Sophistry And Semantics

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.


  1. Tori says

    I don’t know Natalie, I think it’s good that the terms gender expression and gender identity are being employed, specifically because they have definitions that are almost exclusive to the transgender community. Competent lawyers can and have argued that persecution based upon “gender” does not apply specifically to transgender people. But with the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression”, these lawyers can’t really make that argument. Indeed, these terms suggest a degree of difference between legal protection on the basis of gender, and that degree of difference would be a much better foundation for legal protection than the catch-all “gender”, which is too vague to specifically protect transgender people.

    Are the terms less than perfect? Well, yeah. Are the terms existing for transgender people to point to as a foundation for being able to make claims of persecution on the basis of being transgender a good thing? Yes. And I don’t think any amount of political maneuvering while eliminate that all important degree of difference.

    I will concede any of these arguments if the Canadian legal system doesn’t function like how I think it does, but for the most part, I am cautiously hopeful about C-279.

    • says

      I wasn’t suggesting it would have been better to simply say “gender” and leave it at that. If what I were supporting were the bullshit “trans people are already technically protected already!” argument, I wouldn’t care whether or not the bill passed at all, would I?

      I meant something very different: that is a bill in which we say “gender”, then define “gender” in contrast to “sex” (and independent of it), in the context of human rights law, and with the definition being specifically and delibately tailored to prioritize the protection of transgender and otherwise gender-minority canadians (with “conventional” sexism and misogyny being covered under “sex”). I believe that would provide both the necessary breadth and necessary specificity for the legal protections for all trans folk.

      The problem is that, as is, the bill is probably going to have to both define “gender identity” (a term I think is a lot worse than “less than perfect”), AND drop “gender expression” altogether. That will leave great big huge gaping loopholes to fuck over a whole lot of people (example: “Sure, okay, ‘Tess’, you can ‘identify as’ a woman, but you still have to wear the male uniform to work”… also a total absence of protection for cross-dressers, drag queens, and any gender variant groups who don’t center on “gender identity”, and the potential for ongoing abuses to anyone not perceived to fit “gender identity” as the concept is conventionally understood, with genderqueer and non-binary folk being a prime target). It will create a situation, again, where trans people can’t rely and depend on the law, and will instead have to continue worrying whether or not the way it is argued, applied and enforced will work for or (more likely) against us.

  2. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    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?

    Like so many things that have to do with the legal system, it’s less about finding a “good” choice and more about finding which path causes the lesser amount of active harm. Sometimes democracy is pretty shitty.

    Glad to see you posting again Natalie, hope you’re doing okay.

  3. sc_cde70fe0fa23ef54e79d7b3f1672b305 says

    “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.”

    I totally disagree with this assessment, Natalie. There is no “narrow range necessary for legal definition. This is the same idea people like Cathy Brennan have been pushing, that terms such as “gender identity” need be defined in law. That’s simply not how good laws work. Good laws work by relying upon what is recognised as the generally accepted common meaning of those words, and leaving in a very important and necessary vaugeness that is our ultimate protection.

    To protect “gender identity” is to protect all genders. To protect “gender expression” is to protect all expressions, without enshrining any particular form. This is the power of this language. Precise definitions are neither necessary or useful.

    Otherwise, as usual, excellent article with lots of good points for consideration. (And as usual, the server screws up my login credentials)


    Gemma Seymour-Amper

    • says

      Correction: “narrow range of legal definiton AS DEFINED BY people like Conservative MPs and the Canadian Supreme Court, who remain those in the position to define the law through enforcement”.

      It doesn’t matter if WE know that legal definitions don’t have to be all that narrow to work in theory. If it’s “too broad” or “too vague” for those in power, they won’t support it. And if it’s broad and vague in such a way that they can abuse it and use it to subjugate us, they can and WILL.

      And the truth, Gemma, is that we DON’T have anything even resembling a consistent “common usage” for “gender expression” and “gender identity”. The latter looks like we do, but the second you seriously ask “what does ‘identifies as’ mean?”, one notices the definition is recursive and tautological. The lack of meaningful, consistent “common use” is why trans people have to use glossaries even when writing for other trans people. And why so many of my comments are me having to correct “what I meant by” my use of such a term.

