Transgender is an adjective. Not a noun. Or a verb!

Originally posted at Deeply Problematic

What does the word transgender lack?*

It is not a noun. Or verb. It describes an aspect of a noun. But like other adjectives in formal language– green, strong, female, etc. – it describes the type of noun in question, and explains something about a noun that’s relevant to the context.

Transgender, as a word, describes folks who were assigned a sex or gender at birth incongruent with their actual sex or gender. Transgender is an adjective – it cannot stand on its own, but must be attached to a noun. Like other adjectives, transgender exists to modify and clarify some aspect of the noun at hand.

Transgender is a word that modifies, but when I open up my Google alert for “transgender”, it’s rarely attached to a noun; instead, cis journalists (out of ignorance and fear bred of cissexist society) often use it to dehumanize their subjects when reporting their lives and all too often, their deaths. I notice the misuse of these words most glaringly in titles. Here’s a sample from May:

Transgender is not a noun. It is an adjective, and reducing people to just one of their qualities is necessarily reductive and denies their gender and their humanity.

"Transgender" is also, as you’ll notice above, the catch-all for many different kinds of people. Dyssonynce wrote on this earlier this year :

Especially since while I am one of those trans people, I am not a transgender person. I am a transsexual person. This is why I don’t use transgender. This is why I do use Trans. If you can’t see that there are serious differences in just the letters used there, please, learn something about us.

Using transgender as a noun is occasionally an ignorant, symptomatic mistake made by a careless writer. But more often, it’s an indicator of more issues: transgender or cross-dressing male to describe trans women, a she where a he is needed. It is indicative of a pattern of dehumanization, of degendering. How can a writer too lazy to check the AP style manual or question their own use of nouns and pronouns be trusted to write about trans issues? (The answer is systematic cissupremacy.)

Transgender is also not a verb because gender is not a verb. I do not cisgender every day when I put on a skirt or wash my genitals. I do not gender when I do anything, because gender is not a verb. Using transgender as such reflects a lack of understanding and avoidance of research on the part of the writer.

Transgender can modify “woman” in the case that the woman in question was assigned male at birth. Transgender can modify “man” in the case that the man in question was assigned female at birth. Transgender can modify “person” when talking about (particularly though not exclusively) nonbinary folks on the trans spectrum. Transgender can modify “people” when talking about a community, and “issues” when talking about issues of concern to the trans community. Transgender can modify whatever nouns can be used to describe a trans person. Trans mother, trans father, trans political candidate, trans writer, trans blogger, trans journalist, trans veteran, trans student.

Transgender even as an adjective is not always necessary. Woman and man describe trans woman and trans man just fine, and in fact, that’s probably better unless the story is somehow about them being trans. And it almost always is about the person in question’s trans status, because that is what folks without cis privilege are reduced to.

Describing a person as "a transgender", article and all, is dehumanizing because it makes the person in question less than a noun: it defines them as not a person; they are not even a thing**, a place, or an idea. They are an adjective: one aspect of their life that has been pulled out of context of their humanity to mock and to shock.

Devon puts it this way :

Nouns are the primary components of speech, and they possess greater power and more potential for abuse than any other element. Consider this example: "a black man" versus "a black." The second construction strips the individual of his status as a man, an insidious thing. However, when the same word is used as an adjective modifier the problem disappears; "black" then simply describes the noun "man," the most important component of the sentence. Similarly, when "transsexual" is used as an adjective the implicit meaning changes — the emphasis is placed on person, man, or woman first, transsexual second.

These words as a word doesn’t exist on its own. It is an adjective, a word used to further describe a person, a noun. Transgender is a quality, not an entity.

Further reading:

I hate MTF and FTM

Put the Goddamn Space in: “transwoman” “transfeminism” “transmasculine” etc (language politics #1)

"GLBT" newspaper’s transmisogynistic framing of assault erases Janey Kay’s gender

*Ironically, I’m often using these words as nouns. In their capacity as words, they are nouns, as “run” or “exciting” is a verb or adjective in most contexts but a noun when discussing their qualities and construction as words.

