[Image: Side-by-side self-portraits of Pax. On the left they are wearing a V-necked shirt with cap sleeves and an ornate black-and-white pattern. On the right they are wearing a short-sleeved peach-colored button-down collared shirt.]
[Image: A transgender symbol with word endings “-ed,” “-er,” and “-ism” arranged around it.]
I love language. Reading and writing have always been among my strongest skills and interests. I’m fascinated by the richness and evolution of the English language, and how it differs from the other languages I’ve studied.
But I’m aware that not everyone has the knowledge and education level that I do, especially when it comes to language about transgender issues. So while I make efforts to educate people about the questionable accuracy and potential harm of certain word choices, I am concerned when people – including some within the trans community – take an overly narrow stance on acceptable terminology.
Trans activist Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl, talked about this in a recent post about the terms “trans*” and “transgenderism.” She explained the history of these terms, and how they were not always looked upon as negative or exclusionary in the way that many see them as now. She especially questions the recent notion that “trans*” is inherently transmisogynistic. As she laments, “the trans community seems to have a historical memory permanently limited to only 2-4 years back.”
Another trans author and activist, the late Matt Kailey, also discussed this issue regarding the term “transgendered.” He insisted that this construction is grammatically correct, and said that it did not begin to be seen as negative or offensive until relatively recently. He ultimately gave up the battle, but said he would never change his mind on this issue.
A commenter on Serano’s blog linked to another post about the term “trans*” that talked about “inclusion theater,” which the author, Natalie Reed, described as follows:
“Inclusion Theater” is a term I use to refer to any instance where exceptional energy is being put into presenting an outward PERFORMANCE or APPEARANCE of inclusion or “progressiveness”, while neglecting (or at the expense of), actual meaningful ACTIONS and MANIFESTATIONS of inclusivity or intersectionality.
She went on to elaborate:
Putting an asterisk on the end of “trans” is INCREDIBLY EASY. A lot easier than actually working towards making spaces, events, projects, organizations or instutions [sic] GENUINELY trans / genderqueer inclusive.
I feel this way about correcting people on using words like “transgendered” or “transgenderism.” I will correct this usage in Wikipedia articles and the like, but especially when educating cis people, I’m much more interested in them putting in the work to make trans and nonbinary people safe, welcome, and fairly represented. Restroom use, access to gendered spaces, recognition of trans people of color, and many other issues besides respectful language need to be addressed.
Words have power; words are important. But so is action. Trans and nonbinary people need to take the lead both on the words used to describe us and the actions necessary to allow us to lead safe, authentic lives. In doing so, we need to understand the history of our language, and recognize the intent behind the words.
[Image: The band Sugar in the Salt performs on an indoor stage. Maia Papaya plays upright bass while Eli Conley plays acoustic guitar and sings into a microphone.]
Last night I attended a fundraiser concert at El Rio by the folk group Sugar in the Salt, hosted by Causa Justa :: Just Cause to support San Francisco Proposition I in the upcoming election. This initiative would put an 18-month moratorium on new market-rate housing in the Mission District.
I’ve lived in San Francisco for over twelve years, and have seen the rents rise from merely expensive to totally out of reach for all but the wealthy. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Mission, and met many of the residents during the three years I did food justice volunteer work at the Free Farm Stand. This city desperately needs more truly affordable housing.
I’ve given up on political parties, but I’m still registered to vote specifically so that I can vote on ballot measures like this. Hear about gentrification in the Mission from someone who lives there, Kai OD, in this video:
Aside from the good cause, the main reason I attended this concert was to watch the performance of my voice teacher, Eli Conley, and his bandmate Maia Papaya. Eli has personal experience with voice changes on testosterone, and is helping me adjust to my new singing range. It’s been an emotionally difficult experience, even though I knew to anticipate it, and it’s great to have the guidance of someone who has gone through it himself.
Maia Papaya is a fun cheerful person and talented multi-instrumentalist. Maia and Eli were both great to listen to as well as photograph.
Every time I read another story about anti-trans discrimination, what infuriates me the most is seeing cis people make excuses for their oppressive behavior. In this case, a teenage trans girl, Lila Perry, was bullied for using the girl’s restroom at her school. Quotes include:
“I’m not trying to be ignorant, but [the transgender student] is bringing it out in public for everybody else to deal with.”
“The way I was raised, I have no problem with a transgender, but he shouldn’t be in the women’s locker room until he has the surgery.”
“The girls have rights, and they shouldn’t have to share a bathroom with a boy.”
“As a parent, it’s my right to educate my child, to make decisions on when it’s appropriate for my child to understand things about the opposite sex.”
