All women must face the sexism inherent in languages. However, trans women suffer from unique forms of sexism, notably because of animosity generated against trans people in a society which assigns gender on the basis of anatomical traits. Thus results a set of expressions which are hostile to trans women.
The terminological frame used by the media — and society in general — forms the popular understanding of trans existence. It is based on what we might call the “habitual attitude” about gender. The habitual attitude refers to the ensemble of majority beliefs about gender held in Euro-American societies. It is believed to be neutral and natural by those who adopt it, and includes the following postulates:
(1) There are only two genders;
(2) Gender is invariable;
(3) Gender is indicated by anatomical traits;
(4) All apparent or alleged transition between genders is illusory;
(5) No exception to this belief system merits serious consideration.
These beliefs lead to everyday terminology that tends to portray trans people as a subclass of subjects. The first three postulates, which form the core of the habitual attitude, prioritise cisgender embodiment by privileging a gender and cisnormative rapport to the body. The fourth postulate encourages a language that positions the trans subject as inauthentic, whereas the fifth one attributes an unhealthy psychology to trans people.
Prioritisation of cisgender embodiment
Terms such as “biological woman”, “genetic woman”, “chromosomal woman”, “woman-born-woman”, “biological sex”, and “real woman” are common. This terminological family prioritises cisgender embodiment by associating gender to cisgender anatomy, erasing the possibility of transitude, or relegating it to anomalousness or liminality.
These terms — let us take the term “biological woman” as an example — insinuate that trans women are not biologically women. Cis women are designated as women in every aspect, whereas trans women are excluded from the category of “woman” in some aspects of their being. If cis women are biological, genetic, chromosomal, and born women, it must be that trans women are biological, genetic, chromosomal, or born men. Quite contrary to terms that are closer to trans realities, such as “assigned male at birth”.
By affirming the invariable character of gender and by privileging the experience of cis people, trans women are relegated to the background as quasi-women, sometimes-women. The lived experiences of trans women who have identified as such since childhood is ignored. An artificial and undue division between trans women and cis women is created, weaponising the body of trans women in a way that excludes them from sisterhood.
Those terms recall us to the notion of the real and the unreal: they are euphemisms for the notion of the “real woman”. Real women, we are told, are cisgender whereas transgender women are something else: fake, not really women, or at least not wholly so. We see hints of the reasoning underlying accusations of inauthenticity levied against trans people.
What shall we say, then, of terms like “woman trapped in a man’s body”, “male-to-female” trans person, “sex change”, or even “the surgery”? Those terms aren’t problematic used by trans people in reference to themselves, but their use as generally applicable terms for all trans people is littered with problems. Contrary to preceding terms, the spotlight isn’t on the valorisation of cis people, but on the uniform and vertical reduction of transitude to a body-centered phenomenon.
Indeed, the expression “woman trapped in a man’s body” excludes trans women who have no desire to undertake a medical transition in order to change their body. Those women are designated as having a man’s body, independently of their gender identity and independently of the fact that they perceive their body to be a woman’s body. I would say that I have a woman body even though I have a penis, since the mere fact of being a woman makes my body a woman’s. By conceiving trans women as being trapped in a man’s body, we admit that women must have a body with specific visible traits: we impose a singular model upon them. Transitude becomes an essentially transitory status, maintained as a corporeal anomaly which will be corrected. Insofar as the situation is seen as an anomaly, we see some hints of the psychopathologisation of trans people.
This identification between transitude and the transitory can be seen in its most exemplary form the terminogy of “male-to-female” as a group term for trans women. Not only does this terminology normalise the cognitive association between gender and anatomy, but it fixes the trans person as liminal by its very essence. The trans woman is posited as a case of perpetual liminality, for she is no longer man, but she is not wholly woman: she is always and fundamentally characterised by the term “to”. For many, this liminality is permanent and the determinative attribute of transitude.
For others, anatomical changes — with the aid of medical technology — create the possibility of interrupting this liminality. We speak of “sex change” or “the surgery”, a process through which trans people accede, in the eyes of society, to the gender which corresponds to their identity. These terms allow us to understand the curious — and fairly rare — idea according to which trans people who have undergone a given set of medical processes ceases to be trans. In this conception, transitude is conceptualised as essentially transitory and linked to the body. It would be preferable to use more descriptive terms such as “genital (reassignment) surgery” or even more precise ones such as “vaginoplasty” or “orchiectomy”.