**Describing trans people as "things" is degendering and no better than describing them as "transgenders".

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14 Comments

  1. Kessei
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    “Transgender, as a word, describes folks who were assigned a sex or gender at birth incongruent with their actual sex or gender.”
    This is what I don’t understand.
    Since gender is a social construct, and since much of feminism has always been focused on forcing society to recognize that females are oppressed by attributes assigned to the gender “woman”, then isn’t everybody – by this definition – trans? It’s not as if women are “innately” drawn to wear high heels; we’re socialized to want to be beautiful, and to believe that high heels are beautiful. If I refuse to wear high heels or shave (or if I refuse to marry, or bear children, or don’t like romantic comedies, or don’t gesture with my hands while I speak), then am I transgendered? The same problem exists with the idea of a gender “spectrum” – that associates certain traits or attributes with “masculinity” or “femininity” as if those are innate, nigh-Jungian descriptors. Which they aren’t. They’re social artifices.
    Body dysphoria – the sense that there is literally something “wrong” with the physical form, and that one’s body should not have a penis and testicles but instead should have a vagina/uterus/vulva – is one thing. At least then we’re dealing with biological sex, which other than the very small percentage of intersex people is pretty much a physical reality. We’re dealing with terms and conditions which ACTUALLY exist and can be defined.
    But when we’re talking about GENDER, I’d really appreciate people being more specific and clear. Saying “I was born female and assigned the gender ‘girl’ but I’m really a ‘boy’” doesn’t mean anything unless we define ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ to have inherent qualities.
    Which is pretty 1950s.

  2. Lissla Lissar
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    1. “Transgender” is not the same as “I don’t fit into stereotypical gender roles” and if you think the comparison IS apt, I suggest you do some reading about trans issues. Because a lot of your post comes off as very dismissive of trans issues and pretty ignorant.
    2. Why do you get to decide what counts as “specific and clear” when people are talking about their gender identification?

  3. Comrade Kevin
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I am all about being respectful, but I think at times we can take this all a bit too far. Though I know everyone’s experience is different and that gender is very fluid, neither should we complicate things unduly.
    Forgive me for saying this, but if I were trans, I think I’d just want to be treated with respect and understood. And that would be an emotional, human sort of understanding, not anything that needed its own particular nomenclature to designate.

  4. Kessei
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    “1. “Transgender” is not the same as “I don’t fit into stereotypical gender roles”"
    If it’s that simple to explain, then can you please address this rather than dismissing my request for clarification out-of-hand? I can assure you I’ve read blogs, books, and memoirs, and none of them have addressed this issue. They all talk solely about gender and sex.
    But there really are no gender roles other than socialized stereotypes, so other than the body dysphoria – which I addressed – I’m not sure what other innate traits we could be addressing.
    Think of it in comparison to race, another social construct which has real-world consequences. I can’t feel that I’m “innately black”, because that doesn’t mean anything. We are all socialized so that being black is a real trait, and being black becomes an identity for very young children because of how they are treated in society. Racial identity and race socialization do exist because we act like they exist, and we act like they exist because we have been raised with them existing. Various traits and cultural attributes are associated with racial and ethnic groups (sometimes accurately, such as in aspects of cultural or ethnic heritage, and sometimes inaccurately such as racist ideas about intelligence or criminal proclivities). But someone doesn’t have an “internal” race.
    Similarly, there is biological sex. But gender is a construct. Gender is real because society makes it real.
    So I don’t understand how somebody can be assigned the “wrong” gender, any more than they could be assigned the “wrong” race, unless we are suggesting that gender is NOT a social construct at all but is instead a biological reality.
    Now, if you could please RESPOND to this, instead of simply acting like I’m a complete idiot, I’d appreciate it very much.

  5. Lissla Lissar
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Well, even though I’m not required to educate you (there’s always Google), I suggest this as a starting point for reading: http://jmcl.wordpress.com/trans-101/
    I’d check what’s going on in your last paragraph though. That’s a prime example of the Tone Argument.

  6. Kessei
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m not asking you to “educate” me. I’ve already said I’m familiar with what’s out there. If, after having read what’s out there, somebody has a disagreement about the way an argument is being framed, that’s not an education issue. That’s either a problem with the person’s comprehension of the argument (in which case, as I’ve asked, please point out my error) or a problem with the argument itself. Trying to expose them to more of the same way of arguing the point isn’t going to resolve the issue.
    Besides which, the link you posted doesn’t address my problems with the placement of gender in this discussion; it embodies it.
    For example:
    “Gender refers to how people act and think of themselves in relation to their sex. [...] Gender Identity refers to how a specific individual feels about his/her gender. [...] Gender Expression refers to the kinds of things you do, wear, and say that signal to others (and to yourself to a large extent) how you are inside.”
    See?
    I can understand saying (warning: oversimplified hypothetical) “I am female but I don’t feel like a woman, because according to society the ultimate expression of womanhood is loving babies and I don’t love babies.” That pretty well encapsulates that gender is oppression.
    But to say, “I’m female, but men are characterized by not loving babies and I also don’t love babies, therefore I am a man” implies that gender is not EXTERNALLY imposed but rather a reflection of INNER IDENTITY. In this case, a person who doesn’t love babies says that they are “really” a “man” because they have the trait “doesn’t love babies”.
    And then there’s the whole “feels like” idea, which the website references – what does it mean to “feel like” a class of people? Can somebody “feel like” they’re Chinese? Again, unless there’s an argument that gender is innate and biological, then you can’t “feel like” a woman or a man. You can only feel like your IDEA of a woman or a man, which is a stereotype.
    Finally, it’s only a tone argument logical fallacy if I’m using it to dismiss your arguments, which I wasn’t. I was very politely pointing out that you were being extremely rude and condescending and asking you to respond to what I had written.

