In Which Mari and Mey Have Conflicted Feelings About Trans Terminology and “New York Magazine”

by Mari and Mey

Being a trans woman is complicated. It can seem like every day you have to deal with things that are anything but black and white. There’s the media’s portrayal of trans people, terminology, the entire concept of “passing” — and that’s just scratching the surface. Luckily, you have Mari and Mey to talk out their conflicted feelings on these things.

This time, we took a look at the recent front page story in New York Magazine about CEO and trans woman Martine Rothblatt. The headline and the article repeatedly talk about how she “used to be a man” and use other language that’s often considered problematic within the trans community. We sat down and talked about this article and our feelings on the topic of trans terminology and language as a whole.

Mari: So, from a general viewpoint, I think a lot of the phrasing and terminology used in the article is really problematic. Firstly, while they managed to avoid the more problematic “was born a man” (because even men aren’t born men… no one springs forth from the womb as an adult), “was born male” is still a phrase I’m not a big fan of. It’s generally become much more commonplace to use the phrase “assigned male at birth” because so many trans women feel the were never male, never boys. It’s common enough that some trans people even prefer “coercively assign ___ at birth” because they feel their assigned gender was wrong forced on them. The magazine also consistently uses the very dated phrase “sex reassignment surgery,” which is problematic for the same reason. If you’re attempting to be at all trans sensitive, “gender confirmation surgery” or “gender affirming surgery” is definitely preferred.

Martine on the cover of New York Magazine

Martine on the cover of New York Magazine

It also bothers me immensely that they frame the entire article with “what sets Rothblatt apart from the other women on the list is that she — who earned $38 million last year — was born male.”…as if absolutely none of her other accomplishments and amazing life journey can trump the fact that she’s trans. Being trans must inherently be the most interesting or unique thing about her. I really find that offensive.

Mey: Yeah, I definitely agree. This article as a whole seemed as if they got their trans terminology and understanding of how to talk about trans women from 1995. And like you said, even though the sub-headline says “and that’s hardly the most unusual thing about her,” meaning her being trans, but they still thought that that was unusual enough to be the focus of the headline and in many ways, the article. Like, she has a robot version of her wife, she started her own religion, I feel like even being the founder of Sirius Radio is in many ways more interesting than being trans!

Bina48, the robot based on Martine's wife via NY Times

Bina48, the robot based on Martine’s wife via NY Times

And even just the headline on the front page of the magazine declared in big bold letters that Martine Rothblatt “used to be a man,” under many circumstances would be incredibly offensive. But then, this brings up my first conflicted feeling. What if Martine herself uses that terminology? What if she sees herself as formerly being a man and having her sex reassigned through surgery? Does her personal language preference trump what is considered to be the non-offensive way to talk about trans women?

Mari: I tend to think it does. We all have the right to self-define, and there’s no such a thing as a “standard” way to be trans. However, I feel like a better researched writer who took the time to be aware of sensitive to the complicated nature of the trans community would have made that clearer in her presentation of Martine’s story… that she was using Martine’s words and language out of respect.

Mey: Yeah, that’s how I feel, and that’s what I was thinking. There should have been like, a little paragraph saying something like, “many trans women find this language problematic, or even offensive, and although Rothblatt sees herself as formerly being a man, many other trans women were assigned male at birth, but never consider themselves having been boys or men.”

But then there were other times in the article when it seemed like it was just the writer who was using her own problematic terminology. At one point it said Martine thought of herself as gay, “in the sense of seeing myself as a woman sexually attracted to women” but then later the writer says that Martine is “therefore also, sort of, a lesbian” because she’s married to a woman. If she calls herself gay, attracted to women and a woman, how does that only make her “sort of” a lesbian?

Martine and her wife Bina via NY Mag

Martine and her wife Bina via NY Mag

Mari: Agreed. Same goes for the pronoun and name switching when discussing her pre-transition life. Of course, that whole conversation, along with the cliche “before” photo was also, dare I say… tacky? It feels like the writer is lost and fumbling through so much of the piece, especially when discussing gender and transition. It’s like there’s some sort of playbook for how to write about trans people for a cis audience that dates from the 90s that she’s following. And there’s this sentence, which is just… frankly pretty inaccurate: “In the conventional narrative about sex reassignment, a person is so sure from such a young age that he or she inhabits the wrong body that a surgically corrected self is a lifelong dream.” That narrative is SO outdated and generally viewed as downright harmful by many trans folks. As far as I know, the only people who believe in that “conventional narrative” are cis people.

Mey: Yeah, that was another time when I thought this article was written twenty years ago.

But back to Martine. What if she had said some even more problematic or offensive things regarding how she self identifies as a trans woman? What if she (or any other trans woman being interviewed) said something about how “as a trans woman, I’m not a real woman” or something, which at times I felt this article was close to doing. Would there be different rules then?

