A dear cousin of mine, a feminist who was very vocal when I was growing up, did me the courtesy of asking me a question which I paraphrase thus:
Thinking of you as Grace is easy enough now, but how would you like us to reference experiences which [my son] and I had with you earlier in your life? Is there a standard approach? Please educate us a bit.
My answer to her formed the core of what follows.
Short version, sans reasoning:
Please refer to me as “Grace” and using female markers, even if you’re referring to pre-transition me.
Long version, with meandering:
There’s a saying in some trans circles: if you’ve met one trans person you’ve met one trans person. So, these are not universal, but are simply my considered opinions as a trans person and a writer and thinker-about-language.
From my perspective, the essential me has not changed. Indeed, I tried to change it in order to conform (as pretty much all adult transitioners do), and found that I could not. So, for me, such phrases as, “When you were a man” are awkward because I never was a man. I learned to play the part pretty convincingly — I was able to make that much use of a trans socialization — but it was always a role, and one which became increasingly oppressive as time went on. So I understand why people conceptualize it that way, or even just phrase it that way for convenience, but in my ideal world, they would choose a different phrasing. Same (to a lesser extent, if we’re slicing it fine) with “When you were ‘[ old name ]'”.
And, not to put too fine a point on this: on this topic, the topic of my inextricable identity, it is my perspective which matters, and no one else’s.
That does not prevent people, however, from re-casting matters in a way which devalues a trans person’s perspective, even out of love and with the best of intentions.
Writers writing ABOUT trans people have to decide how to refer to their subjects in the pre-transition phase of their lives. Many have chosen to refer to the post-transition person using (for instance) female pronouns, while referring to the pre-transition same person using male pronouns. It can be made to work, but in general it seems to me to be awkward. More importantly, it gives primacy to appearance and presentation, rather than identity. Identity is clearly more important overall; if it weren’t, people would not transition. And so it seems awkward, at best, to give appearance such weight. At worst, it seems a denial of the strongest statement, probably, that the trans person will ever make to the world at large: “This is who I am, and this is how I expect you to treat me, in spite of ALL people who tell you otherwise and ALL evidence to the contrary, and this is so important to me that I have chosen to do it even though I know there will be severe negative impacts on me.”
Other people have chosen to write about trans people using the trans person’s gender of identity throughout. This often seems weird on first encounter, but it quickly comes to feel natural.
Such writing generally seems to me more respectful of the trans person. However, this may stem from the fact that writers making that choice tend to be people who know more than one trans person, and often know us personally outside of the context of transition, and who know more about trans things generally. The fact that such people typically choose one pronoun and stick with it, while people writing about a trans person for the first time often choose this he-then-she or she-then-he format — that is telling in itself.1
This is also why I dislike the terms “MtF” (for “male-to-female”) and “FtM” (for “female-to-male”), though I still use them because they are so widespread and understood: they lead with the rejected gender. I am not a male who became female. I am female with a complex endocrinological and social history. Which yields a less wieldy acronym, I admit. (fcesh? fwacesh? I just made it up.)
Trans people writing in the first person don’t have to make this choice as much in describing our own lives, since English has no gendered “I”, but note that trans people DO have to make this choice sometimes. For people who are not out-as-trans to everyone in hearing range, it is often simpler to say, “When I was little” rather than “When I was a girl”. The simple assertion that I was once a girl will often lead someone to correct me: “Well, of course, you were never REALLY a girl.” Which, though they don’t realize it, is an attack on my gender identity and life experience, and puts me in the position of choosing between defending my identity, AGAIN, or letting it pass unchallenged, thereby validating it for all of the other listeners.
Of course, I am a woman now, and I was a girl then. I was just a girl who looked like a boy and was treated like one, which is a very different thing from actually being a boy. If I offer that point, the person making the original attack will often then point out that I was not socialized as a girl, or that I did not menstruate, or that I don’t know what it’s like to fear sexual assault (they inevitably make the assumption that I have not been sexually assaulted). And now we’re off into the weeds where, as I take the necessary time to discuss the finer points of what it’s like not to fit the gender binary, I will eventually be accused of sophistry, or of forcing them to dance on the head of a pin, and they will airily hand-wave the rest of what I have to say away in their desire to get back to the simple life.
(I will agree readily that I was not treated like a cis girl, in my youth, and that I did not therefore have a “typical” female socialization (whatever that means, lumping together as it does many very disparate experiences, even within this country alone). However, I also did not have a typical male socialization (whatever that is; see above). I had a trans girl’s socialization, which meant that I got to sidestep a lot of crap that most cis girls hit with, and got much of the crap which cis boys get hit with, with an extra helping of crap which trans kids get hit with, and the same can be said for some of the advantages which tend to accrue to cis boys, and missing out on some of the “advantages” (many of which are backhanded) which tend to accrue to cis girls. (It’s funny, but as hard as I have sometimes looked, in conversation with other trans people, we have a hard time finding advantages which accrue to trans kids.))
(Likewise, I have never menstruated, and never will, though if it were part of the transition price I would pay it without hesitation. However, there are cis girls and cis women who do not menstruate, too, and that doesn’t make them boys and men. If you are persistent, this attempt to find a characteristic or experience which is unique to all men, or unique to all women, eventually leads you to the inevitable conclusion that there is no such thing. That fact can be pretty difficult for people, enough so that most people stop investigating and start hand-waving as soon as they start to see it coming over the horizon.)
As a woman growing up when you did, and taking the stances that you did, I would guess that some of this resonates with you, this, “Oh, God, do I have the time and resources to fight yet another battle for my basic rights?”
