Gender Dysphoria and the Trans Language Wars
Why it is counter-productive to apply the new terminology to everyone
Welcome back to Trans Realist, a project where I have a conversation with my fellow trans people, about what could be done to make our lives better in the real world.
Today, I want to talk about a controversial topic: the trans-related language wars. Much has been said about this topic, however, I haven’t seen anyone discuss this phenomenon from the perspective of gender dysphoria. As I’ve said before, it’s important to put gender dysphoria back at the center of the trans discourse, and it’s time we did so with the debate over so-called gender-inclusive language.
I think the relationship between gender dysphoria and gender-inclusive language is complicated at the moment. To begin, I think we should acknowledge that the new language was designed with the purpose of relieving gender dysphoria in the first place. Trans people have health care needs like everyone else, but information and care that is delivered using the normal terminology could trigger gender dysphoria in many trans people, which could then lead to avoidance of seeking proper health care, for example. Hence the invention of terms like ‘people who menstruate’ for trans men, so they can discuss health problems around the topic of menstruation without being called women, for example. Therefore, there is indeed a need for such terminology when delivering health care and services for trans people specifically.
The problem is that, in recent years, the new terminology has been applied in situations that are not specifically targeted at trans people, meaning that some non-trans people feel like they have been forced to use the new terminology without even being asked first. Moreover, when non-trans people object to the new terminology, they are sometimes accused of being ‘transphobic’ by activists. This has led to a feeling among some people that traditional terms like ‘women’, ‘mother’, and so on are being erased. This is now a major problem objectively, having become a political topic in countries like the UK and Australia. It is also an issue that has made many feminists skeptical of trans rights, unfortunately. Therefore, in regards to the move to extend the new terminology to the mainstream, given the backlash generated by this move, and the resultant harm to trans acceptance, from a gender dysphoria point of view, I believe the cons clearly outweigh the pros.
The extension of the new terminology into the mainstream has often been justified on grounds of being inclusive. However, how necessary is this move in being ‘inclusive’? It’s not as if trans people would find it offensive that a service designed for the mainstream, where 99% of users are not trans, would use mainstream language to describe things. Most trans people understand that we are a small minority, and would not expect the world to be designed around our specific needs. All we ask is for care and sensitivity to be applied when you are actually dealing with trans people.
On the other hand, applying the new language as the ‘new standard’ for everyone is more problematic than most activists would acknowledge. For example, a form that describes everyone who had given birth in their lives as a ‘birthing parent’, and allows the choice of ‘mother’ only as a subset of ‘birthing parent’, implies that ‘mother’ is only a subset of ‘birthing parent’, which challenges traditional notions of motherhood going back to the earliest civilizations. A form that uses ‘mother’ by default, but allows changes when used by trans men, would imply something very different, that motherhood is still a concept that stands alone, and is not part of some ‘birthing parent’ umbrella. As you can see, the approach of applying the new terminology to everyone is going to offend many more people. Given what we need is more understanding and acceptance of trans people, I don’t see why we should adopt an approach that many people find offensive.
In conclusion, my view is that there is a place for the new gender-inclusive terminology. However, it would be best to limit its use to situations specific to trans people, for example when delivering care to a trans person, or in health services that specifically cater to the LGBT community. Forcibly applying the new terminology on non-trans people is seen as offensive by many people, and is going to hurt trans acceptance and understanding. The cons clearly outweigh the pros, if the objective is to help trans people living with gender dysphoria.