Do Words Count?

One key question here is “Do words count?”

Some people are saying that since “for women married to heterosexual crossdressers” and “no transgendered people allowed” come to the same purpose, having a room where women who do not identify as transgender feel safe, that there is no difference between the statements, and anyone who challenges “no transgendered people allowed” is just quibbling over nothing.

They argue that it is about the ends, not the means, and questioning the means is just bad.

I believe that words count, and the difference between those two phrases, between those two approaches count.

This is something I have often been unable to explain to people who identify as heterosexual crossdressrs, people who see their primary identity as straight white men and their transness as something that is just something they can put on or take off at will.

Miqqui Gilbert, a professor at York University, liked one of my phrases — “crossdresser years,” which posits that the more out you are, the more you mature as a transperson. If you are only out six Saturday nights a year, then it will take a while to get out of the miniskirt and black eyeliner, but if you spend a few weeks out, you will learn to create a more mature presentation of self faster.

Problem was that when Gilbert used this phrase in a paper, they identified me as a crossdresser. I wrote and told them that I never identified as a crossdresser, even during my “guy-in-a-dress” days when I was using what we now call genderqueer to try and locate some androgny, some balance. Needless to say, that didn’t work for me, and I went to understanding I was more a woman of transgender experience than any kind of man.

Gilbert, though, was angry at my challenge. “I am sick of identity politics!” they replied.

The one who had invoked identity politics, though, was Gilbert when they assigned me an identity to which I had never ascribed simply because assigning me as a crossdresser fit their model.

To Gilbert those words don’t matter, much the same way as they don’t matter to another crossdresser who thinks that pigeonholing hurts the community.

I remember a crossdresser whose description of transgender fit his rationalizations, but didn’t leave room for me to explain who I am. I asked him to use more inclusive language, but he never would.

To help him understand, I wrote a four page version of his narrative written in the inclusive transgender language I use, rather than his crossdresser vernacular. For example, rather than saying “I am straight,” I wrote “I always loved women.”

He was touched and moved by my draft. He felt he had been seen and understood, respected and acknowledged by my writing.

The next day, though, he was using the same language to define himself, the language that cuts me out in the quest to claim normativity. I did not feel seen and understood, respected and acknowledged.

I was having a challenge with the partner of a transowman. I made an offer to my friend: I would write a piece from her viewpoint and she could write a piece from mine, so we both knew the other had respect for us.

“That will never work!” my friend replied.

“Why not?” I asked. “Do you think I can’t adequately reflect her position with my language?”

“Of course you can,” they replied. “But she can’t reflect your position!”

Language counts. And respecting the language of others counts, which many mainstream people, who quest for a kind of mainstream normativity that erases difference rather than respecting and venerating it, just don’t understand. We don’t become one by erasing nuance, we become one by embracing nuance, by understanding that valuing our essential differences allows us to more completely understand our fundamental similarities.

Human life is not about the destination, it is about the journey. It is about how we grow and learn and become more connected and connecting, more centered in spirit rather than more separating in the flesh. It is only sharing symbols that lets us share what is below the surface, and the most important symbolic tool we have is language. Language is what makes us more than animals, language is what lets us access and share our inner beliefs, feelings and thoughts, language is the foundation of art and the release for the divine inside.

Someone asked what one thing we would say about transgender. My answer was simple:

Every time you see someone express transgender, they are expressing something they know to be true about themselves in the best way they know how to do it.

To me transgender is about expression of truth, about expression. It isn’t about the ends, it’s about the means we use to achieve those ends, about our symbols.

To evaluate transgender on just the ends misses the point. We can do everything we need to do in a grey jumpsuit with our head shaved. But we can’t be in and of ourselves without external expression of who we know ourselves to be.

Transgender not about the ends, rather transgender is about the power and beauty of symbolic expression.

And to me, that means the language always counts.

4 thoughts on “Do Words Count?”

  1. “The one who had invoked identity politics, though, was Gilbert when they assigned me an identity to which I had never ascribed simply because assigning me as a crossdresser fit their model.”

    i’m struck by how nearly identical this phrase is to something often said by non-TG-identified transsexuals, in criticism of their own assignment into the broader TG model.

  2. The key difference, in my mind, is that they are rarely talking about being identified on a personal, individual level — “Lisa is a transgender woman” rather than “Lisa is a transsexual woman” — but are more concerned about a broader social identification where they are not seen as the woman they believe their genital reconstruction bought them.

    They feel they get seen as queered man, and they need someone to blame for that identification. Rather than focusing on social functions like hererosexism, or the limits of their own performance, they complain that transgender people have corrupted the identity of transsexual by queering it, not following the rules of assimilation & denial that they have followed as “true transsexuals.”

    In other words, they are angry because they see their blood sacrifice to be mocked by those who want what they bought with surgery without that cost, who then devalue and corrupt the identity in the process.

    In my case, I had a specific label applied to me, and asked for a correction.

    In their case, they fail to earn the label they claim — “woman” — and are looking for someone to blame, assigning that blame to heinous men in dresses who devalue true transsexuals by taking their surgery-right.

    Complaining that they are swept in under the transgender umbrella and therefore lose their womanhood is different than saying “the specific label in this paragraph has never applied, please change it”, at least to me.

  3. Shortly after reading this post, I read an article by the President of the Arizona State Bar Association (yes, I’m an attorney; please don’t hold it against me :-) )about recent initiatives to increase diversity within the legal profession, and understanding and tolerance for the diverse communities we serve. He talked about how some attorneys seem to want everyone they encounter to come from the “same homogeneous mass of the populace” that we come from ourselves. Then he continued,

    “I doesn’t work that way, folks. As members of the legal profession, we interact on a daily basis with people whose comprehension of our message is screened through filters formed by backgrounds, experiences and cultural histories that bear no resemblance to ours. If we are not equipped to deal with those differences, our ability to function as lawyers suffer.”

    I found it remarkable that even some in the legal profession are starting to recognize some of things you were saying about the need to step outside our own paradigm and open ourselves to the possibility that there are other ways to experience and interpret the world around us. Who knows, maybe there is hope after all, even for attorneys!

    Yes, words do matter. As you say, they are the symbols that we use to open our world and our experience to others that we may learn and grow from our differences and our similarities. If we insist that others use only the symbols we know, we will never know the richness and depth of the diversity that is all around us.

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