Language and transphobia

What’s the difference between a trans woman, a transwoman, and a transsexual?

Well, “a transsexual” could be a trans man, but that’s not the main thing, which is, that we don’t like it. We are entitled to specify how we should be described, and how we should not. “Woman” or “man” does for most purposes, “person” might be better, but if you really need to specify, “trans woman” or “trans man” is it.

Saying “transsexual is an adjective”, or that it sounds like a scientific classification, is explaining why we don’t like to be called that. There should be no need to explain. That we don’t like it should be enough.

It does not matter if someone gets it wrong, unless they intend to get it wrong. You can normally tell. Some even get it right, writing about “trans women” then saying something appalling about sexual predators. Some insist on “transwomen”- a seahorse isn’t a horse, they say, transphobically- and some use worse language.

Language can draw attention to our trans status or not, and be more or less respectful of us. There are transphobic terms designed to erase us, people who want to erase us, people who want to support us but are unsure how, and people who just don’t care. We can normally tell which of these someone is.

Trans excluders don’t like being called trans excluders. They claim they are not excluding trans women, as men should not be in women’s spaces. TERFs coined the term TERF, but now object to it. They are not “anti-trans campaigners”, they say, because they want trans people to have the human rights they are willing to assign to us. Just as I don’t think they should be called “feminist campaigners”- most feminists campaign for trans rights- I don’t think they should be called “gender critical feminists”. I am a gender critical feminist. I find gender norms and stereotypes oppressive, particularly to women. But there is no term for their campaigning which would be acceptable to them and to us. That means you can’t describe what they do with a neutral term, and so you state your opinion about them every time you refer to them. Sometimes I call them “gender critical feminists”, but always with scare quotes.

This means that we cannot talk to each other. The two sides only address themselves. The trans-excluders obsessively write about “women’s rights”, as in their Manifesto, yet every part of what they work on has to do with excluding trans women, who they do not mention there. We tell ourselves stories in order to live: we tell ourselves that we are women, that we have women’s brains, souls or personalities, as a way of plucking up courage to transition. We interact sometimes on twitter, with zingers honed on one side then lobbed at the other.

There is no sound if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one to hear it. There will be a pressure wave, and perhaps an animal will detect that pressure wave with its ears, but a “sound” is a human concept which cannot be divorced from human experience and understanding. Language is how we create the world, because the world of people being with each other is more important to us than the whole rest of the world combined- or we would not have damaged it as we have. You might see something without naming it, but you can’t tell anyone else about it without words, and the words are all that we know in common about that thing.

The Communist party says Truth is what is in the interests of the working class as a whole… we have to come to a correct position which serves our class. In Russia that became what is in the interests of the Revolution, then the Party, then Stalin alone. In the USSR, there were events called “elections”, or the “free expression of citizen will” where there was one candidate and the Party and state apparatus took notice if anyone did not vote for that candidate. They were not elections in any real sense, but there was no other word to describe them.

So words are powerful. When we can choose our words, we control their connotations. A “trans woman” is a kind of woman. How people think about trans people depends on the words used for us.

Here is Diana and her Companions, only attributed to Vermeer in 1901. Proust has Swann, convinced it is Vermeer, wanting to examine it at The Hague but unable to leave Paris while Odette is there.

6 thoughts on “Language and transphobia

  1. We could always use pantomime. I suppose a trans person could be depicted by slightly bending over, holding the crotch, and dancing around (sans finding their own safe place). It’s nothing more than a game of charades, after all. Sheeesh. Or maybe it’s just a matter of se(wo)mantics? 🙂

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  2. I most often refer to myself as a woman. I use transwoman or transgender woman when I feel a comparison needs to be made. It can also be easier to refer to myself under some form of trans, when calling myself a woman would be problematic in social discourse. Like coming out to someone who knew me when I presented as a guy instead of I was assigned male at birth but this designation does not fir my felt sense of gender.

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