- know they’re problematic
- know why they’re problematic
- don’t dismiss people’s feelings/dissatisfaction with them
- don’t silence people when they’re talking about the problems in your media, because your enjoyment is not more important than that discussion.
Congratulations, you’ve reached the minimum level of decency for being a person who enjoys things that might be problematic.
I will not be handing you a cookie.
Over the past two years, I’ve shared a lot of space with cisgender feminists who are seeking to add a trans voice to their panel, event, or conference. I can often sense that these feminists’ hearts are in the right place with regards to trans issues. They’re trying and their effort is real but they’re still struggling to work past some conceptual issues that might affect their language.
So let’s start with the language and work backwards. Trans-inclusive cisgender feminists still have some pretty pernicious habits of language that stubbornly persist in their vocabulary.
Many friends and colleagues have written or tweeted about this problematic language but, much like I did in this frequently shared post on the sex/gender distinction, I wanted to compose a handy reference for cisgender feminists who know they want to be trans-inclusive and have learned some basic vocabulary, but want to learn “how to talk about it” without setting off any alarm bells.
1) Please remove the phrases “female-identified,” “male-identified,””female-bodied,” and “male-bodied” from your vocabulary.
These phrases are my number one pet peeve. Often the people using them think that they’re being really good by using these phrases instead of saying “women” and “men.” What they don’t know is that these phrases have a troubled, transphobic history and carry a lot of conceptual baggage. In their current instantiation, people who use these phrases are often just hypercorrecting, using language that is technically incorrect because it “sounds good.”
But why are they bad? “Female-identified” is a phrase that needlessly divides women with different body types from one another. When combined with language like “female-bodied,” “female-identified” carries with it the suggestion that women without vaginas are not really women, that they only identify as such in spite of their “male” bodies.
Bodies, furthermore, are not inherently male or female. Sex assignment is a social process governed largely by more-or-less arbitrary medical conventions surrounding ideal, normative genital appearance and heterosexual reproductive viability. The rigidity of our society’s two-sex system is by no means a natural outgrowth of our bodily characteristics: it’s our commitment to a two-gender system mapped in reverse onto our bodies.
“But chromsomes!” you might say. Nope. The things that you have learned and internalized about the sex of the human body are so affected by our social ideologies that they cannot be separated from them.
Even if distinctions like male/female-bodied vs. male/female identified were non-invasive or politically expedient (they’re neither), they also are semantically meaningless when we consider the full range of bodies that the category women includes. An intersex woman, for example, might not have a body that correlates with the full connotations of the phrase “female-bodied,” but may not have born with a penis, either.
Transgender women who have undergone genital reassignment surgery also frustrate the way in which “female-bodied” is used as a distinction between cisgender and transgender women: they have breasts, they have vaginas, and their bodies do not natively produce substantial quantities of testosterone. They don’t have a uterus, sure, but many cisgender women are born without a uterus as well.
By conventional and socially dominant methods of visible measurement, these bodies are female. But I’m pretty sure that people who use the phrase “female-bodied” are intending to exclude these bodies when they deploy that language.
What’s the solution to all this confusion? It’s easier than you might think. “Women” is a category that includes a variety of gender expressions and bodies. It will do just fine when you want to talk about women. “Men” is a category that includes a variety of gender expressions and bodies. It will do just fine when you want to talk about men.
You might not think it’s that simple, however. Feminism and other progressive political movements rightly engage with bodies in their political activism. Feminism, for example, focuses on reproductive justice and healthcare. How can we talk about sex, bodies, and reproduction without drawing lines between transgender women and cisgender women’s bodies?
Easy. When you want to talk about gender, talk about gender. When you want to talk about body politics, talk about bodies. If you want to talk about issues that affect people with vaginas, for example, you’re talking about both men and women.
And, as Katherine Cross observes on Feministing, feminism should fully integrate a focus on transgender women’s reproductive rights and healthcare with a focus on issues like abortion and birth control. Trans women’s bodies are women’s bodies and they deserve a place in the mainstream of feminist body politics and reproductive justice efforts.
To summarize, then, phrases like “female-identified” and “female-bodied” are biologically reductionist, needlessly divisive, and functionally meaningless. If you feel like they are necessary to engage in your form of feminist body politics, it’s time to shake up your body politics. EIther way, please quit using these phrases.
2) Please do not list “women” and “trans women” as different categories when listing marginalized groups or talking about oppression.
