In Netflix’s hugely successful prison drama Orange Is the New Black, the trans actress Laverne Cox plays a prominent role as the transgender hairstylist inmate Sophia Burset — a role that has brought not just fame to Cox but also an insight for many of us into the transgender world, which until Orange hit our screens wasn’t much to be found in mainstream popular culture. Last week our horizons were broadened further when Amazon Studios gave us its new transgender comedy-drama series, Transparent, which is raking in rave reviews and ravenous binge-watchers around the world.
As we learn and understand more about the trans experience and community — thanks in part to this developing profile and popularity on our entertainment screens — let’s take a look at the language etiquette of gender transition. It’s an area of terminology that is still in a state of flux and sensitivity, and that evolving state itself both reflects and makes us examine the complicated social, psychological and biological factors that determine what defines, describes or identifies a transgender person. Has transgender replaced transexual, or is one an umbrella term that embraces the other? Does the latter refer only to those who have had gender-reassignment surgery, or is it simply an outdated term that has been superseded? Is trans acceptable as an abbreviation? Is transgender both an adjective and a noun, and should it be capitalized? Is cisgender simply the opposite of transgender? A lot of these questions don’t have simple answers.
In the August 4 issue of the New Yorker, Michelle Goldberg wrote a fascinating article called “What is a Woman?” That specific question we won’t try and answer here, but an important part of that discussion is in the terminology of gender identification and reassignment, as Goldberg explains in her piece: “The very word “transgender,” which first came into wide use in the nineteen-nineties, encompasses far more people than the term “transsexual” did. It includes not just the small number of people who seek gender-reassignment surgery … but also those who take hormones, or who simply identify with the opposite gender, or, in some cases, with both or with neither. … The elasticity of the term “transgender” has forced a rethinking of what sex and gender mean; at least in progressive circles, what’s determinative isn’t people’s chromosomes or their genitals or the way that they were brought up but how they see themselves.”
The Trans Awareness Project‘s web site further explains this subtle distinction between the two terms, and their continuing fluidity (and subjectivity) in meaning: “Sometimes transsexual is used to imply that a person has or desires to have some sort of gender affirmative surgery, while transgender is sometimes used as an umbrella term in the same way that trans is used on this website. Like many other words, the specific meanings transgender and transsexual vary with time, location, and the individual. … The argument has been made that the difference between transgender and transsexual lies in making a distinction between gender (culture/performance) and sex (bodies/biology). On the contrary, Transgender rights activist and lawyer Dylan Vade claims there is no “meaningful difference” between sex and gender and any definition “that pit biology against psychology or the body against the mind…denigrates transgender peoples self-identified genders.”
Below are dictionary definitions for transgender and transexual as they stand today, as well as GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide and the National Center for Transgender Equality on the suggested proper usage for these and other transgender terms (and the related field of cross-dressing). A potted history of the term transgender from Wikipedia (also below) adds further insight into this still evolving word. (See Glossophilia’s earlier post on another similarly changing word, queer.) Then we come to cisgender, effectively transgender‘s antonym. A recent article in The Atlantic asked “Will “cisgender” survive?” Paula Blank introduces her piece with the comment that “the linguistic complement to “transgender” has achieved some popularity, but it faces social and political obstacles to dictionary coronation.”
For the armchair linguists and language pedants among us, there’s an additional burning question: what part of speech is transgender? Is it an adjective and/or a noun, and can it even be used as a verb and turned into a participle? GLAAD answers these usage questions by prescribing the following: “Transgender should be used as an adjective, not as a noun. Do not say, “Tony is a transgender,” or “The parade included many transgenders.” Instead say, “Tony is a transgender man,” or “The parade included many transgender people.” The adjective transgender should never have an extraneous “-ed” tacked onto the end. An “-ed” suffix adds unnecessary length to the word and can cause tense confusion and grammatical errors. For example, it is grammatically incorrect to turn transgender into a participle, as it is an adjective, not a verb, and only verbs can be used as participles by adding an “-ed” suffix.” (The National Center for Transgender Equality goes further in suggesting that the use of transgender as a noun can be regarded as disrespectful.)
Coming back to Amazon’s Transparent series, with which the world seems to be falling in love, series creator Jill Soloway sums up what Transparent means to her — and in so doing she captures something of the growing richness of vocabulary and language that both describes and propels the move away from the traditionally binary concept of gender: “Transparent stands for gender freedom for all, and within that freedom we can find grays and muddled purples and pinks, chakras that bridge the heart and mind, sexiness that depends on a masochistic love or a sweeping soul dominance. In particular, Transparent wants to invent worlds that bridge the binary: Genderqueer, Boygirl, Girlboy, Macho Princess, and Officer Sweet Slutty Bear Captain are just a few incredibly confusing, gender-fucking concepts that come to mind.”
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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, transsexual has two meanings: a person who emotionally and psychologically feels that they belong to the opposite sex, and a person who has undergone treatment in order to acquire the physical characteristics of the opposite sex. Transgender seems to have a looser and more “psychological” definition; the same dictionary defines it as “denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender”. Cisgender, according to Oxford Dictionaries, denotes or relates to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender.
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Wikipedia offers us an interesting potted history of the term transgender. “Writing for health professionals in the second edition of his reference work Sexual Hygiene and Pathology in 1965, psychiatrist John F. Oliven of Columbia University used the lexical compound trans+gender in the Transexualism section of “Primary Transvestism,” noting “‘transgenderism’ is what is meant, because sexuality is not a major factor in primary transvestism.” Crossdressing pioneer Virginia Charles Prince used the compound in the December 1969 issue of Transvestia, a national magazine for cross dressers founded by Prince. In the mid-1970s both trans-gender and trans people were in use as umbrella terms. ‘Transgenderist’ was used to describe people who wanted to live cross-gender without sex reassignment surgery. By 1976, transgenderist was abbreviated as TG in educational materials. In 1979, Christine Jorgensen publicly rejected transsexual and instead identified herself in newsprint as a trans-gender saying, “gender doesn’t have to do with bed partners, it has to do with identity.” By 1984, the concept of a “transgender community” had developed, in which transgender was used as an umbrella term. In 1985, Richard Elkins established the “Trans-Gender Archive” at the University of Ulster. By 1992, the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy defined transgender as an expansive umbrella term including “transsexuals, transgenderists, cross dressers” and anyone transitioning.”
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An umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. … Use the descriptive term (transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.
Transsexual (also Transexual)
An older term which originated in the medical and psychological communities. While some transsexual people still prefer to use the term to describe themselves, many transgender people prefer the term transgender to transsexual. Unlike transgender, transsexual is not an umbrella term, as many transgender people do not identify as transsexual. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.
Transvestite, or cross-dresser?
Transvestite is a derogatory term.
Cross-Dressing: To occasionally wear clothes traditionally associated with people of the other sex. Cross-dressers are usually comfortable with the sex they were assigned at birth and do not wish to change it. “Cross-dresser” should NOT be used to describe someone who has transitioned to live full-time as the other sex or who intends to do so in the future. Cross-dressing is a form of gender expression and is not necessarily tied to erotic activity. Cross-dressing is not indicative of sexual orientation.
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