On Vocabulary & “Political Correctness”: Transition Reactions p1


Hi lovelies, Shiv here again. I’ll start with a brief aside: thanks for the supportive messages regarding my last post! Y’all barely know me and you’re offering me those nice messages. It was small, but meant a lot. 🙂

Without further ado:

Transition Reactions is my series of essays covering the way people respond to my gender transition. It will generally speak exclusively of my experiences as a trans woman but will also inevitably intersect with my various other axes of life. This is not a data intensive series (those will come later) and mostly only speaks to my particular experience.

Content Notice — cissexism

One of the more bewildering reactions I’ve had when attempting to educate people on transgender specific terminology is anger: Why do you need all these extra words? I would think the answer is self evident–“because the existing terminology is not adequate”–but that’s not the question that’s really being asked. What they’re actually saying is, why don’t you just accept the way I’m treating you? Why do you have to be offended by everything? Why should I have to change to accommodate you?

I was invited to attend an erotic massage class as a masseuse. The class was marketed as being “for women,” but the demo was performed on an AFAB cis woman. Here we were learning to manipulate AFAB genitalia–something I do not have–and while I was enjoying the material itself very thoroughly, I couldn’t help but sink on the inside. “Women do this, women do that” coupled with a clitoris, vulva and vagina. What of the women who don’t do that, or that, because they weren’t AFAB?

The instructor, who apparently valued my opinion, asked me for feedback and I told them honestly: I loved learning the material, (I’m sure my AFAB partners will too), but it was categorically excluding me because I do not have AFAB genitals. I told them I couldn’t attend their next class for men because I wouldn’t be able to stomach having them point at a penis and testes and go “men do this men do that.” It was clearly designed to be taught to cisgender people for whom genitals and gender are interchangeable. It was, albeit unintentionally, gender essentialist.

Naturally, the instructor accused me of tilting at windmills. Not their words, but that was the crux of their response.

Yes, the great irony in cis defensiveness: “That word makes a lot of presumptions and it makes me uncomfortable. This word is more accurate” turns into “OMG WHY ARE YOU MAKING AN ENEMY OF ME I LIKE YOU.” Like throwing a temper tantrum over the observation that you can’t solve a jigsaw puzzle with spare marbles, I’m somehow the villain for pointing out an oversight: the vocabulary of that class did not reflect my reality.

So, I don’t accept their treatment of me because it makes me feel gross; I’m not offended, I’m just observing that the material is not meant for trans folk; they didn’t have to change to accommodate me, but if they wanted me at their next class, they would have to call it a class for AMAB folk and not “men”–and as this was deemed unacceptable after some unnecessary “I AM YOUR FRIEND!!” shouting, I did not attend their next class. Or remain their friend.

C’est la vie.

Why would I prefer a phrase like AMAB for an erotic massage class in which I am ostensibly welcome? To get you up to speed: AMAB means “assigned male at birth.” It has a sister term, AFAB, assigned female at birth. I prefer the use of these terms because they can describe my reality perfectly. No one asked me if I wanted to be male, I never selected it, it was a property prescribed to me based off an educated guess on my genitals. The only reason 8 year-old me would say I was a boy was because no one fucking told me I had another option. And now that I have contextualized my experience, I will absolutely reject all further attempts to associate me with maleness. It is not unfair to say that others gave me the property by using the term AMAB, but it absolutely is unfair to disregard my opinion of that designation by saying I am “male” or that I am served by an erotic massage class for “women” where no attempt to describe my anatomy–the subject of the eroticism in a massage–is made.

But wait, there’s more! You can also describe cis people this way! Fucking radical!

Yes, we all receive a gender assignment at birth based on what our genitals look like. That’s not a particularly contentious statement, or at least it shouldn’t be. I’d be totally stoked if cis folk started describing themselves as AMAB and AFAB too, because then it would normalize discussions of gender variance by putting trans folk on an equal playing field. Would us trans folk be different? Yes. Uncommon? Sure. But not abnormal such that the existing language breaks when attempting to describe us. And it has the bonus of also putting intersex people on that same level playing field.