I feel like a lot of people confuse gender and gender presentation in these discussions. Like, even back when I was presenting as a guy, and my gender presentation was “boy” or whatever, I still consider myself a girl. My outward appearance and how people perceived me did not define my gender.

Mari: I’m with you. I think there’s an rather problematic conflation of the ideas of “gender identity” and “gender presentation” under the catch-all of “gender.” And again, if that’s how she were to identify, I believe that’s absolutely her right, and that’s how it should be presented. And those people do exist — they fall into the “gender critical” transgender camp. However, as a writer, I think it’s important to both understand and explain that situation to readers. When you’re delving into trans issues, you have a duty to know the subject matter. And, since the trans community is so small and vulnerable, I think there’s an even bigger need to be aware of how what you’re writing could impact our community and how the cis community perceives it.

Basically, there are ways to respect someone’s individual identity AND still be respectful to the larger community.

Mey: Yes! That was a thought that I had! About how we, as trans women, and trans people in general, are a smaller community and our media representation is even smaller, and so therefore we see every single instance of media representation as reflecting on all of us. And it often does. So I totally agree, that the media needs to be aware of how they portray trans people and what language they use. And I don’t think it’s that difficult. Just a couple sentences saying that this is how Martine talks about her life and gender, but many trans people don’t like or use this terminology.

Not knowing how to prepare dinner doesn't make her less of a woman via shutterstock

She doesn’t know how to cook a chicken, we must question her womanhood! via shutterstock

Also, the article definitely had really weird ideas about gender roles between the two, and again, it confused gender roles with gender. Outside of this article, you mentioned that the New York Magazine piece talks about how Martine ordered too much food and that by the time it got there it was cold, and then her wife swooped in and saved the meal. There’s another part where it says “the guests divide themselves by gender, with Martine remaining at the dining table with the men. Helen and Bina and I gather in the kitchen, where we talk, mostly about family.” So no, it didn’t divide by gender. It seemed the writer just wanted to write a little “the women went to gab in the kitchen while the men stayed and talked about serious things” thing. Again, I think that went back to the idea that the writer didn’t necessarily see Martine as a woman, just as a trans person. And I think it’s mainly about confusing gender presentation and gender roles with gender. There’s nothing about Martine’s lack of makeup or jewelry, or her inability to plan dinner or her liking to talk to men or her sex life that makes her less of a woman or more of a man, but that’s what this article seems to think.

Mari: Yes, it seems like the writer has some vague notions of the existence of non-binary identities. She discusses Kate Bornstein briefly, and drops the word “genderqueer” without any real explanation. It may be that Martine, like so many trans people including myself, identified as non-binary for years before coming out as trans and going through medical transition. It may be that Martine STILL identifies in some non-binary fashion but refers to herself as a woman, especially when dealing with people who are less aware of trans issues. But, those are things that could easily be mentioned or explained in a sentence or two in this very long article without being cumbersome. But, instead, it’s just a mish-mashery of a whole of lots things presented in a murky, frustrating and uninformed-sounding way.

Mey: Wrapping up, it seems to me that with this issue, there is a big generational difference, like there often is with terminology in the queer community. It seems like it’s mainly middle-age and older trans women who use this “used to be a man” or similar terminology. So I wouldn’t be that surprised if it gets more and more rare as time goes on. Especially when we have leaders of the current trans movement, like Laverne Cox on CBS This Morning rejecting the idea that she was born a boy and Janet Mock very famously rejecting the same idea on Piers Morgan.

janet

Mock on Piers Morgan

Also, with regard to the way trans lives are written about, we do see websites, periodicals and other forms of media get called out when they mess up or use problematic language, so I do think people are learning and things are getting better. And with more and more stories about trans people being in the mainstream media, I think that people will be forced to learn the proper terminology. I don’t know, I’m an optimist.

Mari: I think as the sense of community continues to grow with trans people, especially via the Internet, we’ll see some shifts in language continue to happen as we refine how we wish to discuss our lives. For so many years, the language used to discuss trans issues was forced on us by doctors and the cis world. But, over the last 10 years or so, we’ve really started to speak for ourselves and define our own terminology. I think you’re right about the generation difference in how we discuss our pre-transition lives, but I don’t think it’s necessarily about age, but about when you started transition. I think people who transitioned 10-15 years ago, regardless of age, tend to view things through a different lens than those of us who’ve done it in the last 5 years. And, as people are transitioning younger and younger, I think it’s going to start making a lot less sense to use phrasing like “used to be a man.” I think that same rise in trans voices being heard is what’s going to continue to drive changes in how the mainstream media reports on us. Our community is more visible by the day, which helps to humanize us, much as the visibility of cis queer people did in the 90s. I think we’ll always be a little behind the eight ball, but I think within the next 5-10 years, any mainstream media outlet that doesn’t want to look socially prehistoric will pay a lot more attention to how they write about trans people.


Are you following us on Facebook?