Getting back to answering your question, many trans people feel constrained not to refer to, for instance, their “girlhood” or “boyhood”, and work around it. Some things are harder to work around. Many trans men attended women’s colleges, and have to come out as trans or refuse to name their college. So, there are awkward bits, and we work around them or take them head-on, as resources and mood dictate.
There is also a more subtle, but very important, consideration. The topic of these news pieces which jump back and forth on pronouns is the trans nature of the person, which makes it easy to miss an important fact: once you go back and forth on pronouns, you have outed the person you’re referring to. Most people don’t see a problem, there; doesn’t everyone know? Certainly, in the modern day of our Internet, you cannot KEEP people from knowing, if they dig. However, despite the fact that I transitioned in a high-profile job in a small city, I have been surprised to find that lots of people DON’T know.2 And I would much, much, MUCH rather they discover a bit later, once they form an impression of me, so that their reaction is, “Grace is trans? Huh. I had no idea. Well, she’s always been decent to me…” rather than, “So, it’s ‘Grace’, but he’s actually a man? That’s so weird!” When the FIRST THING people know about you is that you’re trans, sometimes the result is embarrassing for everyone involved. Or violent, for the trans person. 3
Possibly the best guiding light I can offer is from my police colleague and fellow out trans woman Diana Powe:
However, from the standpoint of people who reject the gender they were assigned at birth, transition and its related activities can be seen as taking what has been inside and bringing it out into the world for others to experience. The brain is ordered, it is simply that the brain’s orderliness is obscured for others by the screen of our bodies. In this sense, transition isn’t changing so much as revealing.
- All that said, there are exceptions to this guideline, the most notable being Helen Boyd’s work. In My Husband Betty and She’s Not the Man I Married she goes back and forth almost wantonly. That, however, is skillful play by a master of the instrument, not the work of a tyro reaching past her ability. [↩]
- More and more, as time goes by, I am gladder and gladder that the local paper didn’t think my transition was newsworthy. We thought it was inevitable that they would do a story, and it nearly happened, and I would have done my duty to the trans community and presented myself publicly. But how much better, to get my feet under me while I’m not in the spotlight, and then do my duty with confidence, instead of via the print version of a reality show. [↩]
- Mind you, this is an ideal to strive toward, not an attainable thing. No one is perfect; I have made this mistake myself. Recently, my family was hanging out with some friends of ours, including a young trans woman in her teens whom I’ll call “Jasmine”. We met after her mother saw something we posted on the Internet and reached out to us for advice, so I thought that everyone knew. At one point I was watching Jasmine doing something outside with one of my kids, both happily being themselves, and I was reflecting on how beautiful she is and how wonderful it is that she has the support and affirmation of her family, and I said to Lioness, “There goes one lucky trans girl.” Lioness nodded. One of my kids who was nearby said, “Wait. Jasmine is trans?” I sighed and smacked my head. I knew that my kid didn’t care… but that information was not mine to impart, and I imparted it. [↩]
Grace – thank you, as usual, for your writing.
I’m wondering, however, about one of your premises – ” on this topic, the topic of my inextricable identity, it is my perspective which matters, and no one else’s.”
I’m wondering because, well, that’s a position that can be applied to many transitions in life, not just to being trans. And I don’t think I agree with it in other domains. So I have trouble with it here.
Before I explain that, let me be clear about what I’m not trying to do. I’m not trying to equate my own experiences with that of a trans person. I’m also not trying to be dismissive of the difficulties inherent in the trans experience, or in the importance of being able to control your own identity. I also am certainly not challenging your right to have preferences as far to how people refer to you both before and after you were out as trans, or challenging the idea that your preferences aren’t the most important factor. But I do think that your view of identity itself is problematic, and it does have implications beyond the domain of transgender.
Specifically. I am an immigrant. I spent most of my childhood and the first half of my twenties in Israel. I did everything expected of an Israeli child, then of an Israeli adolescent, then of an Israeli young adult. I went to school in Israel, I served in the Israeli military, I went to a Israeli university and I had a job and paid my taxes to the Israeli government. And when I turned 25, I left. Ostensibly, I went to do my PhD in the US – but, even though my PhD and career are themselves strong parts of my identity, that was the catalyst for my emigration, not the reason. The reason was that I found my identity more and more at odds with the country I was living in. I don’t want to discuss the reasons here – that would be a derail, and far too long – my point is, that over a period of several years, I found myself more and more out of place in my native country.
So I left, and spent five years in the US, where it became pretty clear to me that I didn’t really want to live in America either, but that it’s far easier to be a (legal) immigrant in a country you are fond of but don’t think of as home than it is to live in a home about which the main emotion I felt was despair. And then, when my five years were up and I completed my studies, I moved the the United Kingdom. The choice of where to go was dictated by a job offer. But I moved here knowing that if things go well, I can stay here for as long as I want, and things did go well. I met and married an English woman. I got legal permanent residence. I have no plans of moving out of here again.
I am not British. I will never be British, even if one day I may have a British passport. But I am not Israeli either, definitely not in the same sense that my friends and family that have remained there are. Not because of the fact that they live in Israel. It’s the other way around – they live in Israel because they are Israeli, because that’s where they belong. And I don’t.
And yet. And yet everywhere I go people refer to me as Israeli. I travel quite a lot for my job, and when I re-enter my adoptive country, I have to stand in line with the non-residents, and show my Israeli passport, and get questioned about my intentions and biography every single time. When people talk to me, they hear my accent, and while some may mistake it for other accents, some do not. Being Israeli in Europe is not easy – there is a lot of hostility here to the country, much of it for valid reasons. And I have experienced this hostility myself, on multiple occasions.
I do not think of myself as being Israeli. But I am defined as Israeli on a regular basis. As an immigrant, I do not get to say “my personal perspective on my nationality matters, and that of no one else”. Other people’s perceptions of me, other people’s perceptions of my personal history, matter as well, whether I want them or not. I cannot deny that.
