Monday, 11 April 2016

A simple guide to terms and pronouns for transgender humans

So, a short while ago our staff network had someone introduce themselves to our group via the staff LGBT+ mailing list. This person introduced themselves as a cross-dresser, and stated that they are transgender.

I should have sent my hellos really. I didn’t think to do this because I had had coffee with the same person that day and have known their personal situation for some time.

The reason I should have is that I am the openly trans* person on the LGBT E&D advisory group (as far as I know – I shouldn’t assume, but I’m sure someone would have said otherwise…), as well as a member of said mailing list. I have made it clear that I am open about my gender and am happy to answer questions. 

Therefore, the reason I should have openly responded to the email is not for the person themselves, but for the rest of the mailing list.

Why? Well, I was at a social the following week and I realised that a number of well informed, groovy folks didn’t necessarily understand the email as well as I. As in, the wording. More, this is not a simple binary situation. These people know I am a transgender woman and that I am she/her/hers. But crossdressers – how does that fit into things?  What are the right terms and pronouns to use? How do you deal with getting it wrong?

Terminology is hard. We, as a society, are improving our understanding of those around us all the time. We have a long way to go, but I am sure that the number of folks on the streets of Oxford understand the term trangender. They may not be perfect with it, but I expect they understand what it entails and that, importantly, it is not a fetish thing – and hopfully not a mental illness. I think so. Maybe not all, but certainly a much higher percentage than say five years ago.
But, as I said, terminology is hard. There are so many variables. So many permutations. And as great as society is, I am reminded constantly that even terms that have been around a while are not actually ‘common’. A few times recently I have been asked what I mean by ‘LGBT’.

We should not assume that terms we, in the queer community, use all the time have actually gained universal understanding. In the same way that using the term sputtering in the, common in the material science field, has a very limited wider-scale understanding. And when it comes to gender, it is hard to keep up with language.

Why is it hard? Well, simply because meaning shift. Once gay meant happy, and certain derogatory terms were seen as acceptable. Queer is an interesting one. Once a pejorative term, it has been reclaimed by the LGBT+ community as an umbrella term, in many ways an alternative to LGBT+ which is, letter count-wise, ever expanding. It encompasses gender and sexuality if used in blanket form and is, in my opinion, a fantastic choice for this purpose (having been repurposed!).

Gender terms (and variations) and growing /changing fast. Recently there was a list of ‘gender choices’ distributed (apparently from a school survey). I think there were like 20 odd terms. Now I am trans* and try to keep my finger on the trans-pulse. But I had never heard of many, didn’t understand others and would be hard pressed to provide an suitable explanation for others that would make everyone happy.

So I thought it would be cool if I could at least put some thoughts down for a few of the, let’s say, ‘basic’ trans* terms. Again, this is my interpretation (how I referred to myself) – and my way of dealing with things like pronouns – to be used as a guide but not gospel.

So transgender is the umbrella term for all gender variance. It may no longer be suitable as it is basically a binary term: given it’s meaning of ‘across’ as a comparison to cisgender (‘same’). It is pretty clear there are other genders that are both or neither of the binary genders, but this is still the currently accepted term. It can be shortened to trans or trans*. The asterisk I there as a placeholder: transgender, transsexual, transvestite, trans-woman, trans-man, etc. 

Transsexual is a term that is out of favour to be honest. It refers to someone medically transitioning. I use this term for myself. I think it is ‘fit for purpose’ as an explaining term and it does give me a distinction within the umbrella term of transgender. I suppose it is out of favour as it uses the word ‘sexual’ which may be confusing I guess, but I’m still happy to use it for myself. I would not use it for others though, unless I know they are happy with it. Confusing enough?

Transvestites and cross-dressers are less understood. These terms are probably the ones that are most often thought of as fetish-like, but this is not generally correct. True, some cis-gender people will cross-dress either as a fetish or ‘as a laugh’. These people are not transgender. Ditto drag-queens and –kings.
However, cross-dressing can also be used for transgender people who wear clothing of the opposite sex because they feel comfortable or happy doing so. It is that sense of feeling ‘right’ that makes it a transgender thing, rather than ‘feel dirty’ as a fetish (for lack of a far more suitable term).
Transvestite used to add to this; not only wearing the clothes of the opposite (born) gender but also acting and feeling this way. But I would say that these days many trans-folk use cross-dresser this way and I cannot help but think that the term transvestite is more out of favour as it is more understood to refer to someone who dresses for fetish, reasons than because they are trans*. Maybe I am wrong.

A case study: How would I describe myself at various times of my life and what pronouns are correct?

So, I have always been transgender. Full stop.

When young I cross-dressed, just to see how clothes and makeup felt on me due to some deep down desire. At this time I was he/him/his – because I didn’t know any better.

As a teen and post-teen I was somewhere in the gender fluid / androgynous range. I wore makeup, had long pink hair and just wore what I wanted. During this time, honestly I’d have been happiest with the pronouns they/their/theirs. But mostly (as a scruffy punk/goth/grunge teen) I went by ‘it’. This term is only suitable for teenagers, regardless of gender. I just didn’t care, I looked what I wanted.