The second terminological family paints the existence of trans people as essentially inauthentic and dishonest. For example, the term “faggot” is often used as an insult towards trans women. This term redefines trans women — who are presumed to be heterosexual, often erroneously — as unavowed gay men. Authenticity, for them, would be to accept oneself as a gay man, since claiming womanhood is perceived as a repression of one’s sexual orientation. Conversely, gay trans women — bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality being wholly effaced from this narrative frame — are accused of “autogynephilia”, namely of being sexually attracted to themselves as women, the symptom of a misguided heterosexual attraction. Trans women are then said to be inauthentic because they would be confused heterosexual men, “male transsexuals”, to use an outdated medical term that is still too often used today. Much like with the word “faggot”, a confusion between gender identity and sexual orientation underlies the accusation of inauthenticity.
This reduction to sexuality often brings about the sentiment that transitude is a falsehood in itself. Under the habitual attitude about gender, all alleged transitions between genders is illusory. Thus arise a panoply of terms evoking “deception” and “fraud”, or more simply denying the gender of trans people. Trans women are reinscribed as men: we are “transvestites”, “trannies”, “men living as women”, or “men in dresses”. We are described as emasculated men — a pejorative term since femininity is seen as frivolous and masculinity as desirable — sub-men, but men nonetheless. And if a few people believe us to be women — that is, believe that we are cis women — we are deceiving them. Abounds, then, intentional misgendering and jokes such as “it’s a trap” — a reference to Admiral Ackbar in the sixth episode of Star Wars — trans women frequently being called “traps”.
Unhealthy and anomalous psychology
The last terminological family attributes an unhealthy psychology to trans people by assigning them a pathology or improper personal values. I’m speaking here of terms associated with trans women such as “transcrazy”, “crazy”, or more general negative terms such as “pedophile”, “psycho”, “sick”, “freak”. The ableist term “transcrazy” is surprisingly common within groups that call themselves pro-trans. The stereotype of the crazy trans woman in LGBTQ+ communities has been explored by Morgan M. Page in her blog, Odofemi. By weaving together transitude and mental illness in a classic ableist move, those terms are used to discredit the perspectives of trans people and to justify a paternalistic approach towards them. They impose a hegemonic and external vision of trans wellbeing, sidestepping our understanding of our own wellbeing. Recently, for example, a cis gay white man associated with Pride Montreal used the term “transcrazy” to dismiss the critiques formulated against him by trans people while maintaining his front as an ally. The term “pedophile” is also frequently used to justify hatred towards and marginalisation of trans women.
The expression “man in a dress” when talking about trans women, though it does not impute mental illness, nonetheless imputes some sort of psychological disorder to them. Trans women are painted as frivolous by reducing transitude to traits viewed as superficial and artificial such as dresses and make-up. Since femininity is perceived to be frivolous, undesirable, and superficial, whereas masculine expressions are valorised, the identification of trans women with womanhood is interpreted as a superficial and noxious desire. The complexity and richness of transfeminine subjectivity is reduced to a vulgar desire for dresses and make-up, a simplification which is not only grossly unfaithful to reality, but also reveals an underlying artistic sexism: masculine forms of art are applauded, whereas feminine forms of art such as make-up and designing are devalued. Similarly, many surgical and non-surgical procedures that some trans women desire are deemed “cosmetic procedures”, a term used to connote superfluousness and artificiality independently of the fact that they have a very significant impact on the quality of life of trans people.
The terms mentioned are the centre of mainstream discourses on trans people. Their cissexism has an important impact on the dominant conception of trans people in our society, and thus on the treatment that they receive in this same society. Those terms, varied in meaning and implications, are connected by the habitual attitude about gender and perpetuate it. By diminishing their use, the ideological reproduction of the habitual attitude is obstructed, and the emancipation of trans people takes one step forward.
- A person is cisgender if they are of the same gender as they were assigned at birth. On the contrary, a person whose gender (or absence thereof) does not correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth is said to be transgender.
- The term used in academic literature is “natural attitude”; however I have opted to speak of an “habitual attitude” to avoid the normativity of the term “natural”. For more on the natural attitude, see for instance Jacob Hale, “Are Lesbians Women?”, (1996) 11:2 Hypatia 94.
- Transitude refers to the fact of being trans.
- Liminality refers to a state where the person loses access to a given status without yet acceding to a second, complementary status. Understood as liminal, the trans woman is seen as failing to accede to womanhood, but nevertheless losing her mahood. Liminality is an eminent form of marginalisation.
- It is nevertheless important not to overuse the notion of assigned gender at birth. Grouping people according to their gender assigned at birth tends to obscure the differences between cis men and trans women and risks invalidating trans realities and subjectivities.
- For more on the devaluation of femininity from a trans perspective, see Julia Serano, “Reclaiming Femininity” in Anne Enke (ed.), Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).
This text is a translated version of the chapter « XY » from Suzanne Zaccour and Michaël Lessard (eds.), Dictionnaire critique du sexisme linguistique, (Montreal: Éditions Somme Toute, 2017).