  7. RMJ
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    OP checking in. Very troubled by your comments.
    The only person who can decide whether Person X are really a woman or a man or neither or both is Person X. X is a variable for any individual. I am the only person who can say “I am a woman”. I cannot tell Person Y who identifies as a man that they are actually a woman. Person Y is the only person who can determine their own gender.
    LJ user shemale (linked below) explains it better than I could:
    “Nobody gives a shit that you don’t believe in gender.
    You don’t have to believe in something for it to exist, and perhaps the fact that you don’t ever think about gender speaks more to your privilege than to the way that trans people are “perpetuating norms and stereotypes” or “supporting the gender binary” or whatever.
    I understand that a lot of people feel like their lives would be much better if gender did not exist, but a) that is not the fault of trans people (or a subgroup of trans people), and b) “post-patriarchy” and “post-cissexism” (don’t exist, but also) don’t imply “post-gender.”
    Gender in-and-of itself isn’t a bad thing, it is just a thing.
    It is the forced assignment of gender to people against their identification and the inequality between members of different genders that is problematic.” [end quote]
    You need to do some serious 101 reading. Here are some links:
    http://questioningtransphobia.wordpress.com/2008/07/21/transphobic-tropes-3-%E2%80%93-%E2%80%9Creifying-gender%E2%80%9D/
    http://questioningtransphobia.wordpress.com/how-to-check-your-cis-privilege/
    http://takingsteps.blogspot.com/2006/12/phone-booths.html
    http://shemale.livejournal.com/125343.html
    http://juliaserano.livejournal.com/14700.html
    http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2007/11/28/what-trans-means-to-me/

  8. Lissla Lissar
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    “Gender refers to how people act and think of themselves in relation to their sex. [...] Gender Identity refers to how a specific individual feels about his/her gender. [...] Gender Expression refers to the kinds of things you do, wear, and say that signal to others (and to yourself to a large extent) how you are inside.”
    I don’t understand what is so confusing about this.
    “But to say, ‘I’m female, but men are characterized by not loving babies and I also don’t love babies, therefore I am a man’ implies that gender is not EXTERNALLY imposed but rather a reflection of INNER IDENTITY.”
    But this is not what being trans means. I don’t understand why you’re even bringing up things like loving babies in a debate about trans issues, because that isn’t a key point. Just because someone doesn’t love babies doesn’t mean they identify as transgender.
    As far as the “feels like” argument? Again, if you read up on basic trans issues you’d know that it oftens entails a lot more than your comparison to “feeling Chinese”. That argument seems out of left field for someone who claims to have read up on trans issues.

  9. UnHingedHips
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s acceptable to turn a post about the need to use respectful language that doesn’t turn transgendered individuals into ‘things’ into a discussion about whether or not they get to exist at all.
    I’m sure there’s an interesting conversation in here somewhere about the nature of gender, but this really isn’t the place for it.

