I’ve struggled over the last four weeks with a post bashing around inside my skull. It seems unable to escape but also unable to calm down. I’ve wanted to write a rather lengthy post about language and the problems that I see with certain tendencies in trans* advocacy these days around language. But every time I go long-form, there’s so much that I can’t find a place to stop. So then I tried to go short-form, but that didn’t convey the real difficulty of the topic I wanted to engage. So now I’m going in a completely different direction, with a seemingly unrelated introduction and then, probably, a short-form take on the topic itself, allowing you all to take from it what you will, given the context provided by the introduction/preface.
So a good, long time ago, the internationally celebrated center of learning that is UMM ran into a spot of difficulty: apparently some right wing jerks were being right wing jerks. Whodathunkit. Usernames are Smart, a longtime commenter whose work and thoughts I remember as generally respectable and valuable*1, disagreed with PZ Myers suggestion that Morris residents treat as trash any scattered copies of the Young Republican rag “The North Star”. (Yes, they deliberately stole the name from the abolitionist newspaper of Frederick Douglas, which famously included one of the only ads promoting the Seneca Falls “convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman” to run outside of the State of New York).
I disagreed with Usernames’ disagreement, and said so. The crux was that while I agree that white people should be accountable to people of color when attempting to address racism in the US, I disagreed that suggesting actions (like trashing any “scattered” copies of The North Star that weren’t in their designated paper-piles) was the same as telling people from other groups what experiences define their groups. I also disagreed that waiting for people of color to plan a response is the right course of action when a white person is confronted with racism in that person’s presence. This doesn’t mean that white folk should be praise for anything they do, just for taking action. No, this is merely the natural consequence of refusing to put people of color on the spot, to make people of color responsible for ending racism.
When suggested reactions (or actual reactions) turn out to be counter-productive (or simply widely disliked) by the communities of color directly affected by a specific racist action, then the un-fun begins: we white people get to accept accountability for our errors. But this is not simple, nor is it black-or-white. I wrote at the time:
when the groups most affected don’t have a reasonably cohesive message – when there is disagreement – white folk have to use our critical thinking to make a decision about how to proceed. Disagreement among folk of color over best response tactics doesn’t relieve white folk of the responsibility to act to end racism.
… both when there is and when there isn’t a reasonably cohesive message, critical thinking must be engaged to make sure that you don’t do something unethical just because the idea arose from communities of color. Sometimes this is as easy as refusing to stand with those who would launch a war, but other times it requires asking difficult questions about whether the people of color most able to get attention to their analysis/perspective are in fact people who really represent the folk targeted by a particular racist action. Horizontal hostility, sexism, classism, ableism, all these can affect what responses get recommended.
We don’t get a free pass to enact sexism because we are fighting racism.
We get, if we have good and honest friends, the gift of accountability on all the moral dimensions of our choices all at once.
That sure sounds like a crap deal, doesn’t it? And yet it’s true. We can’t fail to act because we have unearned privilege. Neither can we fail to act when injustices target a marginalized community that hasn’t (yet) achieved unanimity. I mean, think about it. You can’t take advice from Thurgood Marshall because some college student named Clarence Thomas resents the existence of affirmative action programs? That’s a recipe for everlasting injustice.
So, here we get to The Big Disagreement.
Certain people, including people I respect, including Siggy and Shiv here on this network, have advocated using words related to gender and sex very differently from how I would choose. Shiv has quoted (IIRC) Julia Serano discussing how referring to certain trans* women as “male” is never acceptable. Siggy wrote A personal style guide on sex vs gender which included some important parts, such as
Some people say that “woman” refers to gender, while “female” refers to sex. I think this is incorrect, on both the descriptive and prescriptive level.
Now, I agree with Siggy’s analysis of the descriptive: people can and do use these words interchangeably. I disagree with Siggy’s analysis on the prescriptive level:
When we think about “male” and “female”, so many of our associations are with gender. If we tell people that “male” and “female” are really referring to sex, we are making it really easy to associate sex with gender.
Think about what Siggy is saying here: we are inappropriately associating sex with gender to the extent that the words that are nominally about biological categories (male and female) have been misused to the point that “so many of our associations are with gender”. This leads Siggy to assert that any attempt to re-distinguish sex from gender leads to a sort of recreation of awareness of the sexed-connotations of male and female, and thus cements those associations with the gender associations just discussed to create a jumbled aggregate that is even less subject to change over time.
Well, okay. I get the idea behind giving up on male and female, but conceding the meaning of male and female to the reactionaries and the confused doesn’t actually do anything to disassociate sex from gender either. You still need to be able to speak about bodies separately from personalities. How do we do that? Unsurprisingly for such an intractable problem, Siggy can’t give us the cure-all we would like:
If I want to talk about specific physical characteristics (e.g. if it’s medically relevant), I refer to the physical characteristics by name. For example, the two most common chromosomal types are not “female” and “male” but XX and XY.
If I want to talk about a whole cluster of physical characteristics, I talk about male-typical or female-typical characteristics.
