When I introduce myself as a person with a trans history I am very deliberate in the language I use. I usually don’t use labels (e.g., trans man, transgender, FTM) and instead opt for a quick and direct explanation of my history. “I’m a man who was female assigned at birth and transitioned to live as male” Or “I identify as a man and was female assigned at birth.”
I don’t say “born female,” because I don’t believe I was born female any more than I am currently female. If I wanted to get technical I could say “I was born with two X chromosomes and the sex characteristics that typically result from that chromosomal pairing,” but I’ve never had chromosomal testing and can’t say with 100% certainty that I actually do have two X chromosomes.
I think the “born female”/”born male” rhetoric has been discussed a fair amount in the trans community, so I don’t want to focus on that. I want to highlight that no matter how I explain my assigned sex, I never use “but” to connect that clause with the statement about my gender identity. Unfortunately this is how it is always written. For example, in the succinct and largely commendable editorial published by the New York Times last week, the writers twice use “but”:
- "a transgender student who was born female but has since assumed a male name and identity"
- “a child who was anatomically female but began to identify as a boy at an early age, assuming a male first name and wearing boys’ clothes”
Have you ever read about a trans person when their assigned sex and gender identity weren’t discussed in this “but” set up?
Now imagine that in the above examples the Times writers had used “and”
- a transgender student who was born female and has since assumed a male name and identity
- a child who was anatomically female and began to identify as a boy at an early age, assuming a male first name and wearing boys’ clothes
Hm, sounds less… weird. A quick Google and some grammar reading informed me that we use the “but” conjunction when the second clause is unexpected or contrary to the first. Conjunction Junction, anyone?
So what you say? It is unexpected to identify as male if you were assigned a female sex at birth. To that, I say - unlikely, sure! But unexpected in this context sure looks like abnormal. In fact, let’s call in the scholars and see what they have to say:
“Heteronormativity structures social life so that heterosexuality is always assumed, expected, ordinary, and privileged… . Anything else is relegated to the nonnormative, unusual, and unexpected, and is thus, in need of explanation.” (Martin & Kazyak, 2009, 316)
I actually recommend Martin & Kazyak’s (2009) whole literature review and theoretical background as a nice intro to heteronormativity. Which depending on who you talk to can include cisnormativity or runs parallel to cisnormativity. Cisnormativity is when gender identities that match assigned sex are always assumed, expected, ordinary, and privileged, while incongruent gender identities are unusual, unexpected, abnormal, etc. Which is exactly what the “but” conjunction does when an incongruent gender identity is being discussed.
As Martin & Kazyak (2009) explain, this normative structuring not only regulates our bodies and lives, it is also what allows for a system of privileges and disadvantages based on the congruence of one’s gender identity and sex assigned at birth. It is, for example, what allowed my name change to get me labeled as a possible threat to homeland security, while my mother’s name change (when she took my father’s last name) never raised any red flags. It is what allowed my mother’s double mastectomy to be covered by insurance while mine was deemed medically unnecessary and had to be paid for out of pocket. It’s what tells students that their peer with a different kind of gender expression than they’re used to doesn’t deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. It’s what tells school districts that it’s okay to not allow one boy to stay in the cabin with the rest of his boy friends because he has a less common kind of boy body.
Yes, New York Times, the language you used in your article praising the settlement that called that kind of differential treatment discrimination actually perpetuates the very treatment you came down against.
I’m not just picking on the Times. I wanted to use that editorial as an example, because it used correct pronouns, was affirming, and was discussing this as an issue of civil rights. They were doing so much right, but still approaching this issue as though being transgender is not normal.
Now, I’ve had people tell me that this is the first step. That we get our legal equality, even if it is wrapped in this language that others us. The othering, we take down next. We will get to be “normal” later. But let’s look at groups who earned legal civil rights. Women, people of color. Are we really going to sit here and suggest that “white man” is not the default, the normal? Maybe we are going about this backwards. Perhaps our first goal should be to challenge the assumptions of cisnormativity and heteronormativty. Maybe if we stop being described as unexpected, abnormal, and ultimately weird, society will stop viewing cisgender bodies and individuals as preferred. Then the civil rights we earn can be truly enjoyed.
Of course now I’m rambling and getting into politics. When really, all I wanted to say is stop using “but” as word describing the relationship between a trans* person’s gender identity and assigned sex. It’s just as accurate and sounds just as good to say “and,” and I truly believe it will make a huge difference.