Language matters: An introduction to trans-inclusive language
Part 1 of a series
To inaugurate Trans Talk, a new publication on language and transgender experience, I’ll be posting a series of discussions of trans-inclusive language based on training workshops I conduct. My goal is to bring the insights of my academic field — sociocultural linguistics — to bear on some of the language-focused work of trans activists.
I hope the series will be useful to those who are new to trans-inclusive language as well as those who engage with it on a daily basis. However, this first post is written for those without much exposure to discussions of trans-inclusive language. What follows is a summary of foundational principles on which trans people and sociocultural linguists generally agree.
This is the most basic concept we need to start with. The virulent unpopularity of “political correctness” makes it easy to dismiss political critiques of language, since anti-PC arguments are centered around the idea that language doesn’t matter. Those who call attention to the implicit messages embedded in language are often encouraged to attend to actions rather than words and intentions rather than effects. But sociocultural linguists have long recognized that speech IS action. When we speak, we inform, disagree, and debate; we insult, apologize, and convince; we mock, seduce, and compliment. We use language to validate and invalidate people’s identities, to demean them and to lift them up. We use language to oppress and to liberate, to incite violence and to maintain peace. Sometimes these actions are intentional, other times they are not. Language is a central tool for showing support to trans people, and given that the amount of support trans people receive predicts their suicide risk and other measures of success and well-being, language can be a matter of life and death.
Language is cultural and political
Language is often framed as a system for directly represents reality, but culture and politics are always baked into language in countless subtle ways. Rather than strictly representing the world, language shapes the way we see reality and conceals the unspoken assumptions behind ideas that seem natural, neutral, or obviously true. There are many ways everyday language can erase, belittle, or delegitimize trans people by suggesting that their identities are less natural, normal, or real than those of cisgender women or men, even if the speaker does not intend these meanings. A core tenant of sociocultural linguistics is that a person’s language will always reflect their cultural context(s) and their place within it. A cultural climate that often ranges from violently transphobic to merely indifferent should be expected to produce implicitly (if not explicitly) transphobic language in anyone who has not yet challenged these messages. But just as culture shapes language, language in turn shapes culture. If we are willing to challenge the transphobic language we’re taught to use, we can challenge the transphobic values that underlie them.
The bad news is that your language probably reflects the transphobic values of the culture you live in, but the good news is that changing your language can also help to change those cultural values.
There is no way to write a guide to trans-inclusive language with a definitive list of “do’s and don’t’s” if only because language norms in trans communities have changed dramatically over the years and will undoubtedly continue to do so. It can be frustrating when a term you recently learned is already out of date, but I think this frustration comes in part from the idea that language is fixed, governed by a set of unchanging grammatical rules, with a predetermined definition for every word and a set of permanently taboo terms. But these ideologies do not reflect reality, particularly in contexts where rapid cultural change is taking place. There should be no shame to updating one’s language to reflect new ideas (trans people do this too, after all), but in practice hurt feelings and defensiveness are common outcomes when people’s language is critiqued on political grounds. Cis people who want to use trans-inclusive language can preempt this tension by establishing that they want to be alerted if they use problematic language. This kind of dialogue mitigates the fear of making a mistake while also creating space for trans people to voice their responses without worrying about a combative reaction.
Use the language that individuals use for themselves
Just as linguistic norms change over time, they also vary substantially among trans people. You may find that different trans communities – or individuals – define the same words in very different ways. This is to be expected, because trans people are doing something more than creating a new set of definitions for words like woman or man. They’re disrupting the idea that identity labels should have fixed meanings at all. Instead, trans people put individual self-identification at the core of gendered language. If a woman (or man, or non-binary person) is simply a person who self-identifies as such, the only way to know how to refer to them is to ask. Asking someone which pronoun or gender label to use can be terrifying if a person’s gender is expected to be obvious based on their appearance. But trans people know that you can’t identify someone’s gender identity just by looking; you have to ask. In future posts, I’ll discuss strategies for normalizing questions on these topics.
Trans people are doing something more than creating a new set of definitions; they are putting individual self-identification at the core of gendered language.
Learn and practice strategies for inclusion
This series of posts will outline numerous concrete strategies for making language more trans-inclusive. It is important not only to become familiar with these strategies; they have to be practiced regularly, and not only when trans people are known to be present. Practice is key, because the more frequently we use a word, phrase, or grammatical construction, the easier it becomes to use it again in the future.
Language is especially important when we’re thinking about trans inclusion because language is a key part of what it means to be trans. Trans liberation is not just about making it safe for trans people to express their gender through clothing or various body modifications — though this is obviously critical. It is also about recognizing that the way we talk about gender has real implications for trans people’s lives. Language carries the power to erase, marginalize, and oppress trans people; however, with conscious modification, it can also be deployed to validate, celebrate, and affirm trans lives.