This is the second in an exciting series of entries about names, and why they’re important, and the strange synchronicity between naming problems with the two things this weblog is mainly about: having CFS/ME and being, um, transgendered. Two preliminary comments:
1. Note the “um” in the previous sentence. It’s hard not to preempt the whole point of this entry about names by naming what you’re going to talk about. Note also the gap after the colon in the title. Um…
2. I’m going to say this a million times, but I don’t want to imply any synchronicity between the physical states of having an illness (CFS/ME) and being born in a body whose biological sex is different from the gender of the mind it contains. The second is not an illness, doesn’t need a cure, and is just difficult to live with in our current, unusually cisgender-oriented society. I’ve talked about this lots elsewhere, so I shall desist from ceaseless babble.
Now, you see that phrase underlined in the last paragraph? That’s the issue at stake here: what to call someone born in this condition (me!), and whether (and what) subsidiary terms could be applied to this term for those who have sought to adjust their body to cope with either their own self-image or current western society’s inability to countenance such a person existing.
Note two starting blocks here too: firstly, I’m not again going to debate whether this state of being exists right now: it’s a bit like me asking you to debate whether your mum and dad actually existed. Secondly, I’m going to assume it does make some approximate sense for people to call themselves “male” or “female” or “a man/woman”, and because words are just convenient bendy ways in which humans approximate the world, it makes sense to apply these terms to what we really think of as ourselves – our insides, ours hearts. Physical intersex conditions do of course exist (rather more commonly than believed) in which the person is born with physical characteristics of both sexes, but self-identified intergendered people seem a whole lot rarer. The sense in which anyone can sum up their whole identity as man or woman might seem only approximate if you think very hard on a rainy day, but brain differences really are there, and it should be at least as valid for a person in my own state of being to be able to assign myself a internal gender as it is for you. So I’ll be using “man” and “woman” to mean internal gender identity here. Besides, it’s snowing outside for the first time this year, it’s really pretty and I’m tired, and there’s only so long that this entry can be before I need to stop and just look at the nice white featheriness through the window and stop zapping my achey body with thought.
In time I might get used to referring to gender identity as “man/woman” and physical sex (chromosomes, hormone levels, sexual characteristics?) as “male/female”, but intersex people teach us it’s all greyscale physically anyway. And I’ve discussed elsewhere how stubborn I am on the existence of a core wired-in gender identity in each of us (contrast with mutable gender roles), and I’ll continue to be stubborn about that. So give me a break! I bet everyone reading this knows if they’re a man or a woman. So do I.
So. Like all words associated with the birth of new concepts, particularly contentious ones, they’re stirred up and spin into popular use in a linguistic baptism of fire, forking into many different terms with crossover meanings, all communicated, misused, redefined and qualified by the subculture which forged them into existence (in a rush to become visible) and the critical culture around them. The result is linguistic soup. I say “new concepts”, of course recognising that it’s not really new, but re-emerging: lots of others cultures already had words for us without blinking.
The most obvious words existing for people like me begin with the prefix trans-: words like transgender, trans(s)exual, transwoman, transman, and then some other words that are really associated with quite different things such as sexual persuasions or kicks: transvestite, etc. Then there’s a slew of associated terms, MtF, FtM, transgenderist, etc. and again a lot of misleading seemingly associated terms, which are actually about sexuality and using characteristics of the opposite gender, usually surface roles, to make a point: for instance in drag. Hopefully I don’t have to explain that sexuality has little to do with being, um, transgendered.
The most balanced general description of the history, developments and disagreements about these terms I can find readily is on the Wikipedia website. I quote for the definition of transgender:
The term remains in flux, but the most accepted definition is currently:
People who were assigned a gender at birth, based on their genitals, but who feel that this is a false or incomplete description of themselves.
Another one is: Non-identification with, or non-presentation as, the gender one was assigned at birth.
Transgendered people may or may not have had medical gender reassignment therapy, and may or may not have any interest in such a procedure.
When referring to the two basic “directions” of transgender, the terms Transman for female-to-male (which may be further abbreviated to FtM) transgendered people and Transwoman for male-to-female (which may be further abbreviated to MtF) transgendered people are often used. In the past it had always been assumed that there were considerably more transwomen than transmen. However, the ratio is approaching 1:1.
I’ll have to dive in here and say as I’ve said before that I don’t like the trans- words, particularly when applied to gender (but will often nevertheless use them because they’re the best of the little-understood words). Here’s why:
Think quickly: what does trans- imply to you? I’d suggest one of two things which are more or less closely related:
1. Changing or moving from one place to another: transfer, transport, translate;
2. Being between two states or lying across a boundary: transverse.
So, what does the word transgender imply to Homer Simpson? I’d imagine he’s thinking (if he thought) of someone who either (a) is lying between the two genders mentally, half girl/half boy, or (b) has moved from one gender to another.