These statements are ignorant, literally. Trans girls are girls, not boys, males, or the “opposite sex.” Whether they have had surgery or not is entirely irrelevant. Anatomy does not define gender or sex.
If you have a problem with trans people using restrooms matching our gender identities, regardless of our body configurations, then you have a problem with trans people, period. Don’t claim you have “no problem” with us and then misgender us and tell us to have “the surgery” before using the same facilities as cis people.
This bullying has to stop. We just need to pee.
In my blog entry on nonbinary erasure a couple weeks back, I mentioned that when I tried to comment on an article on MTV.com, I found that they only had “female” and “male” gender options on their account creation form. I sent a quick note to customer support, asking that they add a fill-in-the-blank or “Other” option for nonbinary people.
Today, they replied!
In reply to your inquiry “Gender options for accounts”:
Thank you for your note regarding our sign-up process. We have made changes to include additional sign-up options.
I went back to the site to confirm:
[Image: A web form with the heading “Create an Account to Comment.” Circled in red is the Gender section with the options Female, Male, and Other.]
Hooray for small victories! Also, check out this new Everyday Feminism article on nonbinary erasure and what you can do about it.
[Image: Banner reading #BlackTransLivesMatter Day of Action 8/25/15. Behind the words are black and white photos of trans women of color who have been murdered.]
Today is #BlackTransLiberationTuesday, a day of action to call for an end to the epidemic of violence facing black trans women. I’ve written previously about this state of emergency, and the importance of trans people telling our own stories to dispel the ignorance and myths that lead to anti-trans discrimination and aggression.
Black trans women are particularly vulnerable to violence as they face multiple axes of oppression. Even those who “pass” – i.e., meet society’s cisnormative assumptions of what a woman should look like – have to deal with everyday racism and sexism, which impacts their access to education, employment, health care, and housing. They are affected by the same media bias and police profiling as black cis women. Some turn to sex work to survive, with all the inherent risk and stigma that entails. Many end up as victims of the prison-industrial complex.
Repeating the names of our fallen sisters is one way to emphasize the urgency of the situation. But we must not merely pathologize black trans women. We need to celebrate them. We need to celebrate those who can transition, and those who cannot. Those who live as openly trans, and those who do not. Those who are disabled, and those who are not. Those who are straight, lesbian, bisexual, queer, pansexual, asexual, or any other orientation.
Here are the stories of two living black trans women who don’t have the celebrity profile of Laverne Cox:
Alena Bradford is a woman living in Georgia. Economic circumstances forced her to move back in with her mother and live as a man.
Get to know black trans women. Don’t solely mourn their deaths. Celebrate their lives.
[Image: Orange banner with “U.S. Trans Survey” in white letters, and “Available to Complete Now” in a blue box.]
This morning I completed the U.S. Trans Survey, from the National Center for Transgender Equality. This survey for trans and nonbinary people living in the U.S. had an impressive amount of detail. As today is the first day the survey is available, server response time is slow; I recommend giving yourself plenty of time to complete it. Also be aware that many of the questions are potentially triggering.
Near the end of the survey, one of the questions presented a list of issues of concern to trans people, including violence, health care, homelessness, identification documents, and so forth. The question asked to assign importance (Very/Somewhat/Not) to each of these, and then to rank the three most important from the list. As my top priorities, I chose violence, police violence, and school bullying and discrimination.
While I have been fortunate not to experience any trans-specific physical violence or overt bullying myself – yet – these issues are critical to address. Trans women of color are particularly targeted for violence. Seventeen trans women – that we know about – have been murdered in 2015, and fifteen of them were women of color. Trans actress and activist Laverne Cox has described this as a “state of emergency.” Even the mainstream Time Magazine has taken notice.
As noted by those quoted in the Time article, increased visibility of trans people has not halted the continuing problems that disproportionately affect us, including poverty, bullying, unemployment, and violence. Most of the general public still doesn’t understand trans and nonbinary people, and that ignorance can lead to overt acts of hate and fear, as well as more subtle discrimination that still has devastating and lasting effects.
Education led by trans and nonbinary people – telling our own stories – is part of what will help dispel the ignorance. That’s a large part of why I started this blog, and why I urge people to stop focusing on our body parts when talking about gender identity. Performing cisnormativity – “passing” as a cis person – should not be the determiner of acceptance for a trans person. Whether a person has a beard or breasts, whether they wear a skirt or pants, their gender identity should be accepted without question.
We cannot continue to allow cis people to define who we are, what we can have access to, and what rights we are allowed to have. Cis allies can help by honoring our names and pronouns, sharing our stories, and speaking out against cissexist language, wherever it occurs.
We must put a stop to this epidemic of violence against trans people, women in particular. Visibility is not enough.
[Image: A glass partly filled with an amber liquid sites on an outdoor table.]
When I came to realize that I was trans, the first thing I wanted to do was change my name. I announced my name change on social media two years ago, but it took a great deal of time and expense – and a court hearing – to change my name and gender on all of my identification documents. (I still haven’t changed my birth certificate, as my home state requires surgery for that.)
During this time, I carried ID that still listed my birth-assigned gender and, as many trans people refer to it, “dead name.” Whenever I used a credit card to pay for a purchase, I had to sign that name that I no longer related to. I could deal with that; I had no choice. But what I couldn’t deal with was a clerk reading that name off of my card out loud. “Thank you, Miss Deadname. Have a nice day.”*
I knew they were just being polite. I knew they had likely been trained to do this. It did not lessen the impact. Being misgendered can feel like anything from a pinprick to a punch in the face, but it almost always hurts.
I’m writing about this now because Sam Dylan Finch blogged recently about Starbucks outing customers by reading their names off of their debit cards. On Facebook he mentioned that several former Starbucks employees told him this was company policy. I usually pay cash at cafés so I haven’t experienced this, but as mentioned above I’ve definitely been deadnamed by grocery clerks, and once by a door guard at a bar.
Reading someone’s name aloud in this manner is an invasion of privacy. And it’s not just an issue for trans people. Many cis people go by different names from what’s printed on their IDs; a nickname or a middle name, for example. Now, if a man named John Joseph Doe goes by Joe and is called John by the barista, it might just be confusing, or slightly embarrassing. But say a woman who is going through a painful divorce still has her husband’s last name on her card. Is it worth risking traumatizing her at the grocery checkout by reading that name out loud, in the interest of “politeness?”
When this sort of topic comes up, people will inevitably complain about “political correctness.” But the issue here is treating people with respect. It’s just as polite to say “Thank you, have a nice day” without sticking a “Miss Deadname” in the middle of that sentence. The consequences of offending a customer who expects a more formal form of address are minor compared to the consequences of inadvertently outing a trans person. Keep in mind that sixteen trans women of color have been murdered this year.
Respect our privacy. Ask us personally for our names and pronouns if you need to know them. Don’t just assume we all go by what’s printed on a corporate or government-issued piece of plastic.
* I should clarify that I changed my entire name, not just my first name, when I transitioned. Being referred to by my previous last name is painful for me.
[Image: The signup page for Facebook. The words Female and Male are circled in red.]
Yesterday I read a great response from agender writer Tyler Ford to the question “Do I Have A Penis Or A Vagina?” (Spoiler: You should never ask this question of anyone.) When I went to leave a comment, MTV.com offered me the option to link to my Facebook or Twitter account, or create an account on the site. I chose the latter, and then was presented with a signup form that asked me to specify my gender: Female or Male. Highly ironic considering the author of the article is neither female nor male.
In the course of my gender transition I’ve become increasingly aware of nonbinary erasure. Some sites, like Google, have added nonbinary options, though they are usually hidden under a “More” option, or allow gender to remain unspecified. Facebook added custom gender options years ago, but in order to sign up for a new account, you still need to specify Female or Male first (as seen in the screenshot at the top of this post). Yahoo requires Male or Female to be specified at account creation as well.
My assumption is that this forced binary gendering is for the benefit of advertisers, whose systems probably aren’t set up to handle anything other than two genders. Considering the backlash at the idea of degendering children’s products, it seems US-Americans still believe that men and women have fundamentally different needs when it comes to shopping. And as for people who aren’t men or women, well, I guess we don’t exist.
I’ve started sending messages to customer support when I see only Male and Female options presented on a form. I’ve had mixed results thus far. Two years ago I signed up for an account with Rovio so that I could save my Angry Birds scores online. I sent this message:
Why do I need to specify my gender in order to register? My gender has nothing to do with my gameplay. And the two options given, “Male” and “Female”, are actually sexes, not genders.
We are very sorry to hear that you are upset about our registration form. The inquiry includes gender due to marketing reasons and to ease the targeting of certain campaigns, games etc. We apologize for the inconvenience caused for you and we hope that you can still enjoy the games!
I had better luck with Wikimedia, when I contacted them after responding to a survey last year:
Hello, I just made my annual donation to Wikipedia after receiving the fundraising e-mail from Jimmy Wales, and I took the survey afterwards. On the last page I was asked to specify my gender, and the two options presented were Female and Male. Please note that Female and Male are sexes, not genders, and not everyone identifies as one of these. Please consider adding options of “Other” (with or without a fill-in box) and “Decline to State” to this question on your survey in the future.
Thank you for your email and your support for the Wikimedia Foundation and free knowledge. Thank you also for your suggestion about the extra options for the survey. It’s a good one, and we will add it to the existing list of proposed improvements. We may have higher priorities to implement in the immediate term, but appreciate your input in making the donation process the best it can be.
I’m going to keep sending short messages like this, though I’ll probably drop the bit about male and female being sexes rather than genders, as I don’t want to confuse people too much in this setting; I just want them to be aware that nonbinary people exist. I’ll also consider not signing up for sites and services that require a binary gender to be specified. I declined to sign up for MTV.com, for example, though I did send a message to customer support first.
Another nonbinary person who has been far more active in this area is Cassian, aka on mxactivist on Tumblr. Amongst other things, they’re working to get the title Mx included on every form in the UK. That gender-neutral title is already gaining official recognition there. I’m not terribly fond of it myself, but I do hope it catches on in the US, so nonbinary people can specify a title other than Mr, Ms, Miss, or Mrs. (Justin Vivian Bond is one notable nonbinary person in the USA who goes by Mx.)
Even if you’re not nonbinary, you can help stop nonbinary erasure by sending quick e-mails to customer support like the above. And speak out whenever you hear others say that people like me don’t exist, are freaks, are “special snowflakes,” or are mentally ill (though some of us are, just as some binary people are, and there’s no shame in that). As a member of the LGBT studies task force on Wikipedia, I am constantly seeing vandalism of the Genderqueer page and others like it; vandals edit the page to say that we are all autistic teenagers on Tumblr with make-believe identities. Yes, these are trolls and their vandalism is soon reverted, but being confronted with this sentiment day after day wears a person down.
Nonbinary people are not “really” biologically male or female. What we really are is exactly what we say we are, whether that’s agender, bigender, genderqueer, genderfluid, or something else entirely. (See Genderqueer Identities for a partial list.) Nonbinary genders are not new and are not going away. It’s time that society stops erasing us and starts respecting us.
For years before my transition, I complained about women’s clothes, pants in particular. The sizing was ridiculously inconsistent, and the pockets were miniscule-to-nonexistent. But I also hated purses, so for a good twenty years I strapped a fanny pack to my waist.
Switching to men’s pants, with ample pockets and sizing by waist and inseam, was a relief. I can easily fit my wallet, keys, cell phone, and miscellaneous small items in the pockets of my jeans, cargo pants, and even dress pants. On days that I’m not going shopping and not planning to be out long, I love the freedom of walking unencumbered by bags, wearing nothing but the clothes on my back.
Recently I read an article on the gendered nature of encumbrance, which made me think more about why women are expected to carry their possessions in bags and men are not. I rarely see a man carrying a tote bag (which is part of why I switched back to wearing a backpack after my transition). Women are expected to do more of the childcare, grocery shopping (sometimes with young children in tow), and the like, so would be more likely to have diaper bags and other things for children.
In addition to the other issues the author points out (being expected to carry items for others), cosmetics may also play a factor. I remember when I was still being sent women’s clothing catalogs, I’d read descriptions of tiny purses having “just enough room for the summer essentials: A lipstick and compact.” I haven’t worn makeup in over fifteen years, so I can’t really relate to this, but I feel strongly that people of any gender should be able to wear makeup without being judged for it. And for some trans women, a careful makeup application can make the difference between having a peaceful day and being outed and violently assaulted.
The sturdiness of men’s versus women’s clothes isn’t something I had thought of much, but makes sense, sadly. I currently buy most of my clothes from secondhand and discount stores. When I first started shopping for men’s pants, I was surprised to see a whole line of sturdy work clothes I had never seen in a women’s clothing section. People of all genders do manual labor, of course, but it isn’t considered a “woman’s job.”
Ultimately, when it comes to gender, clothes are just clothes, and ideally shouldn’t be gendered in the first place. Three times now I’ve bought secondhand pants from the men’s section of Out of the Closet (I prefer to support them rather than Goodwill), and had them rung up as “WMNS BTMS, ” presumably because I looked like a “WMN.” The third time this happened I pointed it out, and the clerk made some excuse like “Oh it’s just whatever the cash register rings it up as.” Well, no, there was no bar code to swipe so the clerk actually did make an assumption based on my apparent gender and not the clothes. If my male spouse had approached the counter with a skirt to buy, I guarantee it wouldn’t have been rung up as “MNS BTMS,” even though my spouse is a MN (who happens to wear skirts).
In closing, because I need some comic relief nowadays, here’s a lighthearted tune from the always entertaining Jonathan Coulton, Mr. Fancy Pants. (I think I was actually at the concert where this video was recorded.)