The trans experience and the immigrant experience are clearly different from each other on many ways. And certainly, not every immigrant choses to be an immigrant because they didn’t fit in with their assigned national identity. I’m probably part of a relatively small minority among immigrants in that. But still. What I do share in common with you is that I had to make a choice between a living in a circumstance – for me a place, for you a body – that I didn’t choose and didn’t feel I belonged to, and I chose change. But for the world at large, I carry my original circumstance with me whereever I go.
To get it back to trans identity issues. In my experience with you, you have always been a woman. I know you only through this blog. My first encounters with you were reading about your experiences being a closeted woman in a man’s body. I kept on reading as you talked about your process about coming out. There has never been a moment in which I was under the impression you were a man. So for me to use a male pronoun for you would be nothing but a deliberate attack, one that I would never do even if you were not someone I respected immensly.
But for people who knew you when you were still closeted, their view of your identity is not entirely up to you. Your identity also plays a role in their identity, and it is unfair of you to dismiss that completely (not that I’m suggesting that their history with you is *more* important than your own view of your identity. Far from it. But it has some significance, which you denied).
Let me give another personal anecdote. About 15 years ago, when I was a student, a good friend of mine (person A) was close friends with another person I did not know (person B). I met person B through person A and it was clear to me (and to A) there was some mutual attraction between myself and B. A arranged for a second and then a third meeting between us, and it was clear B was enthusiastic about it as well. And then B suddenly cut all contact with me. I was confused and asked A about it. A told me that B was a transman and that he had decided to start his transition process. He was uncomfortable because he was attracted to me but was also aware that I was a heterosexual male and that my attraction to him was based on my belief that he was a woman (A also told me that B had OK’d her outing him to me, and I have no reason to doubt her word).
This was my first (knowing) encounter with a trans person. My immediate reaction, to my retrospective relief, was positive – I found it entirely reasonable that B did not want to get involved with me under false pretenses, or indeed that he was reluctant to attempt a relationship in what was a challenging time for him. I was glad that he had a good and supportive friend in A (who, honestly, I had not expected to be understanding about trans issues, and who I had misjudged).
But then again, in my eyes, I was attracted to a woman. It turns out that the woman I was attracted to was actually a man, but it feels incorrect to me to say I was attracted to a man. I have never seen B again, and have not persued the matter with A any further – I figured it was none of my business – so I have no idea whether B completed his transition. I am using male pronouns for him because I think that’s the more likely outcome, but for all I know, that’s not his preference. And in my eyes, in my experience, I was attracted to a woman.
So what am I to make of my experience? I don’t know anything more than I wrote above about B’s own views of his identity. I don’t know if he thinks he was ever a woman. What if A had never outed B? Then I wouldn’t even have known that was in doubt.
I can’t imagine I’m anything more than an incidental footnote in B’s life. My view of him is clearly not nearly as important as his own. But my existence and the events I described mean that, even though he was a man throughout, and regardless of his decisions and preferences before and after, for a while at least, B was also the woman I was attracted to. That woman exists, in my own experience, and forms a small but persistent part of my own identity. And I have as much right to that part of my identity as B has a right to his.
Ok. This was a very long, and very rambling comment, and I’m not sure if I even made a real point here. But it’s what came out when I read your post, so for better or worse I think I’ll post it.
Grace, thank you for this. I really love reading your posts. I hadn’t been sure how what pronouns are appropriate pre-transition, and this is really good information. Not to mention that it’s a huge gift to share such personal thoughts and feelings for other people’s benefit.
I wanted to make that my first, and most important, reply, before I wander off into the weeds with Eytan’s comment.
Regarding the MtF/FtM terminology–I think that some people use “male” and “female” to indicate type of body and use man/woman/boy/girl to indicate mind/identity, correct? Maybe something like “Woman born Male”/WbM and “Man born Female”/MbF might be better… it still might imply that the person “used to be” a different gender to some people… Maybe “Woman born with a penis”/WbwP, but that might be too vulgar for some people… Or maybe “Woman assigned Male”/WaM and “Man assigned Female”/MaF (but that might be confusing given the MtF terminology, which is the opposite gender of MaF). I feel a little presumptuous making these suggestions, but maybe it will give Grace or someone else an idea for something better.
Anyway, great post, Grace.
Maybe I am missing something, but ist’t trans*man/ trans*woman enough? There is no wrong identity in the name, only the correct one. And the “trans*” makes it clear that the person was assigned the opposite, wrong gender at birth.
(I know there aren’t only two genders. But afaik, genderqueer or otherwisw non-binary people don’t use the term trans, so this should work, no?)
Thank you, Grace, for a wonderful post. The way you share your jouney with us is very much appreciated.
I’ve seen the terms AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth( and AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) and the the more radical CAMAB (Coercively Assigned Male At Birth) and CAFAB (Coercively Assigned Female At Birth) used. Of course these would apply to nearly all people, not only trans people as nearly all people are assigned either male or female at birth or shortly after.
I don’t think I’ve seen it used, but I wonder if a term like “wrongly assigned male/female at birth” (WAMAB/WAFAB) would have the advantage that it at least implicitly acknowledges that for instances trans women were women pre-transition as well?
Tamen–yeah, WAMAB/WAFAB seems like a possible good option.
Lauren–why didn’t I think of that? That seems obvious in retrospect.
You have a place in my memory from having read your posts. I have no idea if my perception of you is correct or not–but whatever it is, that perception is mine, not yours.
If you express a particular identity then that’s your choice. If I remember you as you choose to present yourself (currently as a woman; presumably as a man in your earlier life) then you don’t have a right to ask me to rejigger my own mind to accommodate your desire for change.
