Say What You Mean: Thinking Critically About Coercive Gender Language (Language Politics)

August 11, 2009

In response to Objectivity & Authenticity, my post about (fe)male bodied/identified, there was a lot of “yes you’re so right! Thank you!” and a lot of “Well, what do I use instead????”, not infrequently from the same people.

“What do I use instead” frustrates the hell out of me, and is the reason I try (not always succeeding) and writing my language posts on topics rather than terms. If you look at the Language Politics main page you’ll have an idea of what I was hoping to get to. Most of the time I hear this objection, it’s worse than it was here, but even so I was still pretty upset by it.

What you use instead? YOU DON’T.

You say what you mean. Which is never “fe/male bodied,” “bio[ ]boy,” or “GG,” almost never “XX chromosomed” or “born male” and only rarely “person with a penis/vulva”. As mentioned in both Objectivity and Authenticity AND Biological (please read before commenting if you haven’t already *cough* Jasper *cough*), using these terms (with some exceptions) represents a reluctance to give up an entitlement granted by cissexual supremacy–a categorization scheme that makes naming others easy and objecting to that naming impossible. This entitlement is granted to everyone, cis and trans alike–it’s just that trans and genderqueer people have more incentive to get it out of their heads than cissexual-cisgender people do, and we each have incentives to get different parts of it out. And you know? It’s seductive. It makes your life simpler and easier and your sentences shorter. And it’s violent.

There are some times when what you really mean is “person with a penis.” If you’re giving a workshop about CBT (link NSFW), that’s what you mean. It matters somewhat whether the bottom is a cis man, trans man, or trans woman, but realistically, you’re talking about manipulating tissue–bodies–NOT how those bodies are socially positioned or perceived–which is almost always what we’re REALLY talking about. You’re talking about a very specific part of the body, NOT the body as a whole, and that body may be cis, trans, and/or intersex; male, female, and/or other. However, in the vast majority of cases, centering the discussion on trans people’s genitals is a)objectifying and gross, b)reinscribing/strengthening the dominant transphobic categorization scheme, and c)not actually what you mean.

Language use is a practice, not a you-figured-it-out-now-you’re-done, and with this issue, you have to work at inspecting your own thoughts to see where transphobia’s invaded and how to fix it. So, I’m going to go through someone else’s thoughts-as-written-in-a-comment and go through the process with you. Even though I’m responding to some people individually, I hope that the larger point is illuminated through these examples, and the reason this is a post, not a comment, is clear. Here’s part of one comment:

I ID as (male) genderqueer. Testosterone has marked my body for everyone to see. Those markers are the reason why I am harassed and policed when I express femininity. My body marks me as ‘other’ in Queer and Trans spaces where 95% of the people were born with vaginas. The markers make me an ‘unsuitable’ dating partner for queer girls. Testosterone markers makes MTF discrimination so much more intense than for FTMs. These markers make crossdressing for me life threatening compared to a butch or a boi.
So in order to make this discrimination visible and to be able to talk about it and change it, I am searching for a word which indicates a testosterone-marked body. (emphasis mine)

You said it, Jasper, all I had to do was bold it–your body appears/is perceived as male, cissexually male even. Because everything you say here is about how you’re perceived, how you’re socially positioned based on how you look. You might want to say that you’re read as male. It’s not clear whether you identify your own body as male, but if you do, then that counts for some things, though if you want to distinguish your body from trans male bodies then you’ll have to call it cis male. It also sounds like you want to talk about how you’re socially positioned by others independent of how you look or identify–“generally read as” “generally treated as” “consistently positioned as” etc all work– because they’re what you mean.

What I italicized, though, is not only seriously gross and transphobic, not only having well-publicized and easily articulated less offensive alternatives (female assigned at birth/FAAB)–it’s also not what you mean. Even apart from the “have you conducted a survey?” aspect (a problem which FAAB shares), whether or not a percentage of people are “born with” a vagina isn’t the issue, the issue is that the (or a) presumed rule of belonging is ‘that you’re someone we would call (or would still call) a woman if weren’t being so hip-and-trans-friendly.’ What I mean to say here is that it’s NOT the attendees–who may or may not fit the body categories you ascribe to them–but about attitudes, presumptions, vibes, unspoken rules, legitimacy, etc. It sounds like what you mean is that only FAAB people are constructed as legitimate participants/the dominant construction of legitimate participants is that they are FAAB, or that to be seen as belonging, you have to enable and tolerate being perceived as a cis woman. (Because trans men have been known to avoid some of these spaces for these reasons, and trans women have been known to go stealth) But not being there OR in your head, I don’t know exactly what it is that you mean–which is another reason you should say what you mean and not use shorthand.

One part of “saying what you mean” is unpacking all the different things one might mean by “female bodied”, some of which are legit but not under that phrase, and others not:
b)having a vulva
c)having a [real] vulva
d)being perceived/read as/passing as/appearing female (e.g. on the street)
e)looking cisnormatively female / being able to pass as a cis woman (under x circumstances or under all circumstances)
f)living as a woman outside of queer settings
g)living as a woman as far as the State is concerned
h)when (not if, when) you absolutely have to choose “male” or “female”, choosing female.
i)[really a woman]
j)having the possibility of getting pregnant

None of those things map exactly onto identity OR onto each other, but in cis culture, these are all the same thing, and supposedly they’re all about bodies, which the majority aren’t.

I need to go to sleep, hope this all made sense and worked.


2 Responses to “Say What You Mean: Thinking Critically About Coercive Gender Language (Language Politics)”

  1. Carto said

    Oh yeah! The other trouble with implying stuff without spelling it out loud is that people don’t read ambiguous concepts unambiguously (well, duh): if someone says “female-bodied”, I take that to mean anyone who is female in any possible respect. People self-identifying as female have female bodies in my books; I don’t care what their bodies look like, their bodies are theirs’, and if they say they’re female, their bodies are, well, female.

    I know it probably isn’t that way for people who use words like “female-bodied”, but I certainly won’t start contorting my headspace around the way they think: I trust other (grown-up) people to be able to explain themselves, should misunderstandings arise. Contorting my thoughts to conform to a cissexist understanding would feel like letting cissexists colonise my mind.

    So yeah, it made sense all right.

  2. Kristin said

    I agree. I think the phrase “female bodied” is so ambiguous as to be meaningless. Just as Carto said, I think of anyone who lives and identifies as female as female bodied. As a gender bending queer ciswoman who’s been a bit out of the linguistic loop lately I was glad to come upon the term cisgendered because I was never happy with terms like bio-woman or whatever and always wound up getting all awkward and wordy with phrases like, “someone whose gender identity is aligned with their ascribed gender.”

    Of course the other problem with this essentialist thinking about our bodies as defining our gender is that it erases the realities of so many trans-folk who choose not to get complete SRS. One of the things I admire and appreciate about the paths and experiences of so many trans-folk is the ways in which they redefine and push the boundaries of almost every assumption we have about what it means to be a man or a woman. Okay, I guess I’m on the verge of babbling but this is what came through my mind while reading your post which, by the way, made good sense to me.

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