Breaking Through Trans Language: Lessons From The Community | Dr. Jay Irwin | TEDxUNO

Translator: Angel Vail
Reviewer: Denise RQ In May of 2014, Time Magazine said that our society
had reached the transgender tipping point. And that was the headline
on the cover of the magazine that month, and they paired that with a photo
of actress Laverne Cox. And you may know Laverne Cox’s name, she is the actress who plays Sophia Burset on the incredibly popular Netflix show
“Orange is the New Black”. Now, I often talk about Laverne Cox because she has a pretty important
position in terms of the acting world. She is one of the few people who plays a trans character,
but is also trans herself. She identifies in the same way
as her character. So Sophia identifies
as a transgender woman, and Laverne Cox holds that same identity. Now, lots of people know Laverne Cox, which is why I bring her up often when I do trainings
about transgender identity. But, in those trainings,
questions quickly emerge, and those questions tend to revolve
around language and words. So here is just a handful,
a tiny sliver of words that the trans community uses to talk about
their own experiences of gender. And again, there are lots more out there than just the ones
that you see on this screen. We could fill up this screen,
and fill up many, many TED talks with just talking about
these different identities. But I bring this up because the trans dictionary
is not complete, and it’s changing. So if these words,
you’ve never heard these before, I’m not surprised. Right now, online, the trans community
is still making new words to describe their experiences
and describe their own ideas about their gender identity. And that’s what’s amazing right now, and potentially some of the reasons why that Time Magazine piece talked about
the transgender tipping point. The Internet allows trans folks
to access each other in ways that’s amazing. So communities have started to be built in really dramatic and impressive ways. And because these trans folks
are able to connect with one another, language has emerged,
and language has evolved. Let me situate myself
in this conversation. I identify as a female-to-male trans man. So that means for me,
that I was assigned female at birth though that didn’t really jive with how I thought of myself,
and how I existed in the world. I was raised in Alabama, which, if any of you know
anything about the South, the South has very specific ideas
about gender; very specific ideas about what it means to be masculine or feminine,
or male or female, and I didn’t really fit into those ideas. And that was OK for a while. I existed in sort of a tomboy space, for most of my young adulthood,
or my young childhood, and I didn’t get a lot of flack for that. I wasn’t really bullied all that much, until about middle school, junior high. And that’s really when I got
the very clear message that I was not performing my gender in the way other people expected me to. And I tried to modify it;
I tried to meet people’s expectations, but I just failed over and over again
because it didn’t feel genuine to me. It didn’t feel right. But I had no idea how to talk about that. I didn’t have any words to understand
what that meant for a long time. Until I was about 23, 24 years old. So those of you who are in your 30s, – the “old folks” in the room
to the high school students – you might remember an early social media platform
called LiveJournal. LiveJournal was a place
where relatively emo kids like me would talk about our parents,
and how mean they were, and I would moan and groan
over the new Dashboard Confessional album. (Laughter) But it was also a place
where you could connect with folks. You could connect with folks
who shared your identities, or shared interests that you had. So you had your own personal blog page, but you also had a space
where you could join community groups. One day, while I was just roaming
through LiveJournal, bored after class, I found a page dedicated
to talking about FTM trans people. I found a blog entry by this kid
who was my same age, and his name was Blake. He was talking about how he came
to understand his gender identity, and the words that he used to describe it, and his journey on how he understood
what it meant to be a transgender person
and a transgender man. Within the course of that one blog entry, my whole idea of myself shifted. I had finally found language. I had finally found the words
to understand myself through the words of someone else. I had never had that before,
and it was incredibly powerful. Because language is super important. Language is crucial
to understanding ourselves, and understanding the position
that we hold within society. So any of you who have tried
to learn a new language, or you grew up in a household
where multiple languages were spoken, you know the importance of shared
definitions and shared meanings of words. But even though we might speak
the same technical language, it doesn’t mean we understand
the words that a cultural group may use that we don’t belong to, or the way that language evolves
and changes over time. So I want to talk about some of these
terms that were on that earlier slide, and I’ll start with
the term “transgender”. Transgender was coined in the 1960s, though it didn’t really get adopted
for wide use until the late 1980s to 1990s. And there’s lots of different definitions
of transgender out there, but my personal favorite
is the one that’s on the screen. This is from Susan Stryker,
she’s a trans author, historian, activist, and she says that her understanding
of the word “trangender”, it’s “the movement across