Okay, but how is “male typical” less affected by gender-associations than “male”. And if we can’t use “male” to refer to certain aspects of certain bodies because the word has too many gender associations to do so without retrenching the concept of binary and biologically fixed gender that always matches expectations of genital shape, then why can we use “male typical” to do the same thing? Is there any language that we can use?
Some people have a particular attachment to the phrases “people with vaginas” or “people with penises”. This is awkward, and as an ace blogger I can say that not everyone wishes to hear about genitals all the time. Also some gender dysphoric people would prefer not to be reminded of their genitals all the time.
Definitely true. I want to make it clear that I agree with this. But what is the import of this for our communication choices? When we’re speaking of giving birth or testicular cancer or some aspect of fertility, we can’t use “female” because that confuses sex with gender, and we can’t use “vaginas” because that’s too blunt, too harsh, too personal, too invasive. So what can we say?
Ultimately: nothing. Though it’s not Siggy’s intent to silence anyone, and I greatly appreciate Siggy actually making an overt attempt to grapple with these difficult issues, this particular post over on A Trivial Knot has much more to say about thinking carefully about when you might be discussing gender despite a personal tendency to think you’re talking about sex than it has to say about how to actually talk about sex. Combined with the admonitions to avoid certain language, there’s no real way around that without a supplement to Siggy’s post, we’re left in the difficult position of having literally no language at all that safely communicates membership in a sex category so that we can discuss risks or experiences that do differ based on body types.
In my work I have consistently, some would say relentlessly, attempted to keep a clear distinction between sex and gender, but I have not attempted to shy away from using terms like “female” or “male”. I have used phrases like “female men” to communicate very specific ideas that depend on nakedly facing the locations where equating sex and gender becomes untenable. I do this for very specific reasons: unlike some other trans* persons, I am transsexual.
Now, I’m not classically feminine. In fact, many would not call me feminine at all. Yet my gender expression, as unfeminine as it might be in some mainstream heterosexual spaces, is entirely unexceptional for a woman in the dyke-centered queer spaces I frequent.
This is important to understand: in my subculture, I do not (egregiously) violate expectations of gender. Rather, I violate the expectation of others that a person of my gender will have a certain sex. Though I seek (as all radical feminists seek) to eliminate compulsory gender, so long as I do not venture too far from my home community it is not expectations of gender that primarily affect my ability to participate in society. Rather, it is expectations of sex. In framing the most recently quoted part of the style guide, Siggy says:
what if I actually want to talk about someone’s physical characteristics? It depends on the context. In many contexts, people aren’t really interested in talking about physical characteristics, but are using physical characteristics as a proxy to talk about whether they’re cis or trans, and whether they’ve transitioned or not. That is, usually we’re not really interested in sex, but rather gender and gender history.
Unfortunately, I have to disagree. I find far too many people are constantly interested in the contents of my pants. There are multiple genres of porn designed to satisfy the curiosities and desires of cisfolk interested in trans* bodies. Moreover, this is entirely geared for the non-trans*. What about me? I have to be able to speak about my own body. If I concede to the reactionaries and the confused that male merely means man (because it’s too hard to get people to understand the separateness of biology and psychology), how do I narrate my own story? Can I say penis? But, no. As Siggy anticipated, **I** am not comfortable using such specific terms, not least because I have accumulated extensive anecdotal evidence that if I use such words, the people wanting to press me for sexed, sexy and sexualized details of my history will only be emboldened, and will frequently fail to hear the unsexy, non-sexualized details of my history that are nonetheless sexed. In addition, as Siggy also mentioned, such language isn’t exactly welcome among any random audience I might have.
So where do we go from here? Shiv and Serano are undoubtedly correct that referring to trans* women as male (regardless whether they were AFAB) is a tactic of marginalization, dehumanization, and dismissal on the part of far too many who use it. Siggy is undoubtedly correct that female and male feel more familiar to the English-speaker’s ear when expecting an adjective than do man and woman.
But the fact remains, that without an adequate plan for how we can discuss trans* history and experience, erecting female = woman as a rule of reasonable speech only makes education efforts more difficult.
Imagine a world in which I could be almost-universally understood when saying that at age 21 I had male privilege but not men’s privilege. The concept of male privilege is indeed desperately confused by the conflation of maleness with the status of being a man. Yet, it’s not reasonably deniable that there are some privileges that I did have as a result of a male body that related directly to that body, that were unearned, and that relate to societal vectors of oppression. For instance, a hugely disproportionate amount of medical research is performed on male subjects. Though we have socially constructed the category “male” and though there are probably many therapies and illnesses that will not significantly differ along the lines of our constructed female/male split, some risks really do appear to be statistically different for the two different demographic groups. Because of this, when the risks are the same for the two groups, I lost nothing by the biased research.
When the risks differ, I benefitted from the biased research. There was no reason for my health to be prioritized over the health of my trans*masculine or ciswomen friends. And yet it was. This was an unearned privilege, and can only reasonably be described as a male privilege. On the other hand, there are privileges of men as a group in which I did not share. Discussions of gender oppression and sex oppression could both greatly benefit from being able to make these distinctions, yet those discussions only become less possible if we accept Serano’s positively-motivated insistence that trans*women are not and have never been male and Siggy’s reluctance to use sex terms as terms for bodies because confusion between sex and gender exists.