We can dispense with (a) quickly: there’s already a word for people who (relatively rarely) think of themselves between genders: bigendered. As for (b) I’d contend that’s impossible with gender identity (as distinct from gender role, with which it’s of course possible to swap and play around). As David Reimer said so memorably before his death with regards to being raised in the opposite gender and his eventually traumatic rejection of this:
I was never happy as Brenda, never. I’d slit my throat before I’d go back to that. I’d never go back to that. It didn’t work because that’s life, because you’re human and you’re not stupid and eventually you wind up being who you are.
Some people might disagree with this hard line on the immutability of gender: but I’ve talked about Jerry Springer enough.
Note that transgender as originally coined in 1970 was sometimes actually supposed to mean “lying between genders”. It’s now however generally used as an umbrella term as defined above.
So where did the word transgender come from? Probably as a reaction to the word transsexual for two reasons: firstly because people like me who haven’t resorted to medical intervention need a word, and secondly because anything with “sex” in makes people think of, well, “sex”, before they think of physical sex (“male”, “female”, chromosomes, hormones, unmentionable body parts and all that).
So what about the word transsexual? Much as I dislike it (see above connotations) it makes a bit more rational sense if applied (only) to those who’ve undergone sexual reassignment surgery (not “gender reassignment surgery” which would require a brain transplant!), at least as far as changing the outward sexual characteristics go. But it’s not as if all your XY chromosomes are flushed out and supplanted with XXs, or vice versa, or that you suddenly become fertile in your self-assigned new sex. In a sense, you become intersex, although not born that way. I suppose both trans- definitions above therefore do apply, but they encourage the usual confusions (“I used to be a man, now I’m a woman”), and have become something that sometimes sound a bit negative to me. To me I should stress, as it’s very subjective, and probably TV and my impressionability’s fault.
What of the other words? Transwoman refers to someone whose gender identity is a woman but whose birth body was male, and vice versa for transman. But because of the confusion of the trans- prefix, I have a feeling they used to be used the other way round, and my friend in Sweden tells me they still are there: in Sweden I’d apparently be referred to as a transman, which would lead to a whole new level of mess, and I don’t want to be referred to as any kind of man. Plus, they sound a bit Star Trek. MtF and FtM? Horrid abbreviations, make you sound like a genus of grey alien, and, like
“transman” in Sweden, the subliminal first hit of the first letter to someone new counts for a lot. If someone hears “transman” they think “man”, and I’m pretty sure if you flashed the letters “MtF” at someone in a lab with electrodes in their brain they’d first think “man”, when the whole point is they should be thinking “woman” first. “MtF” is supposed to stand for “male-to-female” (see “transsexual” discussion above) – why on earth not rather say “FfM” (“female-from-male”) if you have to have a three letter acronymn. The “F” or “M”ness at the beginning matters, I’m quite sure.
So where do we go now? Coining new words rarely works, and I’m not usually one for battles about names: the constant fights in the world of CFS/ME to invent new names, while meaningful, are exhausting. However, I think words so misleading at first sight (which is what matters) can really be a problem to a beleagured minority. much as I have to continue to use them for now. I think we might need a word for being born in a body whose biological sex is different from the gender of the mind it contains that isn’t “transgendered” and I don’t think it should be “transsexual”, as this logically implies surgery. “Genderqueer” is gaining some acceptance in the U.S. as an umbrella term but it’s not specific enough for use in this instance, and to most U.K. people “queer” connotes sexuality still, rather than “not like you”. I’ve wondered about silly invented terms while trying to sleep like XYXism (“zicksism”?) but that falls into the same traps as everything above – it’s not about chromosomes. Reverse the words? “Nanow” for me, “Nam” for a transman? Silly night-time reveries that don’t really imply the simplicity of the fact of existence for people like me, which really isn’t a hard concept, at least to someone in a teepee.
Brandon Teena before his death
I keep falling back on jeebo and beejo! Just because they most simply express a concept children can understand (from real experience): I’m a “girl-inside-boy-outside”, g-i-b-o or jeebo.
Brandon Teena was a beejo. They’re fun words, they sum up the essential facts of existence, and they don’t imply any necessary physical intervention: they describe a state of birth. I can see this weblog’s going to need a glossary.
Any word defining a minority makes that minority seem… well “not-normal” and can lead to pity or brutality just as public consciousness of this minority begins to emerge. A good way to combat this is to define the majority and set up a friendly polarity, so that the majority think “hey I’m something too” rather than just feel normal. “Heterosexual” is the best example, and I bet Europeans didn’t think of themselves as “white” until they met people who had different skin colours. “Monosexuals” is another nice way for bisexuals to point out that hetero- vs. homosexual aren’t the only two valid options. In this sense, most of you, dear readers will be either jeejos or beebos. Please spread this meme!
I’ll leave you with a thought about the word “cisgendered”, coined with very respectable Greek heritage to mean “not transgendered”. The alternative to coining new words of course is reclaiming hate speech as your own: “queer” and “nigger”. This thought from the Wikipedia article:
If trans people can be called trannies for short, then cisgender people can be called “cissies”.