  4. Sinéad says

    As in the case of your Dad and cooking…if your dad was denied a home or job or was made fun of at work for “cooking” because that’s “women’s work” then yes, it would be “gender expression” even if it wasn’t an existential part of how he operates in the world. I think that protecting “gender expression” should encompass transgressions of traditional gender roles to augment protections against sexism.

  5. Sinéad says

    As far as sophism, the only sophism I see is from the transphobes. TERFs are now utilizing “trans-critical” as a deceptive way to frame the argument in their favor that their just voicing their concerns that we are victims or some other bullshit. Or they change words around from womyn-born-womyn to vagina-owners to (oops how to exclude post op trans* women without being called out as transphobes) something else. That is sophistry.

    What makes human brains significant is little more than a giant pattern recognition buffer trying to make sense of perceived data. It’s why people see the virgin mary in toast burns. What was once just a survival mechanism to protect us from predators now makes us see patterns in stock prices and inductively conclude that there is a predictive behavior that is mediated by an invisible hand (job) of the free market. Everything about who any of us are existentially is literally just a construct our brains create in order to make sense of our perceptions.

    So, was it just semantics when Copernicus, Kepler and Gallileo tried to convince the world that the Earth was not the center of the universe? Was it sophistry to suggest that position and momentum cannot be fully known simultaneously even though it only applicable in the subatomic world and at high energies?

    Much is the same, we don’t have a mathematical model, we have a linguistic model, to parse out what our lives as trans* people are.

  6. Sinéad says

    I should also say that I bring up that last point about physics as very important. The Newtonian paradigm is very powerful, it can land a human on the moon or a rover on Mars. You don’t need an Einsteinian paradigm to do it. But ultimately, the Newtonian paradigm is wrong. I liken this to what you said about voicing our identities in the framework given to us by cis people or the cis-patriarchy.

    Sure, it’s easier to say you’re experiencing zero gravity in space, rather than explaining that ones orbital velocity is such that while in freefall, we are continually “missing the Earth.” But it is wrong to say “zero g” because gravity acts at infinity even if it is asymptotically zero.

  7. A. Person says

    Well, I’ve noticed that the language debate of word choice and the degree to which those choices are problematic sometimes end up being silencing in and of itself. It ends up being exclusionary of those who do not know or use the accepted jargon. Especially when the discussion turns to X is problematic, and the conversation doesn’t end up providing alternatives.

    I think that we can formulate less problematic and more inclusive language, but that can only come from dialog that develops from self-narratives that give greater visibility to other identities. I’ve toyed with the idea of a submission-based trans* self-narrative site, but I’ve been stuck on exactly how to solicit a broad range of narratives. (And if anybody is inspired to do this before I get around to it, feel free.)

    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.

    Well, I think this is more due to empathic limits, especially when it comes to recognizing and fighting a problem that may not be immediately apparent to eir. The iterative process to recognizing human rights sucks, but I’m not sure if anything else is implementable.

  8. Cluisanna says

    Powerful article.

    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.

    I think this is important for everybody, not only trans* people. I, at least, felt very moved by it, since it explains so wonderfully one of the most important aspects of every fight against oppression. I might have to plaster that quote everywhere.

  9. im says

    I am… getting confused. From the outside, it seems like you are asymtotically pushing toward a point at which nobody can say that any word even peripherally connected to gender can have a meaning, or at least have a meaning that is even vaguely comprehensible to >99% of the population.

    It seems like you are trying to inflate the exceptions to the rules until the rules are entirely made out of exceptions. You did say you won’t smash them with the hammer of justice, but still…

    I know that you woudn’t do that intentionally. Are these extremely subdivided, deconstructed sets of terminology meant to be only for trans people to use, or only for using to discuss trans people, or for trans people to talk about themselves, in a highly educated or technical or whatever context? (using the broadest credible definition of trans people here.) Are they for advanced gender theory, or what?


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