Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance when we remember the trans* and gender variant people who have lost their lives this year – 265 lives lost, often in savage, brutal ways. These are the dead we know about; we also mourn the nameless, faceless dead, those whose murders we’ll never know about. As I look through the the list of names and at the breakdown of these statistics, I see patterns to the violence.

Many of these people were trans women or somewhere on the transfeminine spectrum. Many lived in Central or South America. Many were people of colour. Many were sex workers. They lived and died at a particularly cruel set of intersections – racism, misogyny, transphobia, hatred of sex workers, classism.

It is important not to forget these intersections. It is not simply transphobia, but a toxic brew of multiple kinds of hatreds that mean that the existence of anyone living at that intersection cannot be tolerated and they cannot be allowed to live.

Many trans and gender variant people experience prejudice and violence; however, the violence experienced by someone with some privileges (being white, upper/middle class, able-bodied, highly educated) is different from that experienced by those who are insulated by none of these privileges. In remembering them, it is important to never appropriate their experiences and lives and deaths. They are our dead, but we are not all Thapelo Makutle or Laryssa Silveira just as we are not all CeCe McDonald. As Monica Maldonado writes,

We should gather to mourn the dead, not conscript them into a battle they never had the privilege to fight while living.
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Remember trans people today…but remember us tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. And never forget that fighting for trans justice is fighting for social justice. And just the same, fighting for economic justice, disability justice, and racial justice are fighting for trans justice.

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Reflecting on those whose lives were senselessly lost at the intersections of violence and injustice is one of the most important and sobering works we can do as a community.

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But it can’t be all we do. And until we rise to the occasion; until each of us rises to action; until we meet the very real challenge of creating a more equal community and society; until we do better, we’ll keep meeting here each year, reading this ever-growing list of names of those who lost their lives at these intersections of violence and injustice.

Today we mourn. As Ruth Pearce writes, “today is for the dead. If we don’t acknowledge their passing, it may be that no-one will. If we don’t offer respect, it may be that no-one will”.

Tomorrow, we who still have breath in our bodies, can live and love and fight and hope.

But today is for the dead.

Nottinghamshire Pride

Last year, I wrote about my slightly complicated feelings about Pride. As a result of some rather unpleasant transphobic incidents last year, this year the Pride organising committee offered the trans* group I help run our own tent and a bit of money to start us off. This was tremendously exciting – we’d never had a dedicated trans* area and we were determined to showcase the talented, diverse and creative trans* performers in our community, offer a space to our allies to perform in a friendly place where the complexities of their identities were welcomed, be a visible trans* presence at Pride and, perhaps most importantly, reaching out to people and making them feel a little less alone.

Photo of Ruth of Not Right

Ruth of Not Right. Photo by Eriw Erif

There’s an excellent review of the day by Ruth of Not Right and one of our members has a write-up and some photos on the group site.

Single Bass
El Dia (Sisters of Resistance)
Jase Redfield
Elaine O’Neill
Lashings of Ginger Beer Time
Dr Carmilla
Roz Kaveney
Sally Outen
George Hadden
Nat Titman
Troxin Cherry
Jessie Holder (of Better Strangers Opera)
Not Right

Every single one of them was fantastic, bringing their words and music and loves and lives to the stage. Whether this was furious-but-fun punk, elegantly coiled poetry about the acronyms one must acquaint oneself with as a trans* person, sweetly tender songs about growth and uncertainty, bawdily defiant poetry, eloquent fierceness about femme identity or subversively genderqueer readings of opera, our performers were both affirming and challenging. It was an honour to be able to thank so many amazing people at the end of the day, from the performers to Jess who organised the majority of the day, our stage manager and our fantastic sound guy.

As an activist, I think about spaces. I think about the spaces that I challenge and create, and as I watched and applauded and ran around trying to locate performers I thought about the space that I’d helped open up in Pride. The spaces I am talking about are both physical – like the tent – but also more abstract. Space is also about what is given voice, what is allowed to flourish, the possibilities that can be articulated. Much of my annoyance at last year’s Pride was that it was a gay man, and possibly a lesbian, space. This is important, and I’m not disputing the significance of a space where people can hold hands with their same-sex partners and not feel that tiny prickle of concern even at the best of times – that anyone, anywhere, could suddenly take it upon themselves to vocally – and perhaps physically – object to that simple, unobtrusive affection. Other queer identities were less or not acknowledged however, and I found that really problematic. The LGBTQA community is a huge, diverse community and it’s really important to acknowledge and welcome that diversity. When that diversity is not embraced, it’s not simply an issue of our experiences not being given a voice, as isolating and unwelcoming as that is. A lack of trans* awareness contributed to some really upsetting incidents and the Pride organising committee were keen to avoid that happening this year.