It’s also (in some cases) a pretty relevant point for understanding reality. To use a national news story as an example: did Chelsea Manning leak stuff? Nope: Bradley Manning did, before he became Chelsea. I have no idea how exactly things might or would have been different had her transition occurred just prior to the acquisition or dissemination of all that stuff, or how it might/would have been different if she had transitioned at a very young age and tried to enter the military as a woman. But given that the military and news and most other folks have pretty disparate treatment w/r/t gender it quite possibly made a big difference. Whether or not she felt like a woman the entire time, she wasn’t acting like one–and other folks’ responses to her actions are crucial to understanding the story.
It may be that people who talk about you as “Phil” and “he” in the context of a 2006-era family tale involving whiskey and dirty jokes aren’t necessarily trying to disrespect or erase you–it’s just that they want the listeners to understand that the incident occurred in what appeared to be a socially-appropriate gender-conforming manner. Your uncle wouldn’t talk about “the joke we heard when Grace and I were in the locker room together,” right?
w/r/t presentation and knowledge, I don’t think it’s an issue of “respect” as much as “intimate knowledge.” Sure, for people I know well, I might dig deep enough to understand that they’re “actually ___” even though they try to appear the opposite (this applies to lots of other things besides gender, of course!) But for most people I take them as they seem: their inner conflicts are neither my business or my interest. That isn’t a lack of respect; it’s just that the group of people who I respect is MUCH larger than the group of people for whom I know their innermost motivations and identity issues.
Eytan Zweig, first of all, this isn’t about you. Period. It’s about showing respect to trans people by using their preferred pronouns. It doesn’t matter how you feel about that person’s past, present, or future. If you actually care about being respectful to another human being, then you will use their preferred pronouns in the way that they wish. If that makes you feel uncomfortable…. well, your incorrect perceptions of their gender identity is your burden to shoulder. Not theirs. That’s the bottom line.
Trying to compare a trans person’s experience with your life experiences as a cis person is a mistake and thinking you can used your cis experiences as a basis for policing a trans person’s gender identity and pronouns reeks of privilege. You have no way of knowing what life is like as a trans person. You are not transgender. So, stop it with the half baked analogies.
I can’t speak for Grace, but I can certainly speak for myself. I’ve spent my entire life in a world which has been hostile to my very being. I live in a world in which the average cis person will casually deny who I am without the slightest ounce of guilt or consideration for my feelings. I live in a world which would happily see me impoverished, imprisoned, and dead because who I am makes cis people uncomfortable with their sexuality, uncomfortable with their own gender, and uncomfortable with my very existence. I’ll be blunt. For the sake of my own emotional well being, I’ve learned not to value cis people’s precious feelings about my gender identity.
I’ve instituted this in a fairly simple way: those people who can’t accept me for who I am stop being a part of my life. If you value your relationship with me, you’d better find a way to accept me for the woman I am. Anything less and I’m going to show you the door. You may not think that’s fair and you may not think that’s kind but I stopped caring about fair and kind a long time ago. This is about my well being and my survival. Either you learn to accept this or our relationship ends.
Anyone who insists on addressing me using the wrong pronouns (regardless of tense: past, present, or future) is valuing their comfort and their perceptions over valuing my identity as a human being.
At the very least, one can use a gender neutral phrasing in the particular context mentioned. Regardless, if a similar story is discussed among people who I am out to, then it will be understood why female pronouns are being used. If this story is discussed among people who I’m not out to, then you are outing me by both telling the story and by using improper pronouns. That’s unacceptable behavior.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned in my previous post, while I can’t control other people’s language and other people’s perceptions, I can certainly control whether or not they remain a part of my life and my social circles. Inevitably, I have encountered people who knew me pre-transition who have refused to use consistent pronouns and have made it obvious that they don’t fully perceive me as a woman. I find it impossible to truly feel love and respect for those who insist on traveling down this route. Consequently, I do not maintain contact with people who refuse to use proper pronouns or whose perceptions are distorted and/or prejudicial. Such a person is not someone I can trust and is therefore unsafe to maintain anything more than a distant, fleeting relationship with.
So, what this comes down to is this, “Do you value your relationship with this person?” If you value your relationship with the person more than your perceptions of, or your discomfort with the person’s identity, then you will act act in accordance with the person’s wishes. If you do not place that kind of value upon the relationship, then there will probably be negative consequences. And there’s a good chance you will eventually find yourself saying goodbye to that person on a permanent basis.
Of course! It would be damn obnoxious to deliberately address someone with a term that they’ve asked you to avoid. I certainly didn’t intend to suggest otherwise.
**For the sake of hopefully keeping this discussion a relatively safe place for Grace, and given that I don’t know Grace nor her family, I’m more comfortable discussing a hypothetical situation such as this with a hypothetical trans woman as well. I’ll call her Emily, and say for the sake of discussion that she prefers female pronouns when discussing any aspect/period of her life. (If this hypothetical substitution isn’t okay with Grace or [another] mod, please feel free to edit or delete my comment).
If Emily’s uncle is telling this story in the presence of one or more people who are unaware of her trans history, then telling the story would be inappropriate regardless of the pronouns used as it would out her, as addressed by timberwraith in her comment (except in the unlikely case that Emily had told her uncle she didn’t mind being outed in general, or to these people in particular). However, depending on the story, the uncle could choose to be vague about the setting of the story and retell it with the appropriate (in this case, female) pronouns.
However, in the more relevant (to everyone’s points) scenario, Emily’s uncle would be addressing people who were aware of her trans status. In which case, using her preferred pronouns might be momentarily confusing if a listener was unsure about the time-line of Emily’s transition; a simple addendum of “before she came out/transitioned” to the story’s set-up would be ample clarification and ensure (especially in cases where the setting wouldn’t be automatically gendered, such as a locker-room) that everyone understood the perceptual context of the various players in the story.