Profile gravatar of Mey

Mey Valdivia Rude is a bisexual Latina trans woman living in Los Angeles. She's a writer, comic consultant and a trans activist. She's a bruja, a femme, a pop princess and she loves comic books, witches, dinosaurs and crying. She has a cat named Sawyer and a very successful twitter.

Mey has written 507 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. While I love this article and everything you two have brought up, I have to ask: Do you not consider “non-binary” to be “trans enough”? There’s a lot of TERF talk I’m seeing here.

    You reference non-binary and trans in such disparate ways that it seems like you’re saying non-binary folks cannot be trans. Trans doesn’t mean “transition” it just means not identifying with the gender you were assigned. I think you did non-binary people a disservice by being a bit insensitive and problematic in your own language used there. MANY Non-binary people self identify as trans and many will switch back and forth between identifying as a woman or a man, but it’s a bit odd to see your wording “like so many trans people including myself, identified as non-binary for years before ***coming out as trans*** and going through medical transition. It may be that Martine STILL identifies in some non-binary fashion but refers to herself as a woman.”

    And to further illustrate the problematic tone of this, many trans people, non-binary or not, do not and will not undergo any ‘medical transition’ for tons of reasons, including medical reasons that prevent them from taking hormones or not having enough money.

    While I appreciate the entire article and the points you brought up, I think like the writer of this article needs to school themselves on trans issues, you ladies might have to school yourselves on non-binary trans issues a bit too.

    • It took me a while to follow your point about the non-binary issues. It was this particular quote from Mari:

      “It may be that Martine, like so many trans people including myself, identified as non-binary for years before coming out as trans and going through medical transition. It may be that Martine STILL identifies in some non-binary fashion but refers to herself as a woman, especially when dealing with people who are less aware of trans issues.”

      I see your point, once I read that more closely. I’m a non-binary trans guy – assigned female at birth, coming out as trans recently. I’ll always identify as non-binary, although I do plan to take advantage of medical transition options; hormones and probably surgery one day to bring myself closer to my internal place on the spectrum of “masculine of center.”

      So yeah, non-binary people do identify as trans, and do take advantage of gender-alignment medical options.

      I think their larger point of “build a larger framework discussing how trans people identify in general and then place Martine somewhere in that framework” is a valid one; describing Martine without referencing the broader picture can be misleading.

      But your point is a good one, too.

      • I agree completely. Non-binary and binary trans people both identify as trans, some take advantage of medical options, some don’t, etc. It’s the language used that’s problematic, and the idea that “trans enough” is a thing on AutoStraddle that we’re apparently supposed to qualify all trans people with.

        I think that’s another point in the category of their TERF language.

        “Build a larger framework discussing how trans people identify in general and then place Martine somewhere in that framework.” is implying that Martine doesn’t identify as strictly binary trans, and/or isn’t trans enough, for their liking.

        Martine identifies as a woman: simply and absolutely. If someone feels that Martine doesn’t, or isn’t “woman enough” that’s their problem to deal with and not Martine’s. It’s not their place or anyone elses to police Martine’s identity. It’s not their place to tell Martine where she “fits.” Martine says she is a woman. It’s very cut and dry, and using TERF language like this is very harmful to trans people in general. Seeing it on AutoStraddle is disheartening.

        • I’m a little confused as to where you’re getting the idea that we have anything resembling terf ideology.

          We are constantly defending Martine’s womanhood in this article and there’s even a point where Mari straight up says. “there’s no such a thing as a “standard” way to be trans.”

          I feel like we are unequivocally saying that she is trans enough, no matter if she identifies as binary or non-binary and that other people need to also acknowledge that and try to understand the complexities of transgender identities. In the article we openly reject the idea that you have to act, dress, transition or talk about yourself a creation way in order to be trans.

          The idea that of certain trans people not being “trans enough” is in no way even close to being a thing that we believe.

        • [Commenting to Mey’s comment here since I can’t Reply to it in the Comment Chain.]

          Thanks for responding and clarifying, Mey.

          >I’m a little confused as to where you’re getting the idea that we have anything resembling terf ideology.

          I tried to outline the language I had a problem with, and took direct quotes from the article.

          >We are constantly defending Martine’s womanhood in this article and there’s even a point where Mari straight up says. “there’s no such a thing as a “standard” way to be trans.”

          While that’s true, you both also flip-flop on a lot of issues — in one instance saying that it’s wrong to consider yourself “once a man” and in another saying it’s okay if you identify like that, though. So in a way, the issue seemed flip-flopped to me as well. While you both defended the ‘standard way to be trans’ and presenting and identifying as two seperate categories, the last paragraphs left me baffled as to how that lined up with the problematic language used about being non-binary, but not necessarily ‘trans’ enough or not trans at all even though non-binary people fall into the trans category.

          >The idea that of certain trans people not being “trans enough” is in no way even close to being a thing that we believe.

          Again, thank you for the clarification and stating your point. I’m glad neither of you take TERF ideology to be something you identify with.

