Ask a Transwoman: What Should I Call All of Us? Using Language in Flux

Trans PeopleLorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Trans Woman" Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan
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Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Transwoman" Columnist.  Photo: David Meehan

Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times’ “Ask A Transwoman” Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan

By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—

This month I thought it would be a good idea to talk about words. I thought I’d give you a little peek under the hood at why I use the words I do and how I end up using them. I am of the belief that language is a living thing. It grows, changes and adapts. Sometimes dead parts of it fall away and are replaced by something entirely new.

I understand and can speak bits of several languages. I try to know at least my “please” and “thank yous” in any number of them. I habitually swear in an odd mixture of Brazilian Portuguese and Mexican slang, and I am remarkably fluent in both kitchen and farmacia Spanish, especially if I’ve been drinking. My native language, however is English. Beyond that, as a writer and an actor, it is the primary tool of my trade.

My particular focus is language as it applies to the identities of LGBTQIKAP&GQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Intersex, Kinky, Asexual, Polyamorous/Pansexual & GenderQueer) communities generally and trans people specifically. If you’ve been a regular reader of this column, you may have noticed that even the words I use here are often in flux. [pullquote]But “trans with an asterisk” is just awkward in spoken conversation. Additionally, for anyone not familiar with it, I fear they will see the asterisk and then wonder why they can never find the footnote.[/pullquote]

I was thinking about this last month when I answered a question in which the word “trans*” was used. If you missed the distinction, that’s trans with an asterisk. It has become a popular way to connote inclusion of a number of different communities and identities under one loosely affiliated umbrella. These communities and identities aren’t always comfortable being lumped together, but they share an element of gender variance/exploration/transition outside of a strictly cisgender identity and therefore some degree of political/social commonality, i.e., those who identify as transgender, transsexual, intersex, genderqueer, crossdressers, drag queens, two-spirited, etc.

Though there are lots of us who identify somewhere within that list who will happily call the others family, you could pick any two of those identities and find people who will vehemently explain how they have absolutely nothing in common with the other, often using virtually identical arguments. It often seems like a sort of separate identity MadLibs.

“Trans*” is an attempt to sidestep all that, which I applaud. Clearly, if someone finds it useful, I will be happy to mirror their usage, as I did last month. [pullquote]My particular focus is language as it applies to the identities of LGBTQIKAP&GQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Intersex, Kinky, Asexual, Polyamorous/Pansexual & GenderQueer) communities generally and trans people specifically.[/pullquote]

For myself though, I’m not crazy about it. So far as the words I use myself are concerned, I don’t like to use anything I cannot easily say. I can spit out “hir,” “ze,” “heteronormativity,” and even “LGBTQIKAP&GQ” without a pause (that last one does take a bit of practice). But “trans with an asterisk” is just awkward in spoken conversation. Additionally, for anyone not familiar with it, I fear they will see the asterisk and then wonder why they can never find the footnote. By extension of that thought, I personally find it somewhat othering in that it seems to imply that some identities might simply be a footnote. But hey, I’m a language nerd. I think far too much about these things.

I much prefer simply “trans.” It speaks as well as it reads and I think it’s a nice compromise, elegant even. That doesn’t mean I won’t use “trans*.” If people like it, if it works for them, they’ll use it, and when it’s contextually appropriate, I’m sure I will use it too. That’s just how language is.

Grammatical or political correctness,” even intent, doesn’t mean much in the face of whether people like a word or not. Even if a word was acceptable yesterday, it may not be tomorrow. Heck, it may not even mean the same thing tomorrow! So language changes, and words mean different things to different people. It used to be that in this column, I used “transgender” to refer to a large group of people that included those who identify as transsexual. That was, until it was pointed out to me rather persuasively that there was a fairly significant group of transsexually identified people who actively resented inclusion under a transgender umbrella. They felt that their specific needs and identity were being subsumed and lumped in with those of people they themselves feel no connection to whatsoever.

I personally identify as transgender and also transsexual and have no problem with this, but that’s me. I want to respect the concerns of my readers as much as possible, so I started using both transgender and transsexual wherever possible, but that brings me to another problem. This is a newspaper column. There is an ink-printed-on-dead-trees hard copy version of this paper that comes out to newsstands around New England every month. I have a pretty hard and fast word count to which I need to stick. Considering my usual topic, using both transgender and transsexual eats up a lot of those carefully doled out words.

So, “trans” becomes the compromise, the shorthand that we use to refer to our loosely affiliated communities and identities without getting mired in contentious identity issues. I use it to bring my column in under my allotted word count, which is precisely here.

Slainte!

*Lorelei Erisis is an activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at: loreleiersis@gmail.com.

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3 Comments on "Ask a Transwoman: What Should I Call All of Us? Using Language in Flux"

  1. Since I could claim 6 or 7 of the letters in your string as descriptors (“I’ll take a ‘T’, Pat.”), I generally tend to simply identify myself as human and maybe, if pushed, a woman. That’s appropos of nothing, really, other than the fact that I’m generally and privately opposed to labels. However, realizing that I have to live in a world that I didn’t personally construct, I do use some descriptive terms in order to simplify my interactions with others who also occupy my world. In writing, I use “trans*” and when speaking, simply “trans”. Both work for me.

  2. As an ‘outsider looking in member-at-large’ of the trans community as the supportive spouse of a transgender male-to-female, I read this article in hopes to finally learn all I needed to know about the appropriate words to use in relation to the trans* persons.

    The first word I was introduced to WAS ‘transgender’ … then came along that long string of ABC’s that I simply don’t know enough about to understand what most of them mean. Early in my introduction to the trans world I was told I am a GG … a ‘what’ I asked, and of course, the answer was ‘Genetic Girl.’ I’d never heard GG before … nor had I ever been in a situation where anyone had to point out to me that I was a Genetic Girl.

    So, sometime later I used GG in, of all places, a Facebook post … and was reprimanded for being so ‘out of date’ in my language and that ‘today’s term’ is ‘cis’ … phew … I’m just learning I’m a GG and someone wants me to change my identity already … come on.

    Anyway … terms, words, and what they mean to each individual (including me) are based on that individual’s experience with those terms and words are addressed in my soon to be released (target release date Feb 14, 2014) memoir entitled, “My HUSBAND Looks Better in Lingerie Than I Do … DAMN IT.”

    Thank you for your article which ‘confirms’ that the words are always changing … so we can only use them to the best of our ability while we have those words to use.

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