The notion of using someone’s preferred pronouns when discussing an aspect of or event in their pre-transition lives is only strange or disconcerting if one (or a part of one) thinks of trans lives as fundamentally abnormal. If one takes for granted that someone (and indeed, anyone) may have experienced living as a gender that did not align with their identity, then references to such experiences are unremarkable*. Being trans is certainly less common than being cis, but both are perfectly normal manifestations of the human condition, and of humanity’s diversity. Thus, if referring to cis people using their preferred pronouns is a basic form of respect, so too is referring to trans people using their preferred pronouns; refusing to extend such an elementary courtesy has the potential to be profoundly Othering.
*notwithstanding the vulnerability and trust involved in disclosing one’s trans status.
It’s not a secret to trans people that for some period of their lives, the people they interacted with at various levels of closeness perceived them as a different gender than who they were and are; nor is it a secret that many social interactions are highly gendered and what gender a trans person was perceived as before coming out / transitioning may have significantly impacted aspects of their relationships and others’ behaviour towards them. (Indeed, personal accounts of trans men and trans women I’ve read and spoken with have been some of the most compelling descriptions of just how gendered so many of our basic interactions are.)
Thus, going back to the hypothetical Emily, I think it is safe to say that in the vast majority of cases, when discussing a circumstance or occurrence that happened before she came out as trans, both Emily herself (should she be present) and everybody else may take it as given that the other people in her life at that time were interacting with her as they knew her then. And if that is the case, there is every reason to respect Emily’s preferences with regards to her personal pronouns, when doing otherwise would be hurtful, disrespectful, dehumanizing, invalidating, and clear up only non-existent confusion.
Shorter version: it’s reasonable to “take [people] as they seem” (g&w @7), but it’s not reasonable to refuse to update one’s descriptions of and references to someone if they end up being not entirely “as they seem” after all.
I have a few responses.
@OP: This is a good description of the sort of “default” approach. Because my own gender is in flux, I am okay with being referred to as a person who has been understood to be female / a dfab person because that has played and is continuing to play a role in how people engage with me. The vast, vast majority of people who have been openly gender-questioning for as long as or longer than I have are people who have settled into a specific pronoun set and ought to be identified appropriately, past/present/future.
@Lauren @ 4: In my experience, genderqueer and non-binary people are more likely than not to identify themselves as belonging under the trans umbrella. Then again, I am used to defining trans identity fairly broadly: if your actual / current / correct gender is not the same as your gender designated at birth, you’re trans. There are some gender variant people who identify as genderqueer / non-binary and as cis or as neither cis nor trans, many of whom are not transitioning, and many of whom are fluid and sometimes or often most comfortable in their gender designated at birth.
@Tamen @ 5: I don’t think CAFAB and DFAB/AFAB are equivalent acronyms. “Coercively Assigned” afaik implies surgery / hormones / etc. to ensure that a person seems/seemed to be cis and normatively configured. I am used to CAFAB indicating AIS and other intersex conditions where things like genital surgery may have happened in someone’s childhood to make them conform to the social construct of “normal binary biological sex” better. Designated Female At Birth or Assigned Female At Birth both imply a legal / medical gender status that is binary as a consequence of how our society structures birth certificates.
@ G&W @7 : Yes but I don’t care. Were I to discuss Chelsea Manning’s role in history at some point in the future, there are ways of communicating that she was understood to be male and was legally named Bradley without de-legitimizing her identity and suggesting that because she had not come out she was really male and it is reasonable to describe her past self as male now. Both of those implications are nonsense.
Timberwraith – I wrote a response here. And as I was writing it, I came to a realization about my above post. And the realization is that while what I wrote was not actually about policing pronoun use in any way, that does not make things any better.
So I could explain myself, and I tried doing so originally, but I don’t think I should do so. As you entirely correctly point out, this is not about me.
So let me apologise for trying to make it about me. And let me further apologise for doing so without meaning to – because that’s not a mitigating circumstance; on the contrary. The fact that I was unaware of what I was doing is entirely a reflection of my own cis privilege. And of my arrogance in not examining my privilege.
So, thank you, genuinely and sincerely, for making me revisit my comment. And I am sincerely sorry, to both Grace and yourself and to anyone else here, for posting it.
That’s good. I’m glad to hear it. However, that sentiment is not reflected in statements such as this:
This statement suggests that you are searching for a context in which misgendering a trans person in conversation is acceptable/understandable practice. The remainder of your original comment suggests the same as well.
I don’t care if you are talking about my circumcision as a baby, if you don’t use female pronouns when you are relating stories about me, past or present, you are going to get pushback from me. As I see it, there’s zero room for compromise in these matters.
Dragon_snap, that was a great comment… deftly described and articulately phrased.
Eytan Zweig, thanks for your response and thanks for rethinking your original comment.
Trans people do not have Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style memory-erasing powers, nor are we asking for them. What we do have are feelings. For many trans folks, hearing our former names or the wrong pronouns is very upsetting. So, if you care, you’ll avoid it. If you don’t avoid it, we may assume you don’t care. It’s that simple.
Say you have a friend who had a truly miserable first marriage and traumatizing divorce. Your friend feels a wave of nausea on remembering the experience. Would you insist on saying, “When X was your spouse” every time you told a story that happened to coincide with that time in your friend’s life? Would you insist on using their former married name in these anecdotes, because that was their name then? Or would you show a little kindness and find another way to signal what you meant?