    • I want to make sure it’s known that we 100% consider non- binary people to be “trans enough.” Anyone who identifies as a different gender than they were assigned and ids as trans is trans enough for us. Mari’s going to chime in later, but I think she meant ” before I came out as a trans woman”. We were trying to make the distinction between binary trans women and non-binary trans people and we weren’t clear enough about that. I definitely apologize for language that we used that made if sound like we don’t consider non-binary people trans. Again, we definitely do.

  2. Therein lies some of the profound complexities in writing about the Trans* community as it currently exists… some of the identities and ways of expressing/understanding what it means to be trans are so widely varied as to be challenging to write about one subgroup without disrespecting another. Just as endless writing about “born in the wrong body” “birth defect” or “classic transsexual…’I knew when I was 3 years old, blah, blah'” narratives tend to make non-binary people invisible (or even disrespect their transitions) all too often descriptions of non-binary people dismiss people who feel the need to medically transition or even what gender/body dissonance means to others in the trans community. It’s a tightrope.

    I agree with most Mari and Mey’s comments about what they found problematic in the article. I also agree that some of how they wrote about it and their critiques of Rothblatt’s words/version of womanhood show unfortunate discomfort with her seemingly “non-binary-but-call-me-a-woman” identity. While some people continue to rail against labels, I think they remain an important tool of respectful discussions of complex issues. The trans* label has become so wide ranging and encompassing so as to become only useful in certain specific political/activist contexts. It’s valuable in those for bringing the maximum number of people under a legal umbrella, but might not be the best choice for discussing actual issues of identity and presentation. Narrower, more pointed and specific language is needed.

    I do agree how the New York Magazine portrayal of Rothblatt, a brilliant and interesting person (oh, yes, and of course white and rich… which is why they’re featured in New York Magazine at all) was primarily about portraying her as a kind of “still really a man and really not a woman no matter what else they are.” Not only is she highly unrepresentative of the economic status found in the vast majority of the trans community (marginalized and impoverished) but she’s being used as a object to discuss what’s viewed as “real” women’s oppression and I think that’s just wrong and reeks of that magazine’s prior history of poor coverage of trans issues.

    • Exactly – the complexities of trans narratives are hard to convey easily in an article, especially if your audience is mostly unfamiliar with them. Heck, it’s hard to do if your audience IS familiar with trans narratives.

      I’ve run into difficulties with it in discussions with other trans people who took offense to me trying to summarize in broad terms some of the complexity. It’s hard to do effectively. I don’t even understand everyone’s point of view myself and I am trans.

  3. Thank you for this! I found the article to be lacking and used some super outdated terms as well. While I like to think that it’s just a lack of knowledge/understanding and give the author the benefit of the doubt, they are a journalist and writer, and should’ve taken the time to research appropriate terms and usage before publishing something that clearly has major flaws in how they discuss trans* people.

  4. This article sucks. I mean the language sucks, yes, but what I really don’t like about it is that it holds this lady up as some kind of role model. Which chaps my ass because first of all there’s nothing morally upstanding about getting rich, and the fact that as far as anyone I know can dig up she isn’t putting any of that money toward making life better for any other trans people.

    But you know what I really think is sick? They chose that tagline for a reason. Because of the implication. A little wink and a nudge, “hey hey, the highest paid woman CEO is one of those what does that tell you, eh?”

    Basically this magazine stinks, the wealthy in general stinks, the article stinks, and trying to put this Martine lady up like a trans role model stinks.

    • Thanks for articulating the problem with the headline. When I first saw it, my immediate thought was “oh, this is all about how ‘real’ women don’t have the qualities it takes to be CEOs so someone who ‘used to be a man’ will of course be the highest paid female CEO.” It seems so clear that that is the editor’s agenda, at least.

      • Yes! That was exactly my reaction when I saw it as well—let’s make sure everyone knows that the highest paid female CEO doesn’t really count.

        Plus, who knows whether the journalist or editor suggested that cover headline, or if it was developed by other in-house staff (as it’s the cover and gets to be super-baity)—which only means that as a collective effort this has less to do with one writer stumbling through an article about a successful trans person and everything to do with systemized transphobia in the media.

        • You got it. It’s phrased in a way as to beg you to slip the word ‘because’ in there. “The world’s highest paid woman CEO because she used to be a man.” It begs you to say she isn’t a real woman. It begs you to say she’s benefiting from male privilege, and to cast that out across all trans women. It betrays itself in the way it treats her like a boggling novelty.

  5. From a biologist but non-transsexual perspective, perhaps I’m behind the times here but, the term “male” or “female” are sex terms, not gender terms. While there are several factors that make up sex, such as external sex organs, internal sex organs, chromosomes, and hormone levels, and realizing that focusing on just the external organs is limited but common, if you remove the socially imposed roles, being born male doesn’t have anything to do with one’s gender, doesn’t mean that the individual isn’t a girl or whatnot, and is simply a biological thing. I realize that’s not how society at large sees it as they link sex and gender as the same and impose a gender role on the child based solely on genitals, but, is stating someone is “born” male or female really considered insulting? Limiting, yes, but something to avoid? I’ve heard plenty of trans people acknowledge they were born with certain biological sex traits and use the general two-sex labels to explain. It doesn’t have anything to do with their gender other than explain why others tried to impose a role on them.

