Tomorrow, I'm giving a short presentation in my school's GSA, at an event called Trans* 101. I haven't actually finished preparing yet. It's kind of terrible. My powerpoint only has three slides so far. My presentation is going to be about the complex use of language and labels surrounding the Trans* community, and, more generally, issues of sex, sexuality, gender, race, religion... intersectionality! Woo!
My central hope is to explain the reason why it's not hypocritical to want labels to exist to describe trans* people's experience, but still reject the labels provided by the gender binary -- why it's not okay to just settle for the labels that already exist, and how to go about adjusting to the existence of labels you haven't grown up with.
So, to try and straighten out my thoughts, that's what today's blog post is going to be about. (Until I run out of time and have to go to work.)
So... what do I call you?
Generally speaking, trans* people will let you know how they prefer to be identified, if you ask them politely. That said, a lot of us have some pretty bad experiences with trying to get people to accept our identities. Here are some directions that conversation sometimes goes, and a rough outline of what's wrong with it.
- But what are you, really? I hope it's immediately obvious what's wrong with this one, because what you're telling the person that what they experience to be true about themselves is less valid than what the civilization around them says is true about them -- and we wouldn't be having this presentation, this event, this movement if what the civilization surrounding us was getting things right.
- But you don't look (whatever)! There's an important set of distinctions to be made here. This distinction itself is slightly reductionistic (I'll return to reductionism later) but it's better than what we get in the mainstream, so here we go: A person's sexuality, sex, gender identity, and gender presentation are all totally different things. There's no such thing as a matching set, any combination of all of them is okay, and nobody is being inconsistent by failing to match all of them up with one line in the cisgender, heterosexual convention of the civilization surrounding us. If you meet someone who identifies their sexuality as queer, who you happen to know was assigned male at birth, tells you their gender is female, and only ever wears wizard robes, what pronouns do you use? Does it sound hard? Because it's not. It's super easy. She/her, unless that person tells you otherwise.
- But ze/xe/they/sie is so hard! If you make this criticism of using nonbinary gender pronouns, a lot of trans* people won't have a lot of sympathy for you. The reason for that is, for the most part, every day of most of our lives we had people calling us by a gender pronoun that makes us uncomfortable, pressuring or sometimes forcing us to do things to conform to an identity that doesn't match our notion of ourselves, some (many) of us look in the mirror and feel kinda sick when we see the body looking back at us -- long story short, you having to learn a few new words is not ever going to be proportionate in the level of inconvenience compared to the experience trans* people have in our daily lives.
I wanted to write more in this post, but I'm basically out of time. I've got to go, will possibly write more on my break, and will definitely be staying up late tonight to work on this presentation. Things to come: how to acquire language, why inadequate language is okay but even more inadequate language isn't, why dictionary definitions suck, and more! Depending on what I have time to prepare. I hope I can pull this together...