to ignore them – whether they are moral norms, gender norms. That’s a side effect of my being so profoundly privileged (“normal is what I am!”) and having never been challenged as to whether I’m not normal. Urrrrr… “I am so normal I don’t have to care what ‘normal’ is” in other words. I can’t even begin to imagine how deeply frustrating and grievous it must be to be on the receiving end of being treated as “abnormal.” And, worse, to see people trying to codify it into law.

    As always, thank you for explaining this stuff. I really envy your patience.

  4. emergence says

    I think this is somewhat relevant to creationist bullshit too. When creationists are confronted with evidence that a mutation provides an adaptive advantage, their usual response is to muddle over whether the mutation constitutes an “increase in genetic information”, or whether the mutation really constitutes a gain of function.

    Because of that, creationists’ personal criteria for a mutation to be considered beneficial are so different from what’s required for evolution that they make themselves irrelevant.

  5. The Mellow Monkey says

    I saw Ana’s thread when xie first tweeted it and I’m grateful to you for digging into this in more depth. Language is getting appropriated and twisted, then dispersed so that naive people might pick it up in its new state and spread the damage thinking they’re being inclusive. Showing it for what it truly is helps combat this and I’m glad to have this link and your explanations of linguistic nihilism in my toolbelt for the future. Thank you.

    I’ve seen a similar ploy used claiming that all people are nonbinary and therefore trans/cis people don’t exist, that there’s no such thing as masculine/feminine presentation and therefore transition is impossible, and my personal favorite: “nonbinary people reinforce the gender binary.” It’s an endless game of Whack-a-Mole knocking this stuff down.

  6. invivoMark says

    Argh, CO2 is definitely toxic to humans! It’s still the most common way to euthanize research mice. Usually we use something like 50% CO2, which kills very quickly, but even as low as 5% will sting the hell out of your nose and lungs as your mucus membranes turn to acid. I’d like to see the guy who wrote that have a small taste of 5% CO2 and tell me how “not poisonous to humans” it is! And yeah, the atmosphere isn’t going to get that much CO2 any time soon, but there’s evidence of cognitive impairment at concentrations a mere 3x current atmospheric levels. If you can’t think in a crowded lecture hall, the toxicity of CO2 might be the problem.



  7. jean-nicolasdenonne says

    Thanks for your work.

    The only problem I see is that I come accross the same kind of arguments coming from radfem sources: “gender” is a term of art with a specific meaning (smth along the lines of “gender is a system of oppression by the class of men upon the class of women with the specific goal of controling women’s reproductive abilities and thus linked to the fact of having a female body”, really marxist, like that). For them, the struggle of trans people is a different one and, by using the term “gender” to talk about their issues, they muddy the waters and draw the feminist movement into the linguistic bog.

    Your insistance on biological factors and twin studies to argue that gender identity and gender dysphoria is a thing will make them double down saying: “Yes, this is proof that we are not talking about the same bloody thing.” For them, the crux of the system is pregnancy and what must come with it if a society wants control over it: sexual availability, child rearing and thus also emotional labor… For them, the two boxes of gender have been constructed as an institution and they are going to be very suspicious of any claim that those boxes have some basis in biology, since it would make no sense and since they have been battling such claims for more than a century…

  8. Siobhan says

    @7 jeon-nicolasdenonne

    For them, the struggle of trans people is a different one and, by using the term “gender” to talk about their issues, they muddy the waters and draw the feminist movement into the linguistic bog.

    I’ll be clear that I have never and will never write in an attempt to appeal to TERFs. I can’t reason them out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.

    Regardless, the attitudes that justify the oppression of trans folk are directly related to the attitudes that advocate for the control of pregnant people, in addition to the fact that trans people, too, are judged by our adherence or lack thereof to the expectations of our presumed sex assigned at birth. Anyone seriously making this argument is short-sighted and foolish, and I would need to be paid handsomely to educate someone that deep in their own ignorance. My objective is to get readers to recognise that reality, not change the mind of self-avowed assholes. :P

  9. StevoR says

    @6. invivoMark :Yep – and those who think carbon dioxide isn’t deadly clearly haven’t seen (or heard about) Apollo 13 either and its struggle to survive with making those jury-rigged filters to scrub the air inside the Lunar Moudule Aquarius preventing a toxic build up of that gas.


    On topic here – excellent informative article thanks Siobhan.