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What does it mean to ban “transgender”?

Maybe try “trans” instead

Although conservatives often talk about the management of political language as if it were a distinctly leftist form of censorship — that horrible “political correctness” which even many liberals openly disdain— it’s clear that Republicans fully understand that linguistic choices have political implications. We already knew that Republicans have their own standards for politically correct language (remember the degree of outrage regarding the speed at which President Obama labelled an incident as radical Islamic terrorism?), but today provides an especially clear example of politically-motivated linguistic control.*

Source: Devon Anderson (Instagram)

The Washington Post reports that employees of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have been told to eliminate the use of certain words from budget documents, including evidence-based, diversity, fetus, vulnerable, and transgender. Some of these words were to be replaced with more conservative-friendly alternatives, but it isn’t clear whether a replacement for transgender was suggested or whether the word was simply to be removed. Let’s consider both possibilities.

[Note: The CDC has suggested that the linguistic restriction here was not imposed from above but rather presented as a strategy to make documents more palatable to conservative lawmakers. I think the insights here apply regardless of whether these linguistic exclusions are forbidden or simply discouraged. If you’re a CDC scientist and you’ve done research on trans people that needs to be reported, you’re going to face some linguistic conundrums under this policy/“suggestion”.]

If an alternative word was suggested, my money would be on the word transsexual. Some history: not long ago, transsexual was in far greater use than it is today, including among trans people ourselves — in fact, some of my early academic publications (from around 2007–2010) talk about “female-to-male transsexuals,” reflecting the parlance of that time and the language used by many of my research participants.** In 2017, the problems with the word transsexual are more widely recognized and, as a result, it’s come to be much less common as a term of self-identification in a lot of trans communities. Trans people frequently object to the word transsexual because of its history as a medical term associated with the pathologizing diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” (now known as “Gender Dysphoria”) as well as its association with the belief that being trans is primarily about changing one’s sex rather than having one’s gender affirmed. It’s possible that CDC employees are being encouraged to use transsexual as a more scientific (and hence “technically correct,” in many people’s view) and — perhaps more importantly — less politicized way of referring to people who do not identify with their assigned sex.

Source: Ben Thompson, Vice (https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/ex95xm/transparent-trans-road-block-in-nz)

If this is what happened, it speaks to the success of trans people’s linguistic interventions — specifically in the push to use transgender rather than transsexual as the general default term for trans people. The use of transgender prioritizes trans people’s self-understanding over the views of cisgender doctors and scientists, and in this sense the use of transgender over transsexual by medical researchers in particular reflects a change in the treatment of trans people in the sciences. Even as many problems remain in research on trans health, trans folks have begun to achieve greater agency over the ways we are spoken about, which also suggests greater agency over whether and how we are seen and understood. The very fact that some as-yet-unidentified element of this overtly transphobic administration is pushing back against the CDC’s use of transgender is evidence that the CDC’s discourses about trans people are ultimately supportive and that the word transgender itself indexes a trans-affirming stance. If the current administration feels the need to ban the word transgender in favor of another word, our linguistic activism must be working.

More likely, however, the ban on the word transgender was intended to limit, or even eliminate, the discussion of transgender people and their health concerns from documents produced by the CDC. I’m guessing this is the desired outcome, particularly given that the word vulnerable was banned along with it. Like a lot of organizations where people do health research, the CDC has probably been taking a greater interest in vulnerable populations, including transgender people. The objection being raised here may not be (only) about the word transgender, but about the very presence of trans bodies in our collective knowledge about disease and health — let alone the recognition that trans people may deserve extra attention because of their vulnerable position in society.

But banning a word cannot stop people from talking about the concept the word refers to.

There are any number of alternatives to transgender, including slightly cheeky options like people who are not cisgender. My recommendation for CDC employees pushing back against this instruction would be to refer to transgender people simply as trans people. In addition to being a form of resistance that technically obeys the rule, there are at least two specific benefits to this choice.

  1. Trans is the most commonly used term of identification among trans people. As a result, the use of this term in research documents affirms trans people’s language and self-understanding. In recognition that any choice we make when we label trans people (or any other group) will have political implications, the choice of a colloquial term like trans over medicalized options like transsexual sends a message of political solidarity rather than support for the transphobic status quo.
  2. Trans is polysemous; that is, it has multiple meanings. In scientific genres, the more common use of trans is likely to be as a prefix describing anything from trans-cranial surgery to blood transfusions. On a practical level, eliminating the linguistic form trans would be far more difficult than eliminating the word transgender, particularly if trans activists were willing to allow for the use of the normally dispreferred single-word constructions transperson/transwoman/transman in order to gum up any efforts to search-and-replace. (After all, without trans, how could we talk about trans-vaginal ultrasounds?)

This last point brings it home to a long-held precept in linguistics: you don’t need a distinctive word for a concept in order to talk about it. Even if a particular language has many distinctive words for snow, say, this doesn’t mean that speakers of other languages cannot conceive of and talk about differences between, say, fine freshly fallen powder and dark, solidly packed-in ice. Banning a word does not functionally ban discussion of the concept that word refers to; if the phrase trans people were banned, too, there would remain other ways to talk about people who are not cisgender. If the desired policy is a ban on talking about trans people, the policy will need to go further than a list of words.

One of the great insights about language offered by social theorist Michel Foucault was that prohibitions against discourse can incite the very language they are meant to curtail, producing a “proliferation of discourse.” And who are we all talking about today? Trans people and our social and medical vulnerability.


* The question, of course, is not whether politically-motivated language reform is inherently good or bad, but what kind of politics is being promoted. In this case, the political message is quite clear.

** See also Julia Serano’s 2007 distinction between transgender/cisgender and transsexual/cissexual in Whipping Girl)

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