It seems we both are right to some extent: http://queerdictionary.tumblr.com/post/3899243464/cafab
Although I initially heard the term CAFAB/CAMAB from Valerie Keefe (https://amptoons.com/blog/2011/10/27/fbi-new-definition-of-rape-still-excludes-envelopment/comment-page-1/#comment-248628) who I do believe uses “coercively” to indicate the lack of agency involved in sex assignment at birth. Here is one criticism of this way of using the term which does consider it’s relation to intersex children/babies: http://thatswhatkentsaid.tumblr.com/post/8677137317/on-the-terms-cafab-and-camab
It seems we both are right to some extent: http://queerdictionary.tumblr.com/post/3899243464/cafab
Although I initially heard the term CAFAB/CAMAB from Valerie Keefe who I do believe uses “coercively” to indicate the lack of agency involved in sex assignment at birth. Here is one criticism of this way of using the term which does consider it’s relation to intersex children/babies:
WRT Eytan Zweig’s original comment and gin-and-whiskey’s comment… I think it may be a case of getting lost in the weeds or missing the forest for the trees. Maybe it would be more accurate–but not nearly as elegant–to add caveats to “And, not to put too fine a point on this: on this topic, the topic of my inextricable identity, it is my perspective which matters, and no one else’s.” by specifying, “obviously people’s perspective will matter to their own thoughts, I’m talking here about what matters WRT what people should be doing going forward, not saying that people’s memories don’t matter to them or that Manning’s internal female identity would cause people to treat her as female when they thought she was male.” Because what Grace was talking about was how you should write about/talk about people’s gender. It seems to me as though Eytan Zweig and g&w were reacting to that sentence in isolation and not integrating it with its context.
I think rinmonim @16 and sparrow @12’s last paragraph also make good points. Actually, along similar lines to rinmonim’s comment, we usually use just one name to refer to historical figures whose names have changed. A biography of George Eliot is either going to use “George Eliot” or “Mary Ann Evans” throughout, not use “Mary Ann Evans” before she took up her pen name and “George Eliot” afterward. Or when we’re talking about Hillary Clinton’s past, we don’t call her “Hillary Rodham” to refer to her before she got married, and “Hillary Rodham Clinton” when she was emphasizing ‘Rodham’ more, and “Hillary Clinton” when she wasn’t. We’ll say “Hillary Clinton was born on October 26, 1947, in Chicago, Illinois”, not “Hillary Rodham was born…” I think breaking from this convention only for trans people brings with it the implication that they “really were” a different gender before they transitioned.
I have to disagree with you about the biography aspect. I read a lot of biographies, generally if a subject goes by different names at different points of their lives the author will use the name that the subject used during that time period. The overall title might be the more famous name, but it often alters from chapter to chapter. Ex. Emperor Augustus is often referred to as Octavian, Caesar, and Augustus considering at what point of his life they were talking about. King George VI would be referred to as ‘Albert’ or ‘Bertie’ prior to his accession and “King George’ afterwards. With the Hilary Clinton example she mostly likely would be referred to as Rodham until point she took Clinton. Bill Clinton is often be referred to as ‘Billy Blythe’ when talking about his early childhood. I have not read any books about any famous transgendered individuals, so I can’t comment on pronouns or anything.
It fascinates me that I posted a piece expressing my desires, explicitly written in response to a beloved family member who asked me my preference, and immediately more than one person told me that I was wrong. (Although, I hasten to say, Eytan, thank you for demonstrating yet again a willingness and ability to think and grow.)
It doesn’t surprise me. But it fascinates me.
Timberwraith and Rimonim, both,
I am delighted that you are participating in this thread. I have read some of your writing elsewhere, and found it enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Timberwraith, among other things, I loved your point about humans and women.
Rimonim, I loved your thoughts on the DSM.
Everyone working on the acronym,
My personal favorite, viewed neutrally, is WAMAB, or woman assigned male at birth (and therefore also MAFAB). It leads with what I am, and then qualifies it with some of how I got there. However, in some circles it carries some baggage which I won’t go into here. Perhaps nothing insurmountable. In my letter to my cousin, I chose not to go deeper into Issues of Terminology.
I don’t know if we share responsibility for this, or if it’s your problem or mine, but to me you often come across as lecturing. I’ve learned to evaluate carefully whether replying is a good use of everyone’s time, because sometimes I want to reply simply because I’m irritated, which in my mind is insufficient reason.
But, here goes nothin’.
In my original post I wasn’t talking about my gender expression, I was talking about my gender identity. They are related but quite distinct. For one thing, the latter is under my control to some extent, and the former is not.
A lot of cis people (not all) like to talk as if expressing a gender identity other than your own is no big thing. As Brynn Tannehill eloquently pointed out, recently, that’s a lot easier to say before you actually experience a bit of it, as Chloë Sevigny and Norah Vincent now know.
It ain’t as easy as it looks.
I chose to present myself as a woman in the sense that a prisoner of war attempts an escape – as a desperate bid for freedom, with lots of thought and preparation, and accepting that I would suffer for the attempt, and possibly be killed.
I chose to present myself as male in the sense that as a child I learned that it was dangerous to step outside of my assigned role, because almost everyone reacted negatively when I did anything unboylike.
Are these choices? In an absolute sense, perhaps. So is continuing to hold your arm over the flame of a candle, or moving your arm from the flame. They are not, however, choices such as one exercises in transcendent matters, such as whether to register your pattern at Bloomingdale’s or Saks, or whether a bright, robust yet tart Almaden can properly accompany sushi.
When I transitioned, I quickly learned that, “I respect your choice” was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It usually meant, “I acknowledge that you are free to do any damn idiotic thing you want to do, including what you are doing.”
Spare me this sophism of implying that a choice is a choice is a choice, all basically the same thing.