Separating out “trans women” from “women” carries with it the suggestion that a “trans woman” is not a woman unmodified, that she is a different kind of person entirely. “Women” is allowed to stand alone as an unquestioned and unmarked category while “trans women” are marked as the Other to a de facto group of cisgender women.
This linguistic habit also runs the risk of suggesting that trans women do not experience the same marginalization that women do. I most recently heard it used in the context of “I know what it’s like to be a woman but I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans woman.”
While there are forms of oppression that are unique to transgender people, transgender women share in cisgender women’s oppression. Sexual and domestic violence, street harassment, employment discrimination, body image issues, lack of access to reproductive health care, eating disorders, self-harm, the list goes on; if it affects cisgender women, it affects transgender women, too.
Furthermore, if you utter the word “women,” you are already including transgender women by definition. At that point, it’s up to you to be sure that your feminist politics also includes issues that acutely affect transgender women in particular such as police harassment, stop and frisk laws, gender identity inclusion in civil rights legislation, access to trans-inclusive healthcare, etc.
In some contexts where it’s necessary to highlight your own privilege, it might be worthwhile to note that you are unaware of the added layers of marginalization that transgender women experience. But do not do this at the expense of disavowing the common struggles of women, unmarked, unmodified, transgender and cisgender alike.
When you must speak to the specific issues that affect cisgender women and transgender women respectively, don’t leave your own womanhood unmarked while marking a transgender woman’s womanhood.
Transgender women’s particular struggles are yours too as a fellow woman; they’re not mythical, comprehension-defying.forms of oppression. If you’re a cisgender woman, you don’t get to speak from experience about transgender women’s specific oppression, true, nor do you have the authority to prescribe directions for transfeminist politics, but you also don’t get to mark transgender issues as a very important special interest compartment of feminism. They’re your issues, too.
3) Please do not self-label as “cisgender” unless you are directly commenting on your own privilege.
There are moments when one’s cisgender status needs to be acknowledged. When making claims about transgender people or speaking about transfeminist politics, it’s probably useful to let your audience know the location from which you’re speaking.
But don’t drop your “cisgender” status so much that it becomes an empty disclaimer. You do need to consider issues of authority and perspective, but please be aware that constantly reminding everyone that you’re cisgender is a way of highlighting differences between women rather than building community among them.
This is why I generally advise other women not to disclose their cisgender status on Facebook now that gender options have expanded unless they primarily use their Facebook as a political platform and feel it necessary to disclose their position of privilege.
4) Don’t make distinctions between sex and gender or use phrases like “biological woman” or “biowoman.”
The general lesson across all these points is: don’t draw distinctions between cisgender and transgender women unless you have to. When you do need to draw these distinctions, don’t use language that ties specific genders to specific kinds of bodies.
While I generally give most cisgender feminists who use this language the benefit of a doubt, I do want to mark a troubling mindset that often lurks behind these phrases and linguistic habits. If you’ve read through this article, clearly see what’s been happening with your language, and you’re ready to change it, congratulations! My work here is done.
If you were still encountering some internal resistance as you scrolled through this piece, read on:
Some cisgender feminists want to practice trans-inclusive politics, they know how to repeat the mantra “trans women are women” like it’s their job, but somewhere in their heart of hearts, they still approach a transgender woman on an interpersonal level as a different kind of woman. Somewhere, it still matters to them what kind of genitals another woman has. Somewhere, they don’t feel a transgender woman as their sister, they see her as an asterisk.
If this is you, you’ve got some internal work to do that goes beyond your use of language. You have to ask yourself what womanhood means to you, you have to internalize what it means for you personally that the category of “woman” includes people without vaginas or people who did not have them since birth, you have to examine and challenge your own cisnormative feelings of entitlement to know the intimate details of other women’s bodies. You have to figure out a way not just to say that transgender women are women, but to embrace transgender women as such in a way that is not tokenistic, condescending, or hollow. If this describes your position, start with the language and let your heart follow.
Delicious stopped hosting the code for the tag cloud, I think? I did some research into it and it just appears they stopped…doing? the tag cloud.
Obviously, this comes as an inconvenience because the point of it was so we had a visible index of learning resources in case someone is curious about/needs a link to a specific subject.
Also, I can’t discern the links anymore on delicious, so essentially it’s kind of useless.
Anyone know a bookmarking resource other than delicious?