There are many tensions in this discussion. One that stands out for me is the tension between harm reduction and eradication. While trans* women are raped and killed in part because of the myth of the deceptive trans woman (or “trap”), it may very well be useful in preventing violence to convince the vast majority of people that referring to trans* women’s bodies as male is inappropriate at any time and when describing any moment in a trans* woman’s life. Yet truly eliminating trans* oppression requires understanding the sex/gender distinctions that we’ve been attempting to articulate to the cis community for many decades now.
I can hear Serano’s statements with the benefit of having met with her at conferences and having read her books so that I can confidently say that she doesn’t mean this “ban” to constrain individuals attempting to define or even just explain themselves or experiences. Nor, I am sure, does she mean this ban to constrain the partners and close friends of trans* folk, assuming that those folk have taken the time to truly learn what a given trans* person would want communicated and to whom. In short, Serano means this to be a ban on using words like female and male to describe anyone who doesn’t voluntarily accept a specific word or description as authentically representing themselves, and simultaneously a ban on using these words to describe persons who do accept the descriptions/labels if the author/speaker doesn’t have clearly communicated consent to use those words in the context they are actually used and with the audience that actually hears them. As a consequence, this means that accepting Serano’s advice would require that sexed words are never used to refer to large groups of trans* folks, since it is impossible to have crystal clear consent for such descriptions from everyone in the affected group. I infer Shiv, also, to be treating Serano’s suggested rule as something that should be interpreted in a specific context which allows for greater self-determination than the statement appears at first glance to allow.
For Siggy, I am less certain, but I strongly suspect that Siggy never intended admonitions about how easily sex and gender can be confused to constrain actual trans* people trying to explain their own lives and experiences.
But here’s the thing: whether or not I am correct about Shiv, Serano and Siggy, there are explicit conflicts between their positions and mine. I disagree with Siggy that public confusion about a topic could ever be a reason to accept the confusion of two concepts and move on. If two concepts have been confused, then people for whom the concepts are relevant need and deserve education about how those concepts are distinct. Sure, this is much more difficult in this case than in the case of the Copenhagen Interpretation since actually understanding the Copenhagen Interpretation is relevant to far fewer persons’ lives than are human bodies and human genders. But I don’t see the fact that it’s a big job as a reason to give up.
Likewise, in relation to both Serano and Siggy’s statements, I find it unhelpful to suggest avoiding language without giving a good idea to folks what language might take the place of the now-obsolete terms. We must be able to speak about these things, and while I’m sympathetic to the idea of taking some language off the table (at the very least taking the language off the table when not in certain specific settings where the audience can be expected to have additional knowledge that public settings cannot guarantee), in too many cases lately I’ve heard other trans* folks talking about the importance of not using certain language without doing the work of providing reasonable suggested replacements.
Yes, we have to end the dehumanization that targets queer, trans* & intersex folk who are so often lumped together as trans (even when they’re not). Yes, we might have to take steps to prevent violence now while working on that longer goal. We have to do both. At the same time. Really well, because the consequences are so very serious.
And so what can you, reader, do, faced with contradictory advice coming from multiple different people engaging the same topic with so much thought and passion and competence?
You get to make your choices and you get to accept accountability. If I or other white trans* folk over-emphasize eradication when the worst violence targeting trans* women most frequently targets trans* women of color, then I will be accountable to those who have a better system for managing immediate risks to the most vulnerable members of my community. If some transgender people move forward with language that assumes that bodies are private and should not be the focus of any trans* related education, they’ll have to be accountable to the transsexual people among us who point out that without understanding our bodies as sexed, we can’t access treatments that alter aspects of sex except as cosmetic efforts, and thus as efforts we undertake at our own expense when we are already at much greater risk of job discrimination and poverty. If cisfolk fail to understand the differences in perspective between transgender folk and transsexual folk, they will have to be accountable when they make efforts towards justice that fail one or both those communities because of those understandings. Transmasculine folk will make mistakes that require accountability to transfeminine folk. The reverse will also be true. We trans* folk have already failed intersex people in many ways and will continue to do so in the future. Such mistakes also necessitate accountability.
So, yes. Read Siggy. Read Shiv on her own and when she’s quoting Serano. Read me some more if you like. But none of us have the one perfect take on what to do next, on which words to use and when, which words not to use ever and why. None of us have the perfect education program laid out that will serve the world’s effort to transform its gender-compulsory systems to entirely voluntary behaviors and associations.
Ultimately, this revolution is yours whether you are trans* or not. You can read anyone you like, but none of us will give you answers. At the end of your path of learning will remain more than one fork you may take. Sometimes you will be confronted with choices none of which lead to good places. As scary as it may be, the choice, and the consequences, are still yours.
Okay, that wasn’t short-form at all, but at least it’s done.
*1: If I’m wrong and Usernames has a history of trolling some folks or other bad behaviors, I’m sorry, but I don’t remember it. I remember Usernames positively, if not extensively.