Illustration of 3 fingerprints. The center one has the trans pride flag superimposed over it.

Language Matters

In the Trans Identity Discourse, Words Matter

When two cis-female anti-trans professors were uninvited to give talks, they were presented in the U.K. press as “victims” of cancel culture. But in the fight for trans rights, framing harmful rhetoric as personal opinion shouldn’t get a platform.

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When Demi Lovato came out with the news that they are non-binary and their pronouns are they/them, I cheered. I’m delighted to know that my young nieces and their classmates will have another person with they/them pronouns to look up to as they figure out who they are. Lovato’s announcement has helped validate the non-binary community as we become more visible and more open. Along with Sam Smith, Kevin Barnes, and Elliot Page, our community has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since the term “non-binary” was coined in the early 2010s for a gender identity that sits outside of what we have been socialized to regard as male/female.

Non-binary people have always existed, of course. We were genderfluid, genderqueer, genderfucks. We were drag queens and kings, fuckbois, queers, and butches. Language to describe us is always shifting, in part because existing outside the binary encapsulates so many different expressions, performances, and people. My non-binary presentation is probably different from Lovato’s, but we’re united under the concept of existing outside the binary. Having language that feels right to describe who you are has long been the project of the queer community as we seek recognition and civil rights.

This need for the right words has also been a flashpoint in anti-trans and anti-non-binary backlash. Brianna January carefully documented the backlash to Lovato’s announcement for Media Matters, noting that the coordinated response hit most of the same anti-trans notes that we see in light of these announcements: The identities are made up; “woke leftists” are trying to force you to change your language; “they” is grammatically incorrect. Matt Walsh, a conservative Christian podcaster and blogger for the Daily Wire, was particularly vicious in his criticism, saying that Lovato’s non-binary gender is an example of the proliferation of narcissism in society and antithetical to the truth (that truth being, apparently, that trans people are invalid and undeserving of human rights).

Similarly, in the U.K., the Times published a flattering profile of two cis-female professors, Rosa Freedman and Jo Phoenix, whose talks at universities were canceled due to their transphobic views, saying this was happening amid a “climate of fear.” Journalist Sian Griffiths frames their views as matters of opinion: “The two professors believe that men cannot become women by surgery and that it is important to protect women-only spaces in institutions such as prisons and refuges, views that are anathema to some trans activists.” Later in the piece, Griffiths says that this incident “is the latest in a series of campaigns against respected speakers blocked from giving talks because their views are deemed too controversial.”

Freedman and Phoenix are cast in this piece as innocent intellectuals who merely hold a “controversial” opinion, “respected speakers” who are victims of a “mob mentality”—an interesting sleight of hand by Griffiths to manipulate readers who might not be as attuned to gender discourse into taking the side of the professors. But in summing up Freedman’s and Phoenix’s views on transgender rights, Griffiths fails to include some important points about their advocacy. 

To wit: Freedman was involved in the fight over the last year to stop the Scottish Census committee from adding a question about gender identity that would allow the Scottish government to gain an accurate count of trans individuals. She has previously worked with Julie Bindel, a writer known for calling transgender identity a “a madness.” In an article for the Guardian, Freedman wrote that “biological” women need to be protected from “male bodies” and argued for sex-segregated spaces (which exclude trans women and insist on trans men being misgendered). 

Phoenix and Freedman both spoke in 2020 at an anti-trans activist conference hosted by Woman’s Place U.K., an advocacy group for cis women that argues against the inclusion of trans people in public spaces. In fact, Phoenix has been a repeat speaker at the Woman’s Place annual conference—in 2019, she posited that trans people asking for their rights has “anti-democratic effects”; in 2020 she argued that trans women should not be allowed in women’s prisons.

These are not benign views. Trans women, when housed in men’s prisons, are often subjected to increased sexual assault and denied proper health care. Similarly, not having accurate numbers on transgender people in the census makes it much harder to get funding for trans-specific health-care programs or community causes, like suicide hotlines and charities. And lawmakers continuing to emphasize this false notion that trans women are predators contributes to our ongoing stigmatization of in public—consider Tennessee’s new anti-trans bathroom laws, which require businesses and public spaces to post a sign stating that they have allowed trans people to use their multi-person bathrooms. 

Casting the views of these women as merely a matter of opinion tilts the public opinion in their favor and against trans people who are labeled as “activists” for simply advocating for their own rights. In her talks, Phoenix inadvertently makes this same rhetorical point, by emphasizing that she is fine with “actual” trans people but not with trans activists. The distinction seems to be that the “real” trans people don’t ask for equal rights.

The views held by these speakers are activist views—they are involved in activism against transgender rights, and speak at conferences designed to promote the continued removal of transgender people from the public sphere. But you wouldn’t know it to listen to the right wing in the U.S. or most media reports in the U.K. Dangerous “trans activists” are apparently to blame for professional consequences to aligning oneself with bigotry.

If asking to be able to safely use a public restroom, to go about my life free of harassment, to have my pronouns respected makes me an activist, then so be it. Trans people begging to be able to just live our lives are characterized as threatening, as a mob, as unreasonable shrieking harpies bent on societal destruction. This, in itself, is dehumanization. Simply asking to be respected with the correct pronouns, to have our identities recognized as valid, is too much, too unreasonable.

I am not unreasonable. I’m a human being who is tired of being considered a divisive issue simply for existing.

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