    Similarly, I’ve always used the term “sex reassignment surgery” and cringe at the term “gender reassignment” or even “gender confirmation” surgery because it implies sex and gender are the same things and that one cannot “truly” be a gender without the “correct” sex. Gender is not physical. It cannot be changed by an operation and it cannot be confirmed by a surgery. Unless your focus is social expectations. It seems to me that taking that traditional view of sex=gender isn’t really all that far from the stricter view of “if you’re born with these genitals, this is what you are, period”. If an individual wishes surgery and it would make them feel more comfortable and whole, go for it, you know? But you don’t need surgery or hormones or anything else to be a man or a woman or whoever else you may be.

    • But it’s a lot more complex than that, actually. “Male” and “female” are not good catch-all terms for biology. What biological components do you have to have to be considered “male?” Genitalia? That can be ambiguous. Internal organs? Also can be ambiguous. Chromosomes? Those can be ambiguous. Hormones? Also ambiguous from one person to another. Some combination of the three? Wow, the variations there.

      Categorizing anyone as “male” or “female” other than in a really broad sense is fraught and leaves out/ignores many people either way, so birth identification based on biology is terribly inaccurate anyway, and probably shouldn’t be used.

      And as far as terminology for medical interventions (hormonal and surgical) people have been reworking that terminology for the very reasons you describe. “Gender alignment medical interventions” is one of the more current terms. It refers to bringing the body and the identity into alignment with each other, and also considers hormones, which can be as important to trans people as surgeries in helping us dispel gender dysphoria.

      • I didn’t mean to imply I thought “male” and “female” were all fine and good. A two-label system is very limiting and not in line with the wide range of reality. But it doesn’t change the fact that certain characteristics have biological labels and I did say that I realized that, for the most part, only one characteristic was focused on when using those labels. I don’t really see the need to use sex characteristics as identifying markers on birth certificates or anything else, because, due to society’s narrow gender assumptions, it implies a certain way of looking and being that can be wholly inaccurate and therefore useless. But still, even if the labels are too narrow, the focus on biology for labeling, which, for the most part, just is, as opposed to *assumed* gender based on biology, seems preferable. It’s kind of like eye color. I suppose if they insist of physical descriptors they could label body parts (with more necessarily, I realize) rather than use sex terms. You know, like “penis present” or whatever instead of “male”. But they do seem to basically be saying they’re the same thing.

        I find “gender alignment medical interventions” just as problematic as the other terms. Gender is a mix of social constructs and personal being. For it to “align” with anything is to follow suit with society’s expectations that certain things *should* go together. I find it dangerous to think like this. So many –isms, from heterosexism to racism, can be linked back to strict gender expectations. It doesn’t seem that far a stretch to revert back to the “you have testicles and are therefore a boy and have to play with this and act like that and if you think otherwise you are sick and need to be fixed!” type of mentality. Someone might prefer a look, might feeling more themselves with that look, might wish to change physical features to make themselves more comfortable, that I would encourage them to be comfortable with themselves in whatever fashion, but they are not broken. They might “align” with social expectations with medical intervention but if someone is a man or a woman or anything else, they just are, whether or not society deems fit to confirm that.

        • “Align” as in “Aligning one’s body with how it feels like in one’s head” not “aligning with society’s expectations about gender.”

          For me, when I look in the mirror, my body is out of alignment with what I feel it is when I close my eyes. In my mind, I have much larger upper-body muscles, a flat chest, a narrow waist and hips, completely different fat distribution, and a penis. Bringing my actual physical form into alignment with what’s in my mind would make me feel a hundred times more comfortable in my own skin.

    • ZenW, this is actually an idea that I had trouble with as well the first time I heard it — largely because a trans person had explained it to me differently before. It can be hard to keep on top of all the language shifts as an ally, but I guess what it comes down to for me is this: why would I privilege “correct” language above the way that an actual person is identifying themself? Why would I keep using “male” and “female” rather than “male assigned” and “female assigned” if my language is hurting people? Making small adjustments to the way I talk about things seems like the least I can do.

      Also, if you haven’t read these two articles yet, I highly recommend:
      Science Will Not Save Us: Medicine, Research Ethics, and My Transgender Body
      It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of “Biological Sex” to Defend Their Transmisogyny

      • Laura, thank you, I’ve already read both of them before. I’m not trying to make people uncomfortable and I think self-labeling is very important. My issue is accuracy, and believe me, I drive my friends nuts with that on a variety of topics. I don’t find any real reason why certain language would necessarily make someone more or less uncomfortable as long as it’s accurate. I can totally see how inaccurate language could cause discomfort. It seems, just from my perspective, that sometimes language starts sliding backwards, and that is how I’m interpreting this, linking sex=gender, that there is a correct alignment of them, absorbing typical social constructs instead of encouraging them to grow (which I realize is far from easy).