You don’t have to care about using these more specific descriptors–it’s a free country, after all. But you don’t get to freely conflate gender and anatomy for 3 hours and be indignant when trans folk decline to attend your class because they don’t meet that description. We do it all the time, because most cis folk fuck this sort of thing up. If you actually give a shit about serving the needs of trans folk, then you’re going to have to learn that our realities are not captured by the status-quo of language, and your word choices have an influence over whether we feel validated or erased by your presence. And when presented with a choice as to whether or not we want to subject ourselves to that kind of treatment, you can’t be surprised if we say “no thanks” every now and then. We get it everywhere else we go, sometimes we need a break.


(I’m legit tempted to start a genderqueer erotic massage workshop as a result of this experience)



  1. purrs says

    I’m not sure AFAB/AMAB would necessarily be the solution, considering that not every AFAB person has a vagina, nor every AMAB person a penis.

  2. AMM says

    The only reason 8 year-old me would say I was a boy was because no one fucking told me I had another option. And now that I have contextualized my experience, I will absolutely reject all further attempts to associate me with maleness.

    This pretty much describes where I am these days, but it took almost 60 years for me to get to that point.

    I don’t know if this is exactly your point, but my metaphorical legs get all tangled up trying to express my experience: that “male” as a characterization of my anatomy is (unfortunately) pretty accurate (for now), and maybe the “performance” (I hope I’m understanding Judith Butler correctly) I’m forced to engage in much of the time, but all the other stuff that everybody simply assumes goes along with that anatomy (including the “performance”) fits me about as well as one of those dog sweaters, and it was even worse when I was a child. (Can you say “compulsory masculinity”?)

    I’ve been sort of on the other side of the mirror from you: I’m still seen as male, and until recently, I kept having people — men and women both — pushing me into all that “what guys do” and “male bonding” cr*p that has always felt so alien. (Maybe I’m really a Martian.) Part (but only part) of what led me to actually start transition is the desire to get away from all that. I’ll probably always look like a guy in a dress, but at least once I have boobs and a dress, they won’t keep trying to rope me into those beer, fart jokes, and misogyny “bonding experiences.”

    I’m less familiar with the cr*p that women getp pushed into for being seen as female (despite my being a lifelong militant feminist), but at this point, I feel like it can’t be any worse.

  3. Siobhan says

    #1 @purrs

    You’re right. I should just do a gender neutral erotic massage workshop and say “here are 6 different ways people can cum with digital stimulation–your partner can probably do anywhere from 3-4 of these, so talk with them to figure it out!” Because, yeah, there’s enough variation among cis folk that not every AFAB cis woman can g-spot orgasm, so that’s functionally no different than an AMAB trans woman who has undergone bottom surgery where the g-spot is not recreated.

    Regardless, the class in question made no attempt to distinguish anatomy from gender and I still conclude that the material was not intended for me, despite my special invitation.

    #2 @AMM

    that “male” as a characterization of my anatomy is (unfortunately) pretty accurate (for now)

    I’ll ask you the question that blew my doors wide open: Your anatomy is male… according to whom, exactly?

    The entire concept of gender variance didn’t hit the public eye until, like, three months ago. Before the flurry of bathroom bills started, gender variance was a niche topic for feminists, healthcare providers, and of course gender variant folk. So few people had actually disentangled the idea that genitals = gender = sexual orientation that the common attitude of “oh, you have a dick, so you’re a boy and you’re going to grow up to marry a girl” was never challenged in my childhood. I state that it’s fair to say I was assigned male, by others, because so many aspects of my personhood had been assumed. By other people.

