Trans Labels: Or, the Problem with Language

Let us, if you will, engage in a little “postmodern” instability. The kinda thing that keeps Jordan Peterson up at night, thinking about how us trans-leftists destabilize the universality of language and conceptual categories. “Transgender” as a term has been kicking about since the 60s. However, it’s more modern use seems to have been codified in the 90s. Even in academia, Sandy Stone writing in 1987’s “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” used “posttranssexual heteroglossia” as a stand-in term to differentiate the multiplicity of trans subjectivities omitted by the medicalized term “transsexual,” which was still widely in use. Leslie Feinberg’s pamphlet “Transgender Liberation,” gives definition to Stone’s “posttransexual,” approximating the umbrella term that we have today, that is “transgender” a catch-all term for gender fuckery and rebellion.

Personally, I find the use of “transgender” as a label potentially problematic, as most non-trans people don’t understand the term’s history or multiplicity of meanings. Even within trans communities, it can get confusing. I don’t want to deny anyone’s subjectivity, they are all personally valid, but what “trans” means to one person might not mean the same to another. Let’s start with “transsexual,” which describes my embodiment and sense of self, in a sense, but it is mired in Stone’s issues with the term. It is a limiting, medically generated term that has a dark history of erasure, conformity, pathologization, gatekeeping, and forced sterilization. So boo to that. Thus, some of us have moved away from the term—not all though.

I like “trans woman,” to a certain extent, but I dislike the binary opposition it implies. If I use this label then I am read as a binary femme. While I don’t have any issues with nonbinary labels, I am cautious to adopt them, as in a sense they replicate binarisms, i.e. binary/nonbinary. I am not binary, I personally don’t think anyone really is. There have always been cis and queer identities which do not neatly fit on the poles of the binary. Most people exist in the liminal space between man and woman. Furthermore, you can be trans and not gender dysphoric. There is a growing number of people who just don’t want the traditional associations of gendered labels, at least classical ones. That’s great, but then my version of “trans” is not encapsulated in that understanding of the word, someone who feels intensely dysphoric. Granted many people express both disdain for traditional gender labels and have gender dysphoria, but not all. Thus, we get “trans*,” the asterisk stands for all sorts of gender rebellion and potentially anything else you can conceive of. Awesome. But then what is the point of a label if they are so potentially vague and unable to identify a specific subjectivity or form of embodiment?

Jack Halberstam makes a good point in Trans* (2018), essentially that we are perhaps too caught up in labels. Yes, “trans” and “transgender” are great, they take back the agency wrested away from us by the medical/legal system’s term “transsexual,” but at the same time the impulse to label is still part of a European colonial matrix. That is one that seeks to catalog and arrange the resources of the world for imperial consumption. Think of Darwin on the HMS Beagle gathering all of those specimens to be returned to England for recording in some natural history archive—oh the barnacles that were observed and pickled in jars. We still have the impulse to label everything.

Darwin spent eight years cataloging barnacles

And then there is the issue with “third gender natives”—another colonial linguistic impulse. We often want to subsume third gender cultural concepts like hijras into the category of transgender without thinking of the epistemic violence such an absorption might entail, i.e. the erasure of their specific historical and cultural meaning within the context of their own unique milieus. After all, “transgender” is an Anglo-American historical creation. Langauge, even the language of transgender, is fraught with all sorts of pitfalls: multiple meanings, subjectivity, unstable binary relationships, historic subject creation, and potential erasure of other subjectivities. So, what is a trans girl to call herself?

But then again, I need my label, it gets certain things done and it strategically aligns me with certain concepts which are helpful, if not problematic. So, I guess I’ll stick with “trans,” it just seems to work — kinda.