a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place.” And the reason why I like
this definition so much is that it highlights that I didn’t get
to pick where I started from. I was born female assigned at birth
and was raised accordingly. But it does highlight
that you can move away from that. And often, when we talk about
trans folks moving away from that unchosen starting point, we’re talking about transition. And the term “transition” can mean
a lot of different things. There’s no one way to transition, and there’s no one right way to be trans. But transition often refers to social
transitions and medical transitions. So a social transition involves
essentially the coming out process: discovering for yourself, “What are
the words that feel comfortable for me?”, “How do I think about my gender?”, and then communicating that
to other people. Be it saying, you know, “My name is Jay now,
I want you to call me that, and I want you to use male pronouns
when you refer to me.” And claiming a transgender identity, whatever that might mean for the person. And a medical transition
refers to medical interventions that you could do to your body. Medical interventions are vast, there’s lots of different types of them, but not all trans people want
or need medical transition. So, some trans folks say,
“This is absolutely necessary.” “I need access to this kind of care
to feel comfortable with my body, to align my body
with the way that I think, align it with my mind.” But again, not all trans people do this. So there are some folks
who say, “I don’t need that.” “I feel OK with my body; I don’t need
to necessarily modify it too much,” – lots of different variations of the way
that folks can medically transition. But I’ll also put a caveat in here that medical transition is expensive. It’s not covered under health
insurance often, so it’s out of pocket expenses. We’re talking about often
medically necessary care that people have to pay for themselves. And this can range
anywhere from 5,000 dollars, on the low end of the various
surgical procedures that are out there, upwards to 30,000-50,000 dollars
for just one procedure. So this is cost prohibitive often
as well for some folks. So it’s not for everyone, not every trans person goes through
a transition in exactly the same way. But let’s get back to some of the words that we were talking about
on that earlier slide, and let’s get back
to some historical words that you may know
about the trans community. So there have been a lot of words that
have been used to refer to trans folks, and some of them
have fallen out of fashion. Some of them are not being used widely. And some of these words
can even be harmful and hurtful for trans folks to hear. So I’ll talk about the term
“transexual” in a minute, but I’ll start with “transvestite”. So the term “transvestite” was used
widely in the 60s and 70s among transgender communities
to refer to themselves. It was a word that trans folks adopted. And even to the point of one of the earliest social movements
that we know of for transgender people included the word
“transvestite” in the name. “STAR” stands for Street
Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. This group which was started
by two of the pioneers in terms of transgender
history in the United States, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, was a New York City-based group that advocated for young trans,
queer, people of color, folks who were experiencing
homelessness and poverty, in an attempt to advocate for the cause. So this word was used
as an affirming term, though, con temporarily,
this term is largely offensive. The term “transvestite” is not used
by and large really at all today within the modern transgender community. We’ll go back to the word “transexual”. “Transexual” as a term is
really the oldest word that we have to refer to folks who feel that their body doesn’t align
in the same way as their mind. So, “transsexual” con temporarily
is still used, and it refers to someone who wants
to undergo medical transition or who has undergone medical transition. And “transsexual” is a word that has a lot
of baggage for the transgender community. Some folks in the community say, “That’s the word that I use,
that’s how I understand my gender.” Other folks say, “I really dislike that
word; it makes me feel uncomfortable.” And I tend to fall
on the “I don’t like this word; it makes me feel uncomfortable”
side of that coin. For me at least, the term “transsexual”
has the word “sex” in it; that kind of makes us think
“trans” is not really a gender identity, but it has something to do with
sexuality and sexual orientation. And for me, that feels gross;
it feels kind of icky. Though I would never tell another
person, another trans person, say, “You can’t use that word
because I don’t like it.” If someone identifies
as a transsexual, cool, no big deal. I don’t identify as a transsexual;
I prefer the term transgender myself, but I’m not going to tell another person what words they should use
to describe themselves. But I will caution you that the term transsexual
is probably not the best word that you should use on a day to day basis unless you know that that person identifies
as a transsexual instead of transgender. So this idea about language though; I want to come back
to contemporary thinking about language in the trans community. There’s a number of different ways to think about the words
that the transgender community uses, and I want to pose a suggestion
as to how we can think about it. So, we can think about
transgender identities as binary transgender identities
and non-binary transgender identities. Two different ways to think about trans folks and the way