Then I grew older and gained fear of upsetting the normal folk. For years I lived as a closet transvestite. I spent as much time wearing and ‘acting’ female as I could, whilst all the time presenting and living as a male. I occasionally went clubbing, but again this was me: the transvestite. Now, during this time I was he/him/his when presenting as male and she/her/hers when presenting as female – and this is something I would apply to trans* cross-dressers.

At a certain point, I medically transitioned. Then I saw myself as transsexual. Socially I had not fully transitioned, so during this time I presented as androgynous. I presented as neither male nor female. Again, the pronouns they/their/theirs fit best but I let it go.

Then, I followed my medical transition with a social transition. At this point, she/her/hers is clearly the correct choice of pronoun. With this came a name change. And as I said in a previous blog entry, not only did I change my legal name from a male to female name (as defined by standard social conventions), but I actually used a name different to my transvestite name. Neither of my old names fit me anymore. I was someone else, someone reborn. So, I had a new name to match.

I have been in many states of ‘transiness’. I have moved through various stages so I know what they are like. Not all trans-folk are at the same stage as me, and some have no intention of every moving through them all. It is a personal choice.
So when a person describes themselves as “a cross-dresser and transgender”, I’ve been there. I both understand and support that person and their gender identity.

So, why did this blog come to be? Well, some folks were asking how to deal with pronouns for someone who is not clearly of a binary – or rather, of different binaries depending upon the situation. Well, as I said above, takes clues from someone’s overtly gendered appearance or name. If someone presents as overtly male, use male pronouns – and the same for females. Pick up the signs. This is especially true if they have a male and female name that matches.

Of course, this will not always work. As I say, I was gender-fluid and wore makeup ‘as a boy’. And there are non-binary and gender-neutral folks around. Some boys are just very, classically effeminate and some women are butch. Yes, hideous ways of describing a person’s look, never do it to someone’s face (or behind their back), but I am using these words as they are easy to understand.

So you will be in the situation where you are just unsure. I’ll be honest – this is tricky.

There is no good way of dealing with it – but I would suggest that it is better to try rather than not. If I am unsure, I introduce myself and follow with my pronouns. If they are trans*, chances are they will do the same in response and won’t if they are cisgender. Not defiantly, but maybe.

Still not sure, well, there are three options.
Totally avoid pronouns in reference to that person at all. Which is harder to do than you may think, but possible.

Or, use gender neutral pronouns, they/their/theirs. Technically, this is not wrong to do and I am trying to do this as standard at the moment. But it does come across a little distant and cold so I understand not wanting to do this. But, as I say, at least you are not wrong. (Course, if a person looks, dresses and acts overtly of one gender, and has a clear binary name that matches it would be weird to go neutral and may upset some folks. I’d be bothered by it to be honest.)

Then your other option is to ask. Shocking! Now again, I personally would be a little put off by this seeing as I clearly present as female – but better this than getting it wrong. Sure, you could always say it to that sensitive person who gets massively upset – but I suspect it would be more cisgender folks that would be upset by this than trans-folk (or trans-folk who VERY CLEARLY as their gender). Again, at least you are not getting it wrong and you are making an effort.

Ok, side note. Obviously here I am saying that I think it can be appropriate, and fair, to ask for someone’s pronouns of choice. However, unless it is clearly acceptable you really should not ask what their gender or sex is. I know. It is weird and it has some sort of sigma. Society would be better if we were able to be more open. If asking was normal it would not single anyone out. Really the utopia would be a society where you really cannot assume gender (and sexuality). But for now this is a kinda line that you shouldn’t assume you can cross.

It goes without saying that there is very few times when asking what genitals someone has is appropriate. And this includes the question “have you had the surgery” or similar iterations.

So given how complicated it is:  you will get it wrong. I get called he from time to time by folks that know my gender identity. I slip and use the wrong pronouns from time to time when referring to others. And I think of the old me, the gender-bending boy in a dress who could easily be called ‘her’. Well intentioned by the speaker, but wrong. (Course, I would have not minded and I assume other gender-fluid folk are the same, but everyone is different!)

You even if you know the correct pronouns to use, you will still get it wrong. For me, the best way to get over it is to just carry on. And then make sure you get it right next time. I know it was a subconscious slip caused by the knowledge I was born male; something I make no effort to hide and actually talk about quite openly.

Yet sure, some folk will be upset – and will either tell you straight away or, you know, glare at you. What do you do then? Well, I still feel it is madness to stop and correct yourself. Maybe, if you do it so quickly that it is practically the same mashed-up word it is ok. But otherwise you are drawing attention to the mistake. Carry on talking.

If you do carry on and are getting the evil eye, maybe try and force the conversation so you have to use a pronoun ASAP: and get it right! In this way you are not drawing attention to your slip but you have made it clear that it was a slip and you know better.

Some folks may not give you the chance, and may jump in and say something. Well, in that case there is little to do but say sorry. It was a minor mistake on your part and the person jumping down your throat really needs to let things go a little because it happens – a LOT. If I jumped on every mistake I would be wound up and constantly looking to spring. That would not be healthy. Know yourself that you just made an honest, simple mistake in your own mind.

Course, if you keep doing it then you are a jerk. At some point you should learn!!!