In the summer I was involved in a discussion panel at Norwich Pride on the topic “Labels are for Soup Cans” (every time I write or say this I have
a Warhol flashback, but maybe that’s just me). A diverse panel discussed language used to describe LGBT folk and also language that we use to describe ourselves. At one stage a panel member used language to describe trans people which I was uncomfortable with. I raised my concerns and he saw my point – a lot of “offensive” use of language is unintentional after all – and we moved on. It felt like a friendly and constructive discussion, and the audience was also very engaged and involved.
As I began to move towards transition, the “labels” people used about me, and I used about myself, began to change. Before, virtually everyone had labelled me as a man. I had labelled myself as a man too, although I had other, hidden labels for myself. But I was starting to identify differently, and as my true self became more public I had to reconsider what language I was, and was not comfortable with. The view I came to then, and still hold now, is that labels can be liberating or constraining. Maybe when they are liberating we should call them “badges” rather than labels, with the connotation that we have either either chosen them or are happy to wear them at the suggestion of others.
For whatever reason, a number of tricky issues around “labels” have arisen recently. Long-standing trans activist Kate Bornstein has written an article about labelling which I have some issues with, but which helpfully explains the origin of the term tranny (which some, including me, find problematic). According to Kate, confirmed by Roz Kaveney, it dates back earlier than I thought it did. Simultaneously Stonewall UK have kicked up a controversy thanks to a brief section of their FIT video (aimed at schoolchildren) which touches on trans issues with a pretty heavy hand, and again uses the word tranny – the relevant section can be viewed on YouTube. This is the latest in a succession of actions by Stonewall which many trans people find irritating, not least because in England and Wales the organization is resolutely LGB (no T). Finally, my own recent piece on body modification received an antagonistic comment which focussed on the term transgender (“As a transsexual woman I despise the word”, the commenter wrote) before becoming even more confrontational.
Kate’s contribution has triggered some strong responses (and a very measured one from Quinnae Moongazer, which I commend to you, and which Kate has responded to) . One of the key points in my piece was that there are many ways of being gender variant, and just because I have come to particular conclusions about my own identity (including that I am female – not wannabee female, not pretend female, not “nearly” female, but simply female) that does not invalidate other people who come to different conclusions about their gender identity, and nor do their conclusions invalidate mine.
However this does demonstrate how language is not absolute, but at the same time can feel very loaded in particular contexts. There are examples, of course, of minorities co-opting hatespeak terms and re-purposing them, reclaiming them and becoming proud of them. The term queer – used when I was young exclusively as a term of abuse – has been reclaimed by the LGBT community, both as a poweful term but also an umbrella term. Despite our different histories and experiences we can all claim our queerness if we wish. Some people don’t like the term, despite the reclamation, because they find the historical association too strong, and some find it too vague (I think its vagueness is its strength).
In that respect, transgender is a similar term. I, and many others, use it to describe people with a huge variety of gender variant identity and expression, which chimes in my mind with my view that there is indeed a gender spectrum (hidden and denied by many in the straight world, or at least those in authority) which deserves a catch-all, inclusive term. Lots of people like it, but lots of people don’t, and if you think there are just two clear genders you may find the term problematic.
The term tranny, according to Kate and others, arose decades ago as a catch-all term as a result of the “bond between the drag queens and the MTF transsexuals in Sydney (Australia)”. I first heard it in the nineties, when the Internet was facilitating the growth of a scene in London (which for years I was too scared to join) and Vicky Lee, one of the key organizers, published a directory which she called The Tranny Guide. I never loved the word, but at the time it didn’t bother me much. Later it began to strike me as flippant and almost apologetic, in the way that an individual is when someone calls them a name that hurts and they re-use it to try and pretend they’re not bothered, when clearly they are.
Within the UK scene, it began to be a word more readily used by those who identifed as crossdressers, but often rejected by those who were transitioning. For some reason in the UK in particular, there is often a strong sense of separation, and occasionally almost antagonism between the crossdressing and transitioning members of our community. In the 1990s, when I was strongly resisting admitting I belonged to the latter category and so hanging onto the former category like a lifeboat, I came to dislike the frivolity I perceived the word tranny to have.
Later still, the term leaked out into the community at large, and got picked up by the media. And in both cases I think, it is used negatively, and sometimes as hatespeak – the term shouted out at a trans person in the street, the shouter trying to make sure that the object of their hate can be seen as less than human, and therefore fair game for abuse. That abuse can get pretty bad – Saturday is Transgender Day of Remembrance, which memorializes those of us who were killed for who we are.
Ultimately, we all want to be ourselves and to be able, as far as possible, to express ourselves freely. For trans people getting to that point can be a very difficult journey. I’m still on my journey, and it took me decades just to get on the right road. Many people struggle, or don’t make it at all. So where does this leave us when it comes to labels/names/words? I think labels can empower when we use them ourselves, or when others use them about us respectfully and affirmatively. If they are used in order to limit the ambition of others, or to direct hate towards them, the effect can be incredibly powerful.
I am a woman. I have a history. I choose to label myself in other ways on occasion, and in particular contexts, in order to affirm my identity. I am very careful about using other words to describe people that might define them in ways they don’t want to be defined – be it to do with sexuality, ethnicity, disability or social class. I suggest we all take similar care and challenge the vocabulary and the thinking of the Establishment.