        It would be idiotic of me to tell someone they are a man when they are telling me otherwise. But I don’t see a conflict between being male and being a woman or having been female and being a man, and I acknowledge that physical realities can be altered and change. I don’t think biology or its alteration creates transmisogny but that social views do. There were plenty of societies that had no conflict with a person being of one sex and having a gender that didn’t “align” with what was typically expected of that sex, but there wasn’t any harm in acknowledging it, either. Actually, in a lot of cases they considered it a community blessing.

        So, I guess my rambling point was that I think there should be more accurate and varied labels, if we keep insisting on labels, and I think being accurate is important and there shouldn’t necessarily be anything inherently uncomfortable about that just because society at large tells us otherwise, and that we should push back against the narrow society that makes it an “issue” to begin with instead of reverting to a way that comes close to acknowledging that narrow way of being or thinking instead. And I personally feel a bit insulted when it is suggested that there “should be” or “is” an “alignment” between sex and gender. That’s just me. I don’t know if it’s because of the accuracy thing or that I feel it’s dismissive of nonconformist genders. Probably both.

        • I hear you (I think), and I used to feel that one of the exciting things about trans people was how they demonstrated that a male could be a woman, etc. However, I eventually realized that I was essentially asking trans people to take on the burden of “representing” that gender and sex don’t have to align, and to do so constantly and in a very public way. I was also objectifying trans people, in the sense of seeing in them a representation of a concept, rather than seeing them as individuals. As a cis (or cis enough) person, my sex and gender align the way society expects them too, and I don’t intend to change that just to prove a theoretical point. I have to support trans people who want to have their gender and their sex align with each other and match societal expectations about how sex and gender align (physically and/or linguistically) because that’s the experience I have, an experience that I do not want to change.

          I’m a bit confused by your statement that female and male are, indeed, socially constructed categories followed by your statement that using these terms differently from how they’ve typically been used is “inaccurate.” If they’re the names for socially constructed categories, we can put pressure on what they describe, and we’re not being inaccurate to describe some trans women, for example, as having been born female (assuming that is how the women in question understand themselves). (Julia Serano discusses the indications of sex that appear in the brain, raising another issue about where sex even comes from, etc. If we’re talking about sexed brains, perhaps some trans women would be most “accurately” described as having been born female.)

          I don’t find any real reason why certain language would necessarily make someone more or less uncomfortable as long as it’s accurate.

          But who determines what is accurate and how? I know people who think f****t is the most accurate way to describe gay men, or Chinamen as the appropriate and accurate term for people from China. (I’m ****ing the one word in the hopes of not getting caught in a filter, I’m not trying to suggest that either slur is more or less hurtful.) What is accurate is also a social construct that we can and should push on and transform.

        • But again, why would “accuracy” be more important than trans people’s comfort?

          Trans people don’t need cis people to “correct” the language they use, or to inform them that there’s no “real” reason for them to feel uncomfortable. Trans people need allies who listen.

          Also, even if you perceive certain language to be “sliding backwards,” it seems really farfetched to imply that trans people aren’t fighting hard enough against social constructs…

          • even if you perceive certain language to be “sliding backwards,” it seems really farfetched to imply that trans people aren’t fighting hard enough against social constructs…

            Exactly. And it’s asking more of trans people than of cis people. What could cis people do that would be the equivalent? Should we all alter our bodies and/or our social gender so that they no longer align the way society expects them to? In some ways, this argument (one I used to make) is reminiscent of the second-wave feminist argument that no women should ever wear makeup or high heels, because that would be co-operating with patriarchy (an argument I also used to make). It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t produce revolution.

        • Trans woman and fellow accuracy fan here. The thing about labels and categories is that they refer to clusters of characteristics that are probabilistically associated with each other. If you know that someone has breasts then you can be pretty sure they have a vagina, and if you know they have a vagina then you can be pretty sure they have XX chromosomes etc. Of course that doesn’t always work but it works often enough that we can save a lot of cognitive energy by using the mental constructs of male and female and still make reasonably accurate predictions. This is how our brains handle all complicated categories. The problems come up when a person knows they’re dealing with an exceptional case and they continue to use the no longer useful mental construct.

          When it comes to using labels to communicate there are inherent tradeoffs between accuracy, speed, and comprehensibility. Saying someone used to be male is fast, easily understood by a general audience, and reasonably accurate. Saying someone was assigned male at birth is slightly less fast, much less understandable to a general audience, and only more accurate in the sense that it communicates how little importance that piece of history should be given if you want to stay on that person’s good side.

