Monthly Archives: September 2015

Language Matters

What do we do when people are really trying to help, but getting it wrong? Do we smile and be generous and accepting of their clumsy attempts? Or do we challenge them to do things better? What happens when people’s safety is on the line? Is it “negative” to pick up on people’s mistakes when those mistakes could have a big cost to vulnerable people? Or is it positive, because it is creating change, seeking a better way forward? These are the questions I struggled with as I considered whether to write this blog.

Because on the one hand we trans people do have reason to be simply relieved, glad and grateful to those who are kind to us in a world where not everyone is kind. At the same time, I think we are allowed some frustration at the ignorance that is still to be found crystallised at the heart of some people’s kindness.

rallyThe subject I wanted to blog about is a recent rally for a trans woman who had been the victim of hate crime. I had reservations about the event happening; it seemed to have been carried along by well meaning cis people without much consultation with the local trans community, or consideration for their safety going to and from, and in the wake of, the event. But it was important to me to go along and show support for the woman at the centre of it all, and in the end I think the event was helpful at least in showing the woman she was not alone. And that was a great kindness, and I honour the cis allies who showed their support.

Local radio had picked up the story, and they took the somewhat classist attitude that this was a problem with the rather impoverished and insular town and its treatment of trans folk. Mansfield, the town in question, was compared unfavourably to Nottingham, the nearest university town. They set the trans woman involved in opposition to the town and its “ignorant” ways.

But I feel the problem lies not just with a few screwed-up bullies who will go after anyone they see as a legitimate target, but with the “great and good” who forget to make the effort to learn about us or speak to us, even while they are speaking for us and about us. Because those are the people who set the tone, who create an environment conducive to us being targeted.

It started with the radio interview, 26th August, just after the 8.00 news. DJ Andy Whittaker used the following terms: “she’s known that she wanted to be a woman from when she was a seven year old boy” “changing her sex” “going through the change”.

Meanwhile the interviewee, an ally and apparently one of the rally organisers, echoed this language, stating that the woman was very “brave” to go through this “change”, something he would not feel brave enough to “do” himself.

Sadly this is the kind of language that underpins violence against and harassment of trans people, particularly women. These folk, supposedly more “enlightened” than the folk of Mansfield, I would argue are more polite and “well behaved”, but nevertheless mired in ignorance.

Because they are still thinking of transgender as something a person does, rather than what someone is. They are still thinking of a trans woman as having once been a man, and this is misgendering. It reduces us to a process we go through, something that seems like a choice that anyone could make. The reality is transgender is something a person is not something a person does.

Try this for size: “Sally knew she was a girl from the age of seven, even though she had been told she was a boy. As soon as it felt possible to do so, she began to live as the women she knew she was, and sought support from a gender identity clinic to confirm that she is transgender and get treatment that could help her live more comfortably as herself.” No talk of a “sex change”listen to us, no suggestion Sally “used to be a man” and suddenly we are able to see this fictional Sally and her story much more clearly and truthfully.

This is not just about political correctness, because the way folk speak about trans people reflects what they think about trans people – we can tell the difference between someone who believes “this is who we are” and those who think we’re “doing” a thing they don’t really understand.

Later in the week, after the rally, I was interviewed by another radio station, who again encouraged me to speak against the people of Mansfield. I turned it around and spoke of the responsibility of broadcasters to work much harder at portraying trans people more fairly and accurately, consulting us and listening to us more.

Because the way “polite society” talks about us is related and connected to the violence and hate we get from “less polite” society.

Needless to say, they didn’t use my interview, and as if to drive home the point that we don’t really matter to them beyond a good story, they used “transgendered” throughout the report. Again, that word with it’s verb-like “-ed” suffix has been dropped by most of us from the trans lexicon because it implies a process – something we do rather than something we fundamentally are. If they were at all concerned about getting the language right, they would have checked up and known that.

At the rally, I spoke to a cis woman who seemed pleased that she was in part responsible for organising this “publicity stunt” (her words). When I started to talk to her about Notts Trans Hub, and how it was set up to help people like her reach out to the trans community and consult us before going ahead with events and other things that may impact us, she could not have been less interested. It seemed as if all she wanted from me was my gratitude for her taking it upon herself to stick up for the trans community.

This powerless, mute gratitude we’re supposed to feel when people are well meaning to us is becoming too familiar. People will happily be our knights in shining armour, which I suppose is better than abusing us or kicking us to the ground, but if we speak up and ask our knights to listen to us and change how they’re rescuing us so that it actually helps, we often get ditched as ungrateful and “difficult”.

Events like this can backfire. I really hope in this case it will have been wholly positive, but it was a risky manoeuvre, and while the allies get to feel good about doing it, the risk is entirely taken by the trans woman involved and the wider trans community. Which is why “talk to us, listen to us, and learn the right language to tell our story accurately” seems to me the least folk can do if they truly want to support this community.

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