that we think about our genders. So when I say “binary”, I’m referring to when we have two categories that are
completely opposite of one another, never the twain shall meet. So, we live in a very binary world: male-female, gay-straight, black-white, especially as it relates to gender. We have a lot of assumptions about gender based on this binary idea
that there are only men and women, and they are two totally different groups that don’t have anything in common
with one another. We have trans identities
that myself and other folks who work in transgender activism
are starting to call “binary identies”, so I consider myself to have
a relatively binary trans identity: I transitioned from female to male. There are other folks
who transitioned from male to female. Celebrities like Janet Mock,
Caitlyn Jenner, and Laverne Cox
who we talked about earlier, but also there are trans men
who are relatively famous like Chaz Bono. The media talks about binary identities as it relates to transgender people. This is largely why we don’t often know,
non-binary identity folks. Because I think,
my understanding of this is that binary identities reinforce
our gender ideas. They make sense; we don’t have
to challenge a bunch of stuff to talk about binary identities
like I have; it’s something that folks
can wrap their minds around with a little bit of education. But what the media leaves out are folks who essentially give
a big middle finger to the binary. They say, “Screw your ideas about gender. “The ideas we have in society we have
about gender are essentially stupid, and I want to make them–
I want to mess them up.” Non-binary identities,
there’s a list of some of them here – I’m not going to define all of them. You all have the Google machine; you all have the power
to look these things up – but I’ll give you a couple examples of folks I know who have
these non-binary identities. So first, as someone who identifies
as a non-binary trans woman, she lives in California,
she’s a college student in her 20s and works at a local nonprofit that works with high school
gay-straight alliances. And for her, being
a non-binary trans woman means that she blurs
the line of femininity. She mostly presents
in relatively feminine ways, she goes by a feminine name,
she wears typically female clothes, but combines those feminine attributes occasionally, with completely rocking out
a mustache and a goatee. Because for her, she’s not just feminine. And to think about herself
in just that narrow way seems inauthentic to her. She wants to embrace her whole self,
and that involves her facial hair. Another example of a non-binary identity
is a friend who I know from the South, and they identify as agender. They use
the gender-neutral pronoun “they” – it’s not a binary gender term – and for them, they say,
“I don’t have a gender. “I am genderless, or gender is at least
not a very important part of my life; it’s not a way
that I think of myself primarily.” So these non-binary identities are
challenging our ideas about gender in ways that binary identities
sometimes don’t do as well. They are constantly saying, “Your understanding
of gender in the world is silly, and we don’t need it;
we can live outside of these boxes.” So what does all of this mean? What do you do
with all of this information? I have some suggestions for you
and some advice, if you’ll indulge me. The first is listen and learn. Listen to trans folks
when we talk about our experiences, listen to how we say the words
that are important to us, reflect those words back to us, and be comfortable learning new things. Lots in the landscape of trans identities
could be relatively new. Be OK with that. It’s all right; we’ll all
get through it together. Challenge assumptions, Challenge those things that nag you
in the back of your head, and you don’t know why. So stop thinking about
people’s body parts or what their name used to be, or what’s really going on with them. Take people at their face value. Someone says that this is
how they identify, be cool with that. And when you think about
binary identity ideas, try to challenge those. And say, “Those don’t necessarily matter.” And be an ally. Just like the transgender
dictionary has changed over time, the word “ally” has undergone a pretty massive transformation
in the past five years. Among activist circles,
“ally” used to be this identity term: “I’m an ally,” and you get to claim it. Almost like a noun. “Ally” is no longer a noun.
“Ally” is more thought about as a verb. “Ally” is something that you earn.
You do something to become an ally. You can also think about an accomplice. An ally means being an accomplice
with the trans community not just sitting on the sidelines saying,
“Yeah you do that,” but it’s being active and involved. So ways that you can be an ally involve
showing up at trans events. Omaha has a large and thriving trans
community and we do stuff. Feel free to come. When you’re invited, we’d love to have
folks come to transgender events. Speak up for us
when we can’t maybe do it for ourselves. Don’t speak over us, don’t speak for us, but sometimes it’s unsafe
for us to speak out, and call someone when they’re doing stuff
that’s a little transphobic. So you might be better positioned
to do that than I might be. It might be really unhealthy
for me to do that, but you could do that with relative ease. And also, now that you know better,
do better and help all of us not just some of us, break through. Thank you. (Applause)

One Comment

  1. Noah Einstein said:

    Excellent presentation. Finally, a comprehensive T-101 talk. Thanks

    April 24, 2019

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