This is exactly contrary to the point I made in my original post. Chelsea Manning was always herself. She was the same person when she leaked classified info as she is now, in the same sense that you were the same person when you went to law school as you are now.
Closetpuritan’s point about how people insist on using earlier names to refer to an earlier part of the person’s life PRETTY MUCH ONLY IN THE CASE OF TRANS PEOPLE: spot on. People don’t insist on specific language unless it marks a distinction which is meaningful for them. (With the usual caveat, included in the original post, that truly excellent writers can sometimes make it work.)
There are myriad ways to point out that she is trans without eliding her gender identity.
If he’s outing me to people who don’t know I’m trans and he wants me to be a continued presence in his life, then he damn well better not be.
Gin-and-whiskey, I talked about this in my post, up at the top of this page. Find the paragraph starting, “Getting back…” and read that one and the one following. I was directly addressing the fact that trans people have to work around this… but so do cis people. Cis people don’t get a pass on the awkward bits, much as they might like to.
This is just part of the suck that it is to be trans; everyone around you has to work a little harder. The ones who seem to think you’re not worth the trouble? Probably not worth your time.
I found your initial response to be sympathetic, heartfelt and thoughtful, even though I did not agree with all of it. Thank you. Your points reminded me of a brief aside in a book I admire very much, She’s Not There, by Jennifer Finney Boylan:
I wrote a lot of this before others chimed in, and before you retracted your first reply, and then I didn’t have a chance to revise and post before I had to work for a living and all that. But I thought there was enough good stuff in here, so I’ve revised a bit and I’m posting it anyway, including a pointed bit at the end, which was addressed to pre-owning-his-privilege-Eytan, not to post-further-reflection-Eytan.
You raise some interesting points. I don’t mind if this discussion meanders around a bit, though I reserve the right to call them as I see them.
I think that trans experience generally probably has a lot in common with immigrant experience generally — though I’m treading lightly in saying so because I’m not an immigrant.
I think that one way the trans/nationality analogy doesn’t work is this:
As you note, you don’t get to define your nationality; there are legal authorities which sign off on that, and can accept or reject your claim. At the same time, you can renounce a citizenship. Indeed, to become a naturalized citizen of the United States, you MUST renounce all other citizenship, as you’re probably aware.
You can’t renounce a gender identity. Every adult trans person I have talked to or read about has tried and failed.
I think you have taken my assertion
out of its context, which was that of answering a question very like, “What would you like? Please educate us a bit.”
My response was direct and simple. Even ethical people with good intentions get this muddled sometimes (I was looking at you among others, on this phrase, until you went and took responsibility for your privilege). I wanted to make the point unequivocally. I attempted simplicity because I was offering guidance, not inviting a trip off into the weeds. And boy are we about to go off into the weeds.
Let me, also, be clear about what I’m not trying to do:
First, I’m not trying to dictate whom or what you or anyone else is attracted to. We each have things which attract us and things which don’t, and we are penned within those boundaries. Some of us have the run of larger pens than others. My wife, for instance (to my tremendous good fortune) is bisexual. I am not. We can “girl-watch” together, in that when we are out and about and one of us sees a pretty woman, she can nudge me and we can share a very similar appreciation. We can’t boy-watch together in the same way. She may nudge me, and I may enjoy her pleasure, but my attention is on her, because the guy isn’t tripping my trigger.
In the end, we are attracted to what attracts us, and the abject failure of reparative therapies teaches us that there’s really nothing we can do about it. There are probably individual exceptions to this rule — the human species is vast and numerous — but if the experience of millions upon millions of gay people who tried to be straight teaches us anything, it is that most people simply have to live with the attraction they have.
Second, when I talk about internalized homophobia, I’m not calling anyone a homophobe, any more than when I talk about internalized racism, I’m calling anyone a racist. I think that we ALL, me included, have internalized crap courtesy of being members of our culture, including homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, ageism, etc. To respectfully suggest that someone has a bit of internalized -phobia or -ism is like saying quietly to your dinner partner, “Hey, I think you have a little spinach in your teeth, there.” Jay Smooth makes this point very elegantly.
Many years ago I dated a woman who liked to tell a story about how she was at a party with an elaborate sideboard. She saw some chocolate fondue, and she dipped something in it, popped it into her mouth… and made a face. It was gravy. The hostess saw her reaction and rushed over to ask if something was wrong with the gravy. My girlfriend said, “No, it’s wonderful gravy. It’s just awful chocolate.” And they had a good laugh about it.
The woman in your experience exists only in the same sense that the chocolate existed in my ex-girlfriend’s experience. That woman is a subliminal set of reactions, a construction of your mind, based on incomplete information.
Please correct me if I have this wrong, but it sounds like you may be saying that “I was attracted to this man” is uncomfortable to you, and doesn’t fit in your identity. I accept that, but it has nothing to do with the man you were attracted to; it has to do with an inadequacy of language and probably some internalized homophobia. You don’t fix it by asserting that in some sense he was actually a woman, and therefore it’s okay that you were attracted to him. You fix it by saying, “You know, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that I was attracted to him, because the fact is that he happened to display a lot of characteristics which trip my triggers. He just turned out to be a dude, and if I’m uncomfortable with that fact maybe that shows me a spot in myself that I could work on.”
It has to do with inadequacy of language because we have no compact way to distinguish “attractive woman” from “man who was presenting in such a way that he seemed to be an attractive woman”. So the temptation is there to plaster over all of the apparent complexity with familiar language, rather than precise language.
In areas where this happens a lot, we quickly invent new language, so that “a light using a glass vacuum chamber containing a glowing tungsten filament” becomes “incandescent bulb”, as distinct from “light emitting diode” and “fluorescent bulb”.