There was something magical about being in a tent and being able to listen and watch people who articulated some of my fears and anxieties and desires. There were trans* people speaking and singing and playing about trans* experiences, and cis performers adapting and selecting their work to speak to us. Not us trying to eke out a trans* interpretation of a song or a poem, but them finding the points where we could understand each other. It was people exploring gender and all that came with it; negotiating the NHS, the harsh realities of genital surgery, the misery and joy we find in our bodies. When we started planning our tent, we were determined to bring a radical queer feminist perspective to Pride – something that we treasured in our communities but which we rarely found represented at Pride. In this tent we were able to do something special, and create a space that was visible and proud and joyful and intersectional and defiant.

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar. Photo by Eriw Erif.

Obviously things went wrong (technical hitches, delays, transport issues for some of our performers) and I can only thank our performers for being so patient with us. I learnt a lot about managing an event like this, even though the learning curve was so steep it felt more like a ski slope.

I found it an interesting mixture of some of my academic interests and my activist interests. While as an academic I am interested in silences and space, this was an opportunity to put some of the things I’ve been thinking about into practice. Not just thinking about what trans* positive spaces might look like, but trying to actually create one and working out what needs to be done so it is a safe(r) and welcoming space. Theoretically, I want such a space to acknowledge the different and complex ways people identify, encourage exploration of intersectional identities and recognise that there is No One True Way of being trans*. I want this space to provide information and offer solace, to be able to engage with people. What this meant was looking carefully at who we’d invited to perform, having some basic guidelines for behaviour displayed in the tent, making information from a range of different organisations and about different issues available, and ensuring that the people covered in our trans* history information were from a variety of backgrounds and reflected some of the ambiguities of posthumously assigning a trans* identity to a historical figure.

It wasn’t the most academic way to spend a weekend – I’m pretty sure most academics don’t need to hire drumkits the day before an event – but it had impact. Not just in a research sense, although I do hope to work in areas of language and gender identity, but in the way we saw people come in to say hello or out of curiosity or seeking information, and leave feeling affirmed, moved, comforted. A trans* space was political for all the reasons I’ve discussed, but it wasn’t until the day itself that I realised how very personal it would be too.

Trans media representation

Perhaps unexpectedly, My Transsexual Summer has focused some of my thoughts about representation, power and self-representation.

There are well-worn tropes in trans documentaries – so well-worn that there is more than one drinking game out there, with invitations to drink for things such as “any reference to genital surgery that refers to “becoming a woman” or “finally a woman””, a “close up of dotted lines in magic marker on pale fleshy body parts”, “if anyone uses the phrase “a man trapped in a woman’s body,” or vice versa”, or to just to down the whole bottle for a camera in an operating theatre. This is the kind of representation the trans community is used to.

My Transsexual Summer was greeted with nervous but hopeful anticipation from the trans community. Channel 4 had signed Trans Media Watch’s Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to treat trans issues sensitively and accurately. Trans Media Watch was consulted while making the show. These things are a step forward in ensuring that trans people are not just the subjects of a documentary, but have a say in how they are presented in the programme.

Trans people have also written about the My Transsexual Summer series. Juliet Jacques appraised the show and Paris Lees, who was consulted as part of Trans Media Watch, also wrote about the show. Again, I think this is positive – it’s important that specialist documentaries aren’t just reviewed by non-specialists, but that people who know about the area write about them.

from http://www.thegenderbook.com / @thegenderbook


I don’t want to review the show, but instead want to focus on the representation part.

One of the issues with representation is that it simplifies and silences identities in favour of identities constructed by those in power. This is very relevant for the trans community which encompasses a multitude of genders, both binary and non-binary. These identities can be complex and difficult to understand for people who don’t experience them first hand, and are often poorly understood outside the trans community and gender activists. The illustration (click for a larger image) shows this in a playful way – while there are gender identities that roughly map onto “man” and “woman”, there are different ways of expressing manliness and womanliness. Some people are born in one place and move to another. There are identities that aren’t “man” or “woman” and there are also identities that are fluid and don’t stay in one place. This is a pretty simple explanation but it’s a huge area. I hope you can see how complicated gender identity can get.

There were hints that some of the My Transsexual Summer participants identified or had identified outside the gender binary – that they didn’t identify as totally male or female – but there was little to go on because it simply wasn’t discussed or really raised as a possibility.