          Also, I’m totally with you when it comes to sex reassignment surgery. To me “gender reassignment surgery” sounds like some horrible lobotomy like procedure to change my gender identity to male. The surgery could in principle be done on a non-consenting cis person and it wouldn’t change their gender it would just change some of their primary sex characteristics. So why call it “gender reassignment surgery” when sex reassignment surgery makes so much more sense? I think it’s mostly a political thing with some trans people worried that some cis people might confuse sex with sex, and think that being trans is all about sex. As usual accuracy becomes a casualty of politics and politeness.

        • ‘But I don’t see a conflict between being male and being a woman or having been female and being a man’

          i do see a conflict. s you do not have the luxury to freely interchange ‘male’ and (for example)even ‘penis present at birth’ because the semantics of these neither in the specific cultural context nor in general are not identical. One implies a function (male of the species) which to my knowledge… *inspects my gf* …transsexual women are inherently incapable of performing, by virtue of being transsexual women. Nor does she have gonads producing spermatozoa, i mean i am looking, right now, can’t find. Retrying, still nope. And no, biology per se is not purely about reproductive role – it is about the entire set of functions within the given context. The concept of sex may be about reproductive role – and said role, to my very clear and sometimes harsh knowledge, comes back as n/a to an adult and fully adjusted transsexual woman. That’s pedantism and accuracy.

          I call you on sophistry and propaganda.

          ‘and I acknowledge that physical realities can be altered and change.’

          See, if physical realities (which, accidentally, are the things that biology would be concerned with) can be altered and change, why the singleminded emphasis? Why such desire to push the ‘no need to alter’ option? ‘I don’t see a conflict between being male and being a woman’? Do you want me to demonstrate it? Here you go – by extension you are now backing the concept of ‘male lesbian’ in its full glory of incredible creepiness. If we’re accurate (i’m starting to like that word) that term is taken by Lisa from L-Word, and transsexual women are late to the party.

          I do call you on sophistry and propaganda, and also i could throw in ‘what about child…i mean non-binary identities’ concern trolling. Thing is, i am not convinced you deliver propaganda intentionally – might just be the bit inherent in your cute academic gender studies belief system. Sometimes faiths/belief systems are hateful and dehumanising enough to be able to automatically insinuate oppression and invalidation and deliver concern derail, without a specific intent, just from basic premises and language. The ones adhering to them are nevertheless…i know everyone hates that word, but… responsible.

          Sometimes uni library is not the best source of knowledge. You can hate me and find confirmation of my wrongness from your 60yo GS professor who personally participated in a cultural genocide and fondly reminisces of ‘the days’ – or you can let me tell a story about the exotic, cool non-western ‘nonbinary’ identities. In Thailand there was a window in the 90s when they had introduced advanced Western medical tech but did not have centralised population registry or surveillance and their birth/death records were kept in their equivalent of parish books. That resulted in a number of transsexual women bribing distant backwater village officials into creating fictional birth records for them and disappearing from the radar, in a way reinventing the oppressive and limited Western binary. The loophole eventually was closed but a question remains – if a society does not have the assigned sex linked to a single prescriptive gender role, and allows for expressions of masculinity/femininity, why choose the ‘inferior’ and ‘limited’ binary understanding of self…unless it’s part of one’s neural makeup?

          I do believe non-binary people exist and there is nothing wrong with being one – what i’m saying is, it is not a catch-all category for all mismatches with ‘at birth’. Non-binary folks like everyone else live here-and-now, not at an arbitrarily chosen moment in the past.

        • “I don’t find any real reason why certain language would necessarily make someone more or less uncomfortable as long as it’s accurate.”

          This has been pointed out already by others, but I urge you to respond to answer WHO is the arbitrator of what is ‘accurate’ or not. A trans woman identifying as female would be the expert in accurately identifying herself. Why are antiquated notions established by cissexist social ideals considered more accurate than the language used by trans individuals about their own bodies and experiences? The only real answer to that is “Because [cissexist] tradition” and nothing more.

    • Maybe I can demystify this a little bit.

      Saying that someone is born male or born female implies that someone has an immutable automatic gender from the moment they’re crying under the hospital lighting, just like that, and that what may come later is something that isn’t inherent. It’s something which is somehow fundamentally not the same as other people’s gender (read: “normal people”). The term coming into vogue here is “assigned ___ at birth”, typically amab or afab for short.

      I mean the objection that people raise is “well no, we’re talking about biologically, we’re talking about sex, and you do have a born sex so we’ll call you that when you’re born for convenience and there’s nothing gendered about it”, and a lot of trans writers from past generations used this terminology, but the theory that’s beginning to germinate in transgender communities of my generation is that no, you can’t backdoor it by creating a loosey goosey gender category and then shoal up the good old fashioned gender binary into a sex binary, because that’s bunk too. We already know that you can’t look at someone’s junk and presume their gender, but you can’t presume they fit into one of two very narrow categories of sex, either, it’s erasure of intersex people, and ultimately, yes, continues to reinforce binarism and by extension cissexism. It implies that I, for example, have something ineffably male about me, that I have some intrinsically male origin. And it starts sending the message from the cradle to a kid that they have a normal gender that they’re supposed to have or have by default.