    Your description of puberty sounds close to mine. In my case, I knew something was wrong, but no one had the word for it. As puberty progressed I was given words like “depression” and “anxiety” but it still took until I was 20 to actually say why I was depressed and anxious. And this is why I reject ever being male: it always felt wrong. I knew it was wrong, and even explicitly stated as much several times throughout my childhood, but that feeling was never actually connected with a diagnosis or a solution, not until I went to university and actually heard the term transgender and gender dysphoria.

    That’s only my experience. I’m adamant about rejecting the designation of maleness because I’ve always known I wanted to, and I will not have the power to choose for myself taken from me. And that is why I ask, “male according to whom?” …Because people still call me male, and they always will, regardless of what I assert is true for me, regardless of whether or not I “pass,” regardless of whether or not I’m even trying to “pass.” It is impossible to please those types, those essentialists, so I don’t try to.

    Again, just my experience. Other trans or GQ folk will differ from me. All my coffee-jittered rant is trying to get at is that you have power over your perception of yourself, even if you can’t necessarily change the way others perceive you.

  4. AMM says

    I’ll ask you the question that blew my doors wide open: Your anatomy is male… according to whom, exactly?

    According to pretty much anyone who looks at my naked body, including me (HRT hasn’t done much yet.) I don’t have a problem with using “male” to describe how I look like; I mean, it’s useful to have a word to describe bodies that look like mine. I have a problem with how I look. I don’t like having a body that shouts “male”, and it’s gotten worse because my body has gotten more and more “male” looking with time.

    My problems with being assigned (and brainwashed) male didn’t start at puberty, they started before I was six (I have no memories from before then.) Everyone assumed because I had a boy-looking body that I must be A Boy, and my inability to Do Boy right was ascribed to my deliberately choosing to be stubborn and perverse just to annoy the people around me (for the lulz, I suppose), and their answer to that was verbal and emotional abuse, ostracism, and punishment and more punishment, to continue until I gave up my foolish obstinancy. By the time I was a teenager and had built up my walls and my armor enough to keep the worst out, I was pretty well permantly alienated from most of the things that most people think of as “masculine.” It was “not me” and nothing I really wanted to be, except to the extent necessary to keep people from harrassing me. Even now, 50 years later, being around a bunch of male people evokes the kind of anxiety you might have if you’re stuck in a room full of scorpions.

    I don’t know if my sense of wanting nothing to do with maleness is entirely due to that experience or whether I might have turned out trans even with the kindest of treatment. I suspect that my dislike of my body comes from this, though: what I hate most about it is looking in the mirror and seeing something so unambiguously male. It’s like being Jewish and waking up to discover you look just like Adolf Hitler.

  5. anat says

    AMM, what if people learned there isn’t such a thing as ‘doing boy/girl right’? That all hobbies, manners of dress, etc should be open to people of all bodies (and some of the behaviors currently associated with either division are just plain nasty and shouldn’t be engaged by anyone)? Wouldn’t that be a good thing for everyone? (That said, I’m all for anyone who feels gender transition might help them to explore that option. My kid is a trans boy who still likes some female coded things and is not looking forward to hanging out with the people he calls cis-dudes.)

  6. Siobhan says

    A few well known fuckbois who are tolerated on PZ’s blog didn’t make it through my filter. Go JAQ off on other blogs, I ain’t tolerating your sea lion bullshit. You’re in my house and you will not pretend you can dictate to trans folk what constitutes civil treatment.


    If you did make it through, please proceed. 🙂

  7. AMM says

    Anat @5:

    I don’t live in your “what if” world and never did. I am what the non-what-if world of my past has made me, and there is no way to undo that damage. If you want to change the world so it isn’t a “what if” any more, I’ll cheer you on, but understand that it is no longer relevant to where my life is going.

    In some small way, the world is changing. I’ve met families that listened to their trans children and took what they were saying seriously and have let them live the way they need to live, and I’ve read and heard their stories. And every time I hear them I shed tears of joy that some child, somewhere, won’t have to go through what I and many people like me went through.

    But they’re still a tiny minority.

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