Why trans and trans* caught on as cover terms for transgender, transsexual, transman, transwoman, etc.

Why Trans Caught On

Why Trans Caught On

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Dec. 8 2014 3:21 PM

Why Trans Caught On

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Image from Wikimedia Commons, text added by Gretchen McCulloch

In the late 1990s, I attended a conference focused on "those who identify at the male end of the gender spectrum." At the end of the conference, organizers asked each participant to fill out an exit poll, intended to capture demographic information about conference attendees. In addition to the usual geographic/age-related questions, organizers asked about gender identity, and included a checkbox for every term they had ever heard used as a self-descriptor by members of this community. The list included: transdike, transdyke, transexion, transsexual, transgender, transie, transindividual, transmale, translesbigay, transnatural, transman, transguy, tranz-fag, trannyfag, MTM (man to male), FTM, trannyboy, tranzboy, boitransboi, tranzsissy, transsissy, sissyboi, transmasculine, dragboitransperson, transhuman, transqueer. And below these check boxes was a box that said, "Other," and a line to write in a term.

Despite its length, the above list is not fully inclusive; people are always adding to it. This is a population of people trying to morph English in ways that allow them to describe their experience of gender to others. If English is your first language, you grew up in a culture that recognizes two genders, male and female, believing them to be fixed reality and determined at birth. "It’s a boy!" or "It’s a girl!" are often the first words an emerging infant hears upon being born. Yet, this statement isn’t always true; sometimes, that baby grows up defying that birth pronouncement, revisiting that gender assignment.

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Re-examining gender

With only two words to choose from, man or woman, boy or girl, those who re-examine gender find themselves bumping up against the limitations of English. How can two words begin to capture the experience of the complex social process we call gender? Those redefining gender for themselves expand the lexicon far beyond two words, such that it becomes clear there is no consensus at all on terminology. For instance, some happily call themselves transsexual, noting they did change the sex of their body and this feels the most descriptive to them; others recoil in horror at the idea, exclaiming, "How can you use that term, it’s so medical model and pathologizing!"

Note how many of the above terms include the prefix trans. In the interest of pragmatic inclusivity, the shorthand term trans has become part of the community lexicon. A newer term still is trans*, reinforcing the idea that there are multiple possible endings to follow trans. Even there, consensus isn’t possible. Some view trans and trans* as two different populations of people—trans is viewed as the umbrella term for those who undertake some form of physical transition, while those who are trans* are in a middle-ground of gender that doesn’t pursue physical body modification. Others view trans as a fluid, deliberately-vague term that stands on its own, much like the term queer; the term trans* makes more clear that there are multiple identities under consideration, that one should then ask, "What does your * stand for?"

The ever-changing lexicon of gender identity

When a community lacks consensus on its own terminology, it becomes difficult for allies to understand just what terminology is acceptable and what isn’t. What about words that have historically been used in a pejorative sense, such as tranny? A rule of thumb applies to all such words (queer among gay/lesbian people, nigger among African-Americans)—if an ally is asking, "Can I use that word, really?" then the word is not fully reclaimed yet, and should be avoided by allies. It still retains vestiges of its former negative connotation. If it were fully reclaimed, its former negative connotation would be forgotten, as if it were a new word being invented and used for the first time. An ally would not then wonder, "Can I use that word, really?"

Trans is not a reclaimed word; it is invented terminology without the baggage of historically pejorative words such as tranny. As such, it is fine for an ally to use the word trans, in any context. But, that’s just my interpretation of the emerging trans lexicon; ask another trans person, and you may get a completely different opinion. The important thing for allies to remember is, none of us is right, or wrong, none of us has ownership over the vocabulary of our people. Respectful intention is what makes an ally an ally; precise use of vocabulary isn’t possible in the ever-changing lexicon of gender identity.

A version of this post appeared on the blog of Oxford Dictionaries