See also: The faces of transgender teen America
But this learning curve offers a chance for us to get a little more inclusive and intentional with what we say. It’s an opportunity that, for allies, is as essential as it is complicated.
Susan Stryker, director of the Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona, is critical of what she calls “language policing” — judging word usage without taking intent into account. When it comes to allies, Stryker says intentions are often good, but wording may rub some members of the community the wrong way.
“If someone is saying [only slightly non-inclusive phrases], they are probably trying to do the right thing,” she says. “I think the trans person should understand the intention behind the act — and then, maybe at some point, address it.”
For those in socially disempowered positions, being able to define how you’re spoken about can be really powerful, Stryker says. But in addressing language that can be non-inclusive, it is important to move toward a goal of education — not alienation.
It’s about creating a space so you can go deeper into the issue, rather than trying to police speech
It’s about creating a space so you can go deeper into the issue, rather than trying to police speech in a way that shuts down learning and awareness,” she says. “The ally has to not be defensive. They have to say, ‘Oh, I just said this thing that othered you. It’s interesting that I enacted my privileged position. I just learned something — thank you.'”If you’re an ally who wants to acknowledge and improve upon your language missteps, educate yourself on five ways your speech may unintentionally marginalize transgender people — and how to fix it.
1. Using the phrase “preferred pronoun.”
Pronouns are a big deal — and rightfully so. They’re the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender in everyday conversation.
We all know using pronouns that honor a trans person’s gender is top priority to be a good ally. But often when talking about why correct usage is important, we use the phrase “preferred pronoun” to describe a person’s terms.
Using “preferred” to qualify someone’s pronouns suggests that terms they are claiming don’t really belong to them — they are just preferred over their “true” pronouns. In reality, a transman using “he” as a pronoun doesn’t just prefer that word over “she” — that is the only pronoun that is acceptable to use in reference to him.
The fix: Instead of asking someone’s preferred pronouns, ask, “What pronouns do you use?” It’s a small yet substantial difference.
2. Saying someone was “born a boy/girl.”
No matter how old a transgender person is when they come out, it’s important to acknowledge they may feel their gender has always been the same one they are just now publicly claiming. To explain this concept, Stryker quotes Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Stryker explains that nobody is truly born a boy or a girl; rather, we evolve to truly claim those (or other) gender markers as our own. Saying someone was born a boy or girl suggests they were inherently one gender, but chose to be another.
“We are all assigned male, female, or intersex at birth, and become the people we are,” Stryker says.
The fix: Use the phrase “assigned male/female at birth” instead. This phrasing respects the true gender of a trans person while simultaneously pointing out flaws in how we assign gender in society.
3. Using “he or she” as a catch-all.
When looking to be inclusive of all people, we often use the so-called gender catch-all “he or she.” But when making it a goal to be inclusive of all people under the transgender umbrella, it’s important to remember that binary pronouns don’t fit all genders.
Non-binary and genderqueer individuals sometimes use pronouns like they/them and ze/hir. Using “he or she” actually excludes a group that deserves to be acknowledged.
The fix: The limitations of our language make correcting this problem tricky. Intentionally using “they” as a term to deliberately be inclusive to all genders works well, but may annoy some strict grammar lovers. Another option? Just rework the sentence. It’s worth the trouble.
4. Using the term “self-identified” to qualify a trans person’s gender.
Qualifying gender with the term “self-identified” may inadvertently suggest that a trans person’s identity isn’t actually valid. While Stryker says using the phrase “self-identified trans man” is perfectly fine when it’s necessary to indicate someone is out proudly as transgender, using it to qualify their gender (e.g., “self-identified man”) is a problem.
“It’s not OK to say ‘a self-identified man’ for a trans man because that would imply they were only a man to themselves, not others,” she says.
To put it another way, it would seem silly to call a non-trans man a “self-identified man,” since no qualifier is needed. Trans people deserve the same consideration of having their gender respected.
The fix: Just drop the “self-identified” bit.
5. Saying someone is “female-bodied” or “male-bodied.”
Some women have penises. Get over it. pic.twitter.com/AjDzuiGszB
— Ashlee Bliss (@Ashlee_Bliss) February 11, 2015
Most, if not all, trans allies will attest to the fact that thinking in terms of one standard female or male body is limiting. But well-meaning allies will use the terms “female-bodied” or “male-bodied” while trying to be inclusive of trans people, which can be a problem.
When someone uses the term “female-bodied,” for instance, they are trying to address non-trans women and trans men. But the way they’re using language to gender body parts actually suggests a trans man’s body isn’t truly that of a man.
It’s important to remember that a trans person’s body — no matter their transition or surgery status — is the body of their gender.
The fix: Just say what you mean. For example, if you want to specifically address non-trans women, just say “non-trans women.”
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