Max, one of the participants, writes about his dissatisfaction about how they were portrayed:

Now I am watching the show and I see myself, and Fox reduced to bit parts and supporting roles, I see Karen’s story reduced to her anatomy and I see Donna portrayed as a caricature of her real, intelligent self. I see narratives that focus on boobs, unemployment and surgeries and make up and phallus’ privileged over narratives that deal with achievement, employment, happy families, and diversity of gender, race and belief.

He suggests that this was deliberate – that the complicated bits that didn’t fit a simple narrative were edited out, and instead the documentary focused on the kinds of issues satirised in the drinking games.

There are some complicated issues here about who and what gets presented to a largely non-trans audience as trans, and the relationship of trans people to mainstream media producers. Trans people are effectively in a bind – on one hand it’s important to be in mainstream programmes for several reasons. Mainstream programming reaches audiences who don’t read trans-produced media. It can be a useful resource to direct parents, friends, colleagues and supportive others to. It can be incredibly useful and validating for people only just realising they’re trans to see trans people on TV. In a world where trans stories are often ignored or treated as a freak show, My Transsexual Summer did a lot to humanise the people who appeared in it – it showed people who were trying to make a life for themselves, sometimes in the face of outrageous discrimination. Simply appearing in mainstream media demonstrates that you exist to people who were previously unaware of your presence.

However, on the other hand, there is an unequal power dynamic at work. Trans people are rarely the ones producing, directing or scripting these programmes – on board as consultants, but not the ones who make the decisions about what should and should not be included. Trans narratives and experiences are filtered and mediated by non-trans people – there are probably hundreds of hours of footage filmed for My Transsexual Summer but only four hours were actually shown. As Max suggests, the bits left on the cutting room floor suggest something more complicated but ultimately, that reflected the participants more closely. As Fox notes, “not nearly enough people picked up on the fact that most of the airtime was spent highlighting gender binaries and not exploring the how gender is much more fluid than that”; part of the problem here is that an audience unfamiliar with the trans community wouldn’t know what issues are being avoided or elided. Trans people end up having to make difficult decisions about whether it’s more important to have their experiences presented accurately or whether it’s more important to have a trans voice, albeit a mediated trans voice, visible in mainstream media.

There is resistance to this. Trans people started affectionately mocking the disparity between My Transsexual Summer and their own experiences of the trans community under the twitter hashtag #DIYTransSummer (the @DIYTransSummer account started collecting these). Some of the participants in My Transsexual Summer discussed what wasn’t addressed in the TV programmes more extensively on their blogs, in vlogs and on twitter but the problem there is one of audience numbers: far more people watched My Transsexual Summer than read Max’s blog.

Work to address transphobia and inaccuracies in media coverage of trans people is ongoing. Trans Media Action recently held Trans Camp, a workshop that identified five major issues to work on. Two of these issues specially concern media representation of trans issues; a third concerns “mak[ing] producers of comedy aware of who they are making comedy about”. Trans Media Watch submitted a 31 page document to the Leveson Inquiry arguing that “the highly adverse treatment of transgender and intersex people by parts of the press is a stark and instructive example of what newspapers (often but not exclusively tabloid) will seek to get away with when no effective formal or internal restraints are in place” and offering case studies and detailed recommendations.

As well as challenging the representation of trans people in mainstream media, trans people are also producing their own media. META magazine, a new magazine “for T-people by T-people” has just been launched.

As Juliet Jacques notes, “there’s a sense that the excuses that gatekeepers of mainstream liberal and left-wing spaces have previously used to keep out transgender perspectives — that the issues are too complicated, or that transsexual people somehow undermine feminist or socialist politics — are finally becoming untenable”. I hope this is the case and that trans people can look forward to better media representation but due to the nature of the power dynamic and how it manifests itself, I’m unconvinced it will happen unless trans people are in positions where we have more independence and control over media output. We’re getting there, but it’s a potentially slow process.

Issues in trans language

Earlier this month I, along with two other committee members, spoke to Nottingham Lesbian and Gay Switchboard about the trans social and support group we run. One of the things that came up was the complexity of trans terminology. As someone with some knowledge of the community, as someone who is, in a small way, a trans activist, and as someone with a linguistic background I’m intrigued by the words we use and the way we try to create our stories of flux and change out of these words. Words have immense power in this community; often simply knowing the word for something is an act of empowerment, a realisation that there are others like you and there is a place for you in the world. Words can summon identities into being; words can make manifest inchoate feelings of difference and not fitting in. Words are brilliant.