Should you become a British citizen, you would nonetheless have different life experiences from most other British citizens, some of them very important. I agree that trans women and cis women have different life experiences in some ways, some of them very important. The difficulty in discussing them is that the differences have been exaggerated, essentialized and weaponized by people who seek to deny trans women access to rights and responsibilities to which we are entitled, including access to essential medical care, and bathrooms. As Timberwraith points out, all trans women have have spent our entire lives in a world which has been hostile to our very being. We bear the scars of those battles, and for reasons of personal survival we learn to limit our participation in those discussions. People for whom those discussions are academic have a lot more staying power, because they’re holding the handle of the knife, while we are holding the blade; for us, participation costs more. The discussion is experientially a different thing depending on which side you’re on.
It comes down to acknowledging that I cannot know you better than you know you. You cannot know me better than I know me. You write
Of course. THEIR VIEW of my identity is entirely on them. But MY ACTUAL IDENTITY is mine, to the best of my limited ability, to learn, to understand, to express, to assert.
I once, when I was younger and very much more foolish, made the mistake of asserting to a friend that my wife was basically agnostic, which was how I misunderstood her spiritual life. She got very upset, and corrected me emphatically, and left the room. I had to choose between face and humility. I chose humility; I excused myself, went to her, and apologized. And then, because without this part of the process the apology would be hypocrisy, I had some careful, slow conversations with her over the next few days in which I asked her what her beliefs were. And I paraphrased them back to her and asked her if I was right. And that’s how I (a) learned to understand her beliefs better than I had and (b) demonstrated that I understood that her beliefs weren’t up to me, but up to her.
Now, the analogy between religious belief and experience of gender identity is also very imperfect, but on point it’s a bullseye: the only way to know is to ask, and to accept the answer.
You don’t have to accept the answer. But if you don’t, then the person you asked has a better idea of where she stands with you, doesn’t she?
So, yes, my identity plays a role in their identity. My mother understood herself as having given birth to a son, having raised a son. I told her that I am her daughter. Then she had to decide whether to do this very difficult thing I asked of her and change her own self-conception, to become the mother of a daughter, and not the mother of a son.
She could have gone either way. The world is full of trans people whose parents can’t or won’t get it.
My mother chose to value my self-assertion as a woman over her own identity as mother of a son. And while I did everything I could to ease her way, she paid a price for that.
No one has a better claim on my part of their self-identity than my mother. And though it hurt, my mother did it. So can everyone else.
What kind of a man do you want to be, Eytan? Are you willing to be a man who was once attracted to another man because he seemed like a woman? Or must you be a man who was once attracted to a woman who later asserted she was a man?
Because on that you’re right; that’s not up to me. That’s up to you.
I think your analogy about the chocolate and the gravy is brilliant. Really helps me to understand; it’s my problem if I mistake someone for chocolate.
Grace @21–Thank you!
Even before you said this, I had already decided that it would be best for me just to stop posting in this thread; apparently that was a good decision. I have read your response in detail, of course, but I won’t continue to respond.
Don’t Be a Jerk About Gender Pronouns
Grace, thank you for the kind words. (By the way, I don’t remember what I said in the comment you linked to. The link appears to be dead.)
I just followed your link, nobody.really.
That was full of the stuff that awesome is made of. :)
Grace – thank you for your response. I appreciate everything you wrote.
I’ve been thinking for the past few days about what to respond, because I really didn’t want to repeat the mistakes I had made previously. As I said in my second post above, my post was riddled with unthinking privilege. I can’t put my privilege aside, but I can attempt to avoid the “unthinking” bit.
I’ll try to keep it brief – for most of what you wrote, I don’t think I have anything to reply anyway, except that I read and I take your words to heart. As I said in my second post, my first post was not an attempt to police pronoun use; it was an attempt to derail the discussion onto a somewhat more academic question of identity formation. I know that this was wrong – and I must admit I knew this was wrong before I posted, I just didn’t think about it when I posted. But a reflexive attempt to deflect conversation onto what I’m intersted in is a big part of what privilege is, and part of the reason I’m here, reading and posting on this blog is because I’m trying to learn how to be aware of my privilege and make sure I do not fall into these traps. Sometimes these lessons are hard, which is fine as far as it applies to me, but unfortunately while I’m learning my words can also hurt or at least become part of a general oppressive background and for that I am truly sorry.
I do feel, however, that you deserve an answer to the one direct question you asked me (even though I’m not sure you meant it to be answered):
I’d like to answer that the former is true. And in a sense it is . I’m not saying I lack internalized homophobia, but I don’t think it manifests so crudely. In fact, I don’t think I ever thought I wasn’t a man who was attracted to another man because he seemed like a woman (or maybe even, if I’m being generous to myself, *while* he seemed like a woman. I don’t know what would have happened had I met him when he seemed like a man, and I’d like to think there’s a chance that I would still have been attracted to him). What I’m finding extremely difficult – and I’m entirely aware that this is *my* problem and one that no one else needs to do anything to address – is that I *also* feel that I’m a man who was once attracted to a woman who later turned out to be a man. The fact is, that in my gut, the two statements don’t seem to be mutually exclusive to me.
Is this a reflection of my own interanlized transphobia? I’d say yes. If I follow that line of reasoning, than the man in question was both a man and a woman – and while there may be some people, trans or other, that may identify as such, it is certainly not my place to impose an identity like that on anyone. And equally, I shouldn’t be asking trans people to bear the burden of helping me learn to deal with their identities better. So, yeah. I don’t know that I can eliminate my interalized transphobia, but I endeavour to do a better job in the future of being aware of it and keeping it in check.
Oh, dear. Looks like Pam’s House Blend is defunct.
Well, I can’t provide context, but here’s what I saved of your comment: