Trans, transgender, cisgender: we are what we name ourselves

Why is the language we use to describe gender non-conformists such as Andrej Pejic so important? CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK, CC BY-SA

Transgender and gender non-conforming lives are becoming increasingly visible. Debate about the lives and legitimacy of trans people is being conducted in the most mainstream of media outlets: Time magazine magazine is discussing Laverne Cox, People is featuring model Andrej Pejic’s sex reassignment surgery, and the New Yorker is taking on the fraught relationship between trans activists and radical feminists.

Trans people may be in the news – but the terms we use to discuss gender aren’t always well understood. To better understand the debate about gender diversity, we need to look more closely at the language we use, especially terms such as trans and cisgender.

Trans: what does it mean?

Unfortunately, defining the term trans can be tricky.

For starters, trans can mean transgender. That is, someone who is on the spectrum somewhere between male or female.

The term trans can also mean transsexual. That is, a transgender person who uses hormones and surgery to correct the miss-match between their target gender and the gender assigned to them at birth.

As well, it can mean someone who doesn’t conform to any idea of gender too.

All of these meanings are still in flux and still up for challenge.

There is a growing resistance to the use of transgendered vs transgender. The term trans* to represent trans and gender non-conforming people is gaining support. Derogative terms such as “tranny” are definitely on the way out.

Language shifts

As trans people push for more room in the cultural landscape, language adjusts accordingly.

Facebook this year issued an update to its gender options. The bathroom wars have been all but won; experiments with pronouns are being trialed in Vancouver classrooms, and the meaning of childhood is being expanded to include the experiences of trans kids too.

Changing language reflects these changes in social attitudes. And the different terms that trans people use to describe themselves are experiments in fashioning new words and meaning. It’s what John Ralston Saul identifies as primary language in The Doubter’s Companion: it’s aggressive, inquisitive and vital.

Language used in this way is as inexorable and beautiful to observe as a volcanic chain rising out of the ocean to make new islands.

What about cisgender?

As early as 1994 the term cisgender began appearing in trans circles to describe people outside of the gender non-conforming spectrum. Cisgender means near or next to the gender of your birth.

Trans people frequently find themselves in conversations (read arguments) about their own legitimacy. The term cisgender pushes those critical of trans people to argue in terms of gender majorities and minorities – and not in terms of legitimacy and deviancy.

Language in the public sphere is not static, it is a wrestling match between ideas, interests and needs.

When Ru Paul sounded off about the term “tranny” recently it sparked wide debate.

In the last fortnight popular blogger and gay rights activist J Nelson Aviance has published a strongly worded article on the Huffington Post’s Gay Voices section claiming that the term cisgender is “weaponised” and stereotypes non-trans people.

A small but vocal group of feminists have been working hard to dilute the power of cisgender. Julie Bindel and Julie Burchill, among others, are against the very idea of cisgender because it implies that trans women might have less privilege than cisgendered women.

The power of names

As Harold Innis points out in his book The Bias of Communication, those who have power always try to control language and knowledge. The tricky thing here — and why activists of all stripes will always need to push — is that most often those trying to control language and knowledge don’t see themselves as exercising power.

Julie Burchill, J Nelson Aviance, and Ru Paul are all advocates for feminism and/or gay rights who have worked tirelessly (sometimes for decades) to champion their causes. Burchill and Bindel have been frontline campaigners against pornography, violence, rape culture, and for the rights of working class women since the 80s. Though both are staunchly – even, in the case of Burchill, violently – anti-trans.

And for all Ru Paul argues about the silliness and over-sensitivity around his and others use of the term “tranny”, he himself has campaigned vigorously to stop the use of “faggot” in popular culture. Why? For exactly the same reason that the trans community protests the use of “tranny”.

Words and meanings change: other islands rise out of the sea. But those new islands shouldn’t come at the expense of older ones. The essential and on going struggle for feminism and gay rights is just as important as the struggle for trans rights. The expense comes rather to the media advantage that certain key players have enjoyed.

Beyond cisgender?

But consider this too; as useful and empowering as the term cisgender might be it carries the seeds of its own doom. For while it does a great job of describing gender in terms of majority and minority, cis doesn’t represent all gender minorities.

What room then, is there for the intersex community in terms like cis and trans? Intersex people are people born with characteristics of both genders and so occupy a space somewhere in between cis and trans.

What word might empower them and re-shape debate? The answer is no doubt rumbling off the coast somewhere, far out to sea, an as yet undiscovered island of new meaning.

* This article has been amended at the request of a commentator previously mentioned in the piece.

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