Science has a lot to teach us. It has a lot of things to tell us about human beings.
One of the things science tells us is that the majority of people fall into one of two broad categories. The first category distinguishes itself by the following characteristics: penis, testicles, specific fat distribution, XY chromosomes, testosterone-dominated hormonal profile, etc. The second, by these: vulva, vagina, uterus, ovaries, different fat distribution, XX chromosomes, oestrogen-dominated hormonal profile.
Science also tells us that a large number of people don’t fit into one of these two categories. Intersex people are as common as redheads, and are characterised by the fact that they do not fit neatly into one or the other of those two lists of traits. It is possible, for example, to be born with a vulva and vagina while having XY chromosomes, or to be born with a penis and testicles while having XX chromosomes. If you can think of a combination of features, it probably exists. This is also the case for trans people: with the aid of medical and pharmaceutical technology, they often fall outside this binary listing of characteristics.
Even though our bodies were changed with the aid of medicine, it remains true that science must and does take us into account, hence the entire medical corpus dedicated to studying trans people.
What science does not tell us, however, is how we should name those categories. It is humans who name categories. Pure and hard science has nothing to do with it. All it says is that the categories exist. Here lies the mistake of people who, like Richard Martineau, tell us that “a man cannot be pregnant”.
What, then, is to be called “man” and “woman”? Dwelling on this question, we quickly notice that these terms are applied in very varied ways. Sometimes they are anatomical categorisations, sometimes they’re about chromosomes, sometimes they’re about masculinity and femininity, sometimes they’re about identity, et cetera… It quickly gets confusing!
What’s sure is that trans men do get called “men”. Beyond that, the question “are trans men really men?” makes no linguistic sense. The only relevant question is “do people call trans men men?” and the answer is clearly yes. Not enough, but yes they do.
Usage isn’t the end of discussion. To the question “how is the word used?” we must add “how should the word be used?” Most likely, people like Martineau would tell us that the word ought to be used in a way that is consistent with our categorisation from birth into one of the two major human anatomical categories. You won’t be surprised that I disagree. My reasoning is simple: this anatomical categorisation is of little importance in everyday life.
In everyday life, we don’t test people’s chromosomes to decide how to refer to them. We don’t look at their genitals, either. Can you imagine a world where we would?!
In everyday life, we use language that reflects the social position of the person, frequently in order to demonstrate respect. When people call a man “madam” or a woman “sir”, it’s usually as an insult.
Calling a trans man “woman” is disrespectful and does not reflect his social position. Look at the picture that precedes Richard Martineau’s article and ask yourself: is this person’s everyday life more like that of a man or of a woman? I’m sure you will conclude as I do that he is positioning himself as a man and in so doing the world will respond to him as he is: a man.
Biology has nothing to do with it. Genetically, he isn’t a woman, he’s XX. It is in the social world that our words can be found. It is in the social world that we must decide how we call others. If, like me, you are concerned about others people’s wellbeing, then you will be quick to call a trans man a man, a trans woman a woman, and a non-binary person a non-binary person. It’s that simple.
Originally published in French in the Journal de Montréal on August 9th 2017.