  10. timberwraith
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Here it is again… another person who isn’t transgender demanding that transgender people justify the validity of our identities… another demand that we try to squeeze our lives into the boundaries of their take on the world and their theories about how the world should work.
    My answer to you is a simple NO. I will not justify my existence to you. I will not try to squeeze my life into your theories. My perspective on this matter can be summarized as follows:
    1) Being queer (trans, gender variant, genderqueer, gay, bi etc.) is often an indelible characteristic of a person’s persona. It doesn’t go away even when people are screaming that you are miserable freak or that you violate their notion of how the world should work.
    2) Being queer often has its roots in some set of phenomena that occurred early in a person’s life. (Perhaps in the womb, perhaps later, who knows?) The chain of causality starts so early, that few people have any direct knowledge of what precisely happened.
    3) Regardless of the cause, not being able to act on one’s sexual orientation or gender orientation or bodily orientation causes great distress—to the point of severe depression and self-destructive behavior.
    4) You could apply #1 and #2 to straight people and cis people (people who are not transgender) as well. However, in most cases, no one gets called a freak or is called out for violating feminist principles for being straight or cis. Until LGB people became openly vocal, most people weren’t concerned about why people are attracted to a particular sex or gender. Until trans people became openly vocal, most people weren’t concerned about what leads a person to say “I am a man” or “I am a woman” or “I am neither.” The statements “I am a man” and “I am a woman” were taken for granted… and they largely still are by the bulk of society, including most cis feminists.
    5) Straight people do not generally experience #3 in relation to their sexual orientation because their ways of being receive social sanction as “normalcy.” Similar to straight people, cis people do not generally experience #3 in relation to their gender/sex identities because their ways of being receive social sanction as “normalcy.” Hence, in their respective contexts, neither straight people nor cis people have to respond to the command, “Justify your existence!” They do not have to scrabble around for convenient scientific or social theories to justify leading their lives free from harassment.
    6) With respect to their sexual orientation, straight people do not have to concern themselves with numbers 1 through 3. This is a sign of socially sanctioned privilege.
    7) With respect to their gender/sex identities, cis people do not have to concern themselves with numbers 1 through 3. This too is a sign of socially sanctioned privilege.
    Why I exist shouldn’t matter. I have a right to live my life. I have a right to not have to worry about numbers 1 through 3. Cis people don’t have to. Straight people don’t have to. So, why should I? I have a right to be who and what makes sense to me—so long as my actions do not harm others. I have a right to have my identity and my persona receive the same level of respect as cis people’s gender/sex identities and straight people’s sexual orientation.
    The bottom line is that you aren’t transgender. Consequently, there is no real way for you to understand what this experience is like. Your words remind me of straight people who say, “How could a person possibly be attracted to someone of the same sex? That just doesn’t make sense to me.” Straight people may not understand why LGB people experience same sex attraction but that doesn’t mean that LGB people need to justify their variations of being human to straight people. In fact, when straight people do make these kinds of demands, they are generally though of as behaving in a prejudiced and privileged manor. When cis people ask trans people to justify the validity of their personas they are engaging in the same behavior.
    Understand? Now stop derailing the darned thread.

  11. katemoore
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Just a comment: At least as of 2008, the AP Stylebook doesn’t mention anything about “transgender” being an adjective. Here’s the actual entry text:
    “transgender: Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly. See transsexual.”
    “transsexual: A person who changes gender by undergoing surgical procedures. See transgender.”
    Of course, the odds of a reporter reading the AP Stylebook on a regular basis are nil, as any copy editor can tell you.

  12. timberwraith
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Here’s an excerpt from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Reference Guide:
    PROBLEMATIC: “transgenders,” “a transgender”
    PREFERRED: “transgender people,” “a transgender person”
    Transgender should be used as an adjective, not as a noun. Do not say, “Tony is a transgender,” or “The parade included many transgenders.” Instead say, “Tony is a transgender person,” or “The parade included many transgender people.”
    PROBLEMATIC: “transgendered”
    PREFERRED: “transgender”
    The word transgender never needs the extraneous “ed” at the end of the word. In fact, such a construction is grammatically incorrect. Only verbs can be transformed into participles by adding “-ed” to the end of the word, and transgender is an adjective, not a verb.

    The guide has a fairly extensive set of rules instructing reporters and other media folk in issues surrounding proper language usage for trans* people. You can go here to see the rest.

  13. timberwraith
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Comrade Kevin said:
    “Forgive me for saying this, but if I were trans, I think I’d just want to be treated with respect and understood. And that would be an emotional, human sort of understanding, not anything that needed its own particular nomenclature to designate.”
    Trans* people, like many other groups of people who face prejudices of varying kinds, do have strong concerns regarding the way in which language effects them. Language is often used both consciously and unconsciously as a means of subtly reinforcing prejudicial concepts.
    For example, you can find text after feminist text addressing gender and language usage because sexist prejudice has traditionally been incorporated right into the English language (mailman, congressman, “he” and “him” as a default pronouns, etc.). While you might not see as much feminist writing devoted to language issues in 2010, you certainly did 20 to 40 years ago.
    Trans* folk are no different in the depth of our concern over language and how it effects us. These issues have only been addressed in an open and organized fashion during the past 10 to 20 years, thanks in large part to the internet. When you compare that with the number of decades other movements have had a recognizable public presence, this movement is still quite young. As it has for other groups of oppressed people, issues around language usage will shift as time passes and we gain a greater understanding of how these issues play out.

  14. Vexing
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Here, I’ll make it easy for you:
    My genitals are male.
    My brain is female.
    Gender doesn’t even enter the equation at this point.

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