~MF derse: the recs so far! you can check the notes on this post to see them too, and also in case someone else answers. (thanks for everyone’s input, too! youre all dolls.)
a few gems from my childhood growing up with a white family (I am mixed race, both my parents are PoC, but both are adopted by white families so pretty much my entire extended family is white)
my grandmother told me when I was 12 that I needed to look into going by my middle name (Kristine) because my first name was too “ethnic” and “exotic” and my middle name is much more “American”, since my dark complexion is “already going to make things hard” for me. My first name is Gabriella.
I am a college student with a 4.0. in high school I took all honors and AP/IB classes. I am just as smart as all of my siblings but I have always been treated differently by my grandmother because I am darker skinned and my siblings are all white passing. At Christmas dinner my senior year of high school, my grandmother asked us all how we were doing in school. at the time I was the only one of my siblings having no trouble in my classes. Out of nowhere, in front of my entire family, she told my dad “kris, gabriella really doesn’t need to be in those difficult classes. you’re asking too much of her, she’d do better with some easier subjects. you should pull her out of honors.” Everyone, EVERYONE knew she only said it because i’m black.
last summer I decided to try a sew in because I heard they were easy to care for in the summer. My stepmom’s all white and super ignorant family were all swimming in her parents pool. I got out of the water to go sit by my dad. moments later I feel trifling ass HANDS groping my scalp and pulling at my tracks. “I always wondered how these things worked!” My stepmoms mother was inspecting me like a fucking farm animal. I swatted her hands away so fast and told her not to touch my head. everyone acted surprised because I was so “hostile.” I know for sure they say nigger when i’m not around. later that same day they all got out their guitars to play music and they looked to me and my siblings, undoubtedly the only people of color for a good fifteen mile radius, and said “which one of you guys is gonna rap for us?” hate. hate. hate. hate.
My grandma was going on and on about the “nice boy” who cuts her yard. “well I have a great lawn mower boy. he’s just the nicest boy. the boy wont be here for a few days,” etc. My dad asked what high school the kid went to. My grandma answered “oh, he’s about 45!!” she saw nothing wrong with calling this man a boy.
My grandma told my dad when he got engaged to my half black mom that he was making the biggest mistake. her words “she could have been a Chinese, or a Mexican, ANYTHING but a black.”
This is for all the white people who try to pull that “I cant be racist I have a black boyfriend/cousin/niece/nephew” yah you fucking can and based on that statement you prooobbbably are. gooooo fuck yourself.
granniesabode: (Gore warning for most of these) Shadoweyes is a superhero dystopia comic, Oh Human Star covers gender, sexuality, & androids(implied suicide warning), The Last Cowboy is a semi dark scifi similar to TheEnd but covers discrimination, & Shortpacked starts off as a slice of life comedy in a toy store that gains a more diverse cast later on & is wrapping up next year. There's a couple others like Mahoushonen Fight and Ignition Zero that might interest you, but I haven't fully caught up with them.
corey-45: COuld you recommend some webcomics that handle issues of race, ableism, sexuality and such better than Homestuck?
~MF derse: BITTER LAUGHTER.
i havent encountered one. ive actually been turned off of fandoms/webcomics for the most part, due to homestuck.
homestuck USED to be revolutionary, what with the extended allegory for racism on our planet. and the racially ambiguous characters. and the canon queer relationships. but hussie has literally fucked all of these up. (hints of biological essentialism, barely respecting his own word, and constantly making dysfunctional queer relationships, respectively)
im not gonna redirect this ask tho. i personally havent found a good webcomic, and probably wont anytime soon.
but i will do this for you!!
gimme a sec…
sorry if you’ve already covered this but its hussie using the n word uncensored, as a character he’s stated isnt black. (like six paragraphs below the image of simon) ableist language warning for link.
~MF derse: We have never “officially” talked about Dave’s blog. Thanks for bringing it up!
It’s a very good thing to put in context with the other awful racist (but in this occasion, specifically anti-black) shit he’s done, like stated “jokingly” that the kids aren’t black.
I’d also like to point out he could have saved face if the character was even black, but he’s specifically made a character that has immersed himself in Black American culture that isn’t actually black. Because, as it has been clarified before, many times, blackness is considered easily digestible on anyone that isn’t actually black. (Plus, he can get away with racist cracks if he jokes about non-black characters appropriating the culture. Some of the fans also drew this erroneous conclusion.)
(Sorry it took so long to get to this!)