      All gender, even if we’re calling it sex and claiming it isn’t gendering people, is as natural or artificial as trans people’s gender, and obligating genders onto people in any way is harmful. And these biological terms being gendered is neither necessary for medicine to function, nor is it an accident.

    • The words “male” and “female” have multiple accepted uses in the English language, and don’t mean exactly the same thing to everyone. People use them to refer to a set of biological characterists but they are also used more broadly to refer to a person’s gender. You can argue that this is improper, but the fact is that it is very common to refer to a person as male or female based on their preceived gender without regard to biology. Given the dual meaning of these words it makes sense that different trans people would have different preferences regarding their use.

      To say that a trans woman was born male isn’t inherently insulting, but it certiantly can be if it goes against a person’s stated preference. Given that people often have strong feelings on the subject, I think it would be nice for any article dealing with trans people that chooses to use language like “born male” or “born a boy” to include a sentence or too explaining that they are using the language prefered by the subject of the article and recognize that many people feel differently.

  6. Basically, there are ways to respect someone’s individual identity AND still be respectful to the larger community.

    I’m interested in this concept and interested in exploring how it can be done. I just read Feinberg’s Trans Liberation where ze describes hirself as “born female” etc. Now, the book was published in the 1990s, and I haven’t followed up on how Feinberg describes hirself these days, but I feel like there needs to be space for people to use their own words, even if problematic. (Also in the book, Sylvia Rivera uses terms like “boy” to describe her younger self.)

    I work with Black and Pink, and sometimes the way our inside members describe themselves is dramatically different from the terms that are considered appropriate in other queer and trans spaces. Anyone who knows that their personally terminology could be offensive to others should make it clear that the words they use for themselves can be problematic for others, but sometimes people aren’t aware of how others feel about certain terms.

    However, a journalist absolutely should do enough research to be able to make the distinction clear (and honestly it sounds like the writer actually created the problem). As far as this article goes, it sounds deeply flawed and Mari’s and Mey’s criticisms make a lot of sense. But I’ve been turning over in my head how we can productively engage with people who do use different, sometimes problematic terms, to describe themselves. And policing and correcting others’ self-descriptions has little appeal to me. At the same time, they’re contributing to a discourse that causes so many problems for other people.

    • no. there is no way to eat one’s cake and have it. After 90s, in the light of cyborg theory and the schism there is the bioessentialist doctrine and the functionalist heresy, divided right down to physics of fundamental particles. I am sad to say but there is a correct, right and only way of doing things – it depends on your side, and you have a choice, but you can choose only one and that choice is pretty much final. Us technocrats have an amazing potential for grace, clemency and charitable compassion for the wretched. Such as resisting of carrying out a retroactive judgement on events before 1991 and someone like Sylvia Riviera who could not possibly have the cultural context or the knowledge of the one true way. Such individuals are not biocons, their lives and acts suggest they’re functionalist technocrats at heart and deserve to be absolved from being judged unworthy and their heritage deserves to be retroactively integrated into the new world. In fact it is very much like the case for Socrates in Catholic limbo.

      Now Martine Rothblatt not only lives here and now, in 2014 – but is a transhumanist and a technoprogressive, and as someone with all the access to functionalist wisdom – she ought be judged much more harshly. So, on the surface you would expect me to straightforwardly say ‘dear Martine, fuck this, it’s poppycock – in 20% bigger package, and with a new formula – now with less raw opiates and more cock’. And you’d be wrong. The poor woman comes across as under severe social pressure and considering that if she did not profess views like hers, i darkly suspect she could wave byes to contacts, property, home and executive job and support of her emotional addictions. because no matter how high she has got, this society could destroy her in a sec if those close to her to turned on her.

  7. I loooove reading Mey and Mari’s conversations!!

    Also, was I the only one to find the cover’s photo also off-putting? On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with a woman adopting that kind of posture, but on the other hand it seemed to be like a reinforcement of “This woman is a top-earning CEO because she’s actually MAN and therefore still admitted to our all-powerful Boys’ Club” body language.

    • It makes you wonder how much of her styling and posing was dictated by the magazine, doesn’t it? This is another thing that I think has totally different implications depending on whose idea it was. If that is her relaxed and comfortable then I’d think it’s fine, if it’s posturing to tell part of the story it feels quite insidious.

  8. thanks Mari & Mey for having this dialogue on the site. i was so caught up on how cool having a robot wife might be that many of the issues you brought up escaped me. i’m glad that you both encourage all of us to be better and more critical writers and thinkers, to reach out and ask more questions and to talk about issues in a more layered way. i know you were talking about the author of that particular piece but the core of what you were both saying totally applies to all of us. thank you a million times.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.