However, I’ve not read a great deal on linguistics and trans issues. I have an interest in language and gender but all too often I find there’s a disconnect between the linguistic research and what I know as an activist. For example, while reading Benwell and Stokoe’s 2006 Discourse and Identity I came across the following:

The speakers are all ‘women’. They are relatively ‘young’, though not ‘teenagers’. They are ‘white’. The presenters’ accents sound ‘upper middle class’. Jane sounds ‘educated’ and ‘middle class’. We presume they are all ‘English’, and we know Jane is ‘heterosexual’ – she has a male partner.

While Benwell and Stokoe do go on to note that “[e]ach of these categories can be further unpacked”, they don’t make any comment about the fairly major assumption they make about Jane’s sexuality. In the activist communities I belong to, someone assuming that a person is heterosexual just because they have a male partner would immediately be questioned about the basis of their assumption. Jane’s last partner could have been a woman. Jane might identify as queer for political reasons. Jane might be polyamorous and have partners of different genders, Jane might be married to a man and monogamous but also attracted to women. As an academic, I have to admit that coming across this assumption in the book’s introduction made me wonder what other assumptions about identity were being made in the book – how far can I trust their analyses of identity if they can make such a basic assumption?

As someone who uses critical discourse analysis in their research, identifying the context of language use is important to understanding it. There are some issues informing the way trans identities are conceptualised within the trans community – the background knowledge and understanding that makes some words acceptable and some unacceptable or unthinkable.

One of the things that I find most striking is the awareness of queer theory; I’ve had much more interesting and informed discussions about gender and queerness at trans socials than I have at research seminars. However, this awareness of gender binaries, gender fluidity, gender performativity, and the power to reshape, reinterpret and individualise gender inevitably comes into conflict with the idea of having an innate sense of one’s “real” gender. Conceptualising gender and gender identity – where it comes from, how it is formed, whether it is innate or realised through performance – is not a theoretical exercise but has profound implications for trans people. If gender is simply realised through performance, then what about bodies and the desire to change our bodies?

However, gender identity itself is problematic. Some people identify as non-gendered – they do not feel they have a gender identity and framing the discourse in these terms is inaccurate, discriminatory and erases their experience.

There is tension between the trans community and the medical profession. People who seek to change their bodies, either through hormones or surgery, usually have to do this through the medical establishment. While there are ways to acquire hormones without medical supervision, this has risks and, at least in my experience, is not recommended (although obviously this differs according to access to appropriate medical care etc). The medical profession, therefore, also act as gatekeepers and control access to care – in the UK, an individual seeking hormones or surgery on the NHS has to go through a Gender Identity Clinic where a panel decides whether they’re suitable for treatment. Not everyone is deemed suitable, and people identifying as genderqueer or non-binary gendered have had particular difficulty in getting approved (although new WPATH guidelines should change this).

However, this brings in the issue of who gets to decide what “trans” is and, indeed, how it should be defined.
Not everyone who identifies as trans wants to medically transition, not all want to transition between binary genders and not all identify in such a way as to make transition straightforward or, indeed, necessary. I’ve heard Nat of Practical Androgyny discuss the terms transsexual, transgender, trans and trans* and how they’re in a constant process of resisting the medicalisation of trans identities, trying to be as inclusive as possible and creating space for ‘new’ identities to exist. Zagria identifies five meanings of transgender and discusses them in the linked essay.

Language itself can also be problematic. The variety of English I use – British English – doesn’t have a gender neutral singular pronoun. This post outlines some alternatives but they aren’t widely known or accepted outside the queer community – as an undergraduate, I got told off for using ze/zir in an essay about gendered language.

This post highlights some problematic language within trans communities. As the author explains

The stories of our bodies, our experiences, and our identities have traditionally been told from a perspective of assumed cissexual superiority. Increasingly, trans people want to be able to speak to one another or to cis people in our own words–words that reflect our lived experiences and empower us as trans people. That means developing a new, trans-positive vocabulary. It also means re-examining the words we use (and the words cis people use for us), tossing out words and phrases that don’t pass muster, and replacing them with better ones.

There are some obviously problematic terms – calling someone a genetic female or XX boy doesn’t really work when you realise how prevalent intersex conditions are; these terms conflate the genotype with the phenotype, but without genetic testing it’s impossible to know what one’s genotype actually is. Less obvious is the problematic use of terms like female-bodied to describe someone female-assigned at birth – some people within the trans community would argue that a female body is a body belonging to someone who identifies as female. These terms seem to wax and wane in their popularity – female assigned at birth/FAAB, assigned female at birth/AFAB