Last week, I stumbled upon an article by a popular Indian news portal, on how this year’s Kumbh mela saw a lot of participation from the trans community. While the news was, undoubtedly, great — everything about the tone and language of the author was thoroughly patronising, and decidedly not great. Not only did the author trivialise the struggles of the trans community in the way he spoke about the attacks on trans people in Pakistan and the bathroom bill issue in North Carolina, there were also several errors in terminology such as the use of words like ‘transgendered’, which was (intentionally or not) offensive.
Similarly, there are several instances where people (including us) – go astray in talking about queer issues. Since now is as good a time as any to take a course on correction, we decided to put down some common mistakes that are made and how to use language and rhetoric that’s more inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly:
This sort of blanket terminology is something that continues to be perpetuated both in regular speech, and media reportage; referring to people from the queer community as ‘gays’, ‘transgenders’, ‘queers’ and so on and so forth. One might think that these terms are ‘innocuous’ ‘normal’ even—but that’s far from the truth. By using terms like this, we are reducing queer identities to a monolith – when in actuality, they are a spectrum, with each identity having its own nuances. Hence, clubbing these identities together with such blanket terms not only disregards the differences and nuances within them, but is also ‘othering.’ Even the term ‘queer,’ (used for convenience’s sake, like we often do) was reclaimed from derogatory usage, and may make some uncomfortable, so it’s best to check first with people how they want to be addressed.
Using the word ‘transgendered’ is wrong on a whole other level. As Trans activist Julia Serano puts it: “The ‘ed’ makes it sound like something has been done to us…as if we weren’t the same person all along.” It makes it sound like being trans is an anomaly, a whim — when actually, being trans just means that your gender identity isn’t the same as the sex that has been assigned to you at birth.
A transgender person is someone whose gender identity does not correspond to the one assigned to them at birth, but a transsexual person is a transgender person who undergoes medical or surgical process to physically transition into the gender they identify with. Hence, not every trans person is transsexual, because not everyone decides to undergo a physical transition – but often, in media reports, the words ‘transsexual’ and ‘transgender’ are used interchangeably.
Tying up with the previous point, is the continued use of the term ‘sex-change operation/surgery’ as applied to the transitioning process. This is wrong on two levels — first, because the very notion of ‘sex’ is a complex one, and using ‘sex change’ as a lay term disregards the various nuances associated with sex. The second, more practical objection to the term is that it places too much emphasis on ‘surgery’ or invasive procedures in the process of transitioning. Transitioning doesn’t always happen via such procedures, and can also occur through taking hormones and medicines.
Another one of those words used so often that it seems innocuous but is actually far from it, ‘transgenderism’ or ‘lesbianism’ implies the being trans or lesbian is a ‘condition’ or a ‘disease’. The suffix ‘ism’ also indicates a belief or ideology, and can therefore not be applied to a person’s gender or sexual orientation. Many queer activists believe that this is a term that ends up dehumanising queer people rather than describe them.
India is home to a vast plethora of trans identities, with each of these communities — whether it be Hijra, Aravani or Kinnar — having different kinds of gender expressions. But, despite this, the average Indian undergoes a systematic transphobic conditioning from a very young age. We are taught to fear trans people, fed stereotypes such as the ‘clapping’ and ‘begging’ and taught to constantly misgender them. While slurs such as ‘chakka’ are more common and crude, ‘official’ terms such as the ‘third gender’ are equally marginalising because in a gender spectrum there is no ‘first’, ‘second’ or ‘third’ gender.
As the GLAAD guide puts it — “Problematic phrases like [born male/female] are reductive and overly-simplify a very complex subject [..] A person’s sex is determined by a number of factors — not simply genetics — and one’s biology does not ‘trump’ one’s gender identity. Finally, people are born babies — they are not ‘born a man’ or ‘born a woman.'”
Gender and sex are both social constructs and are not genetic or biological (or something that you are ‘born’ with). Further, these phrases only reveal a reluctance or laziness when it comes to seeing ‘gender’ outside a fixed binary of male and female. Hence, terms like ‘assigned male/female at birth’ or ‘designated male/female at birth’ are more apt for usage and less confining.
More than anything, we should be conscious of patronising language, and actively try to avoid it. It can be anything starting from a blatant disregard of queer identities to a subtle othering or marginalising to heterosexual appropriation of queer culture (say, through a ‘straight pride’). Any sort of language that suggests that one considers themselves superior or more privileged simply by the virtue of being heterosexual or cisgender is a big no-no. Allies are incredibly important to the LGBTQ movement, but not the ones who simply want to pat themselves on the back.
The biggest and most important thing to keep in mind when talking about (or to) trans people is their pronouns and chosen names. Not using the pronouns they identify with is a blatant disregard for their gender identity and is misgendering — which can be extremely traumatic for a trans person. So, it’s important for us to ask them their preferred pronouns, and use their chosen names rather than their ‘dead names.’
When a queer celebrity comes out publicly, it’s definitely a good thing. But for us to focus entirely on that, on their coming out story, or their sexuality in general; or, for trans people, an entirely unnecessary focus on their genitals or their surgeries — is not cool. Queer people might not be comfortable about discussing every aspect of their sexuality or gender and we should respect that. But, more than anything, the focus should be on them as people, and their personal or professional achievements.
Many a time, in the media or otherwise, it is cisgender and/or heterosexual people who write, report on, or talk about, queer issues. While that’s not essentially a bad thing, too much of it causes the actual queer voices to get ignored or sidelined. Hence, it’s important to give space and precedence to queer voices, and have them articulate their experiences. It is also important to respect and amplify these voices.
It doesn’t really end here. There are multiple ways in which we go wrong in talking about LGBTQ people, and multiple ways in which we could correct and amend such terminology. The most important thing is to be aware of complexity and variety of LGBTQ identities, and to respect them. So it’s time we started re-evaluating our vocabularies surrounding queerness and think about where we go awry, and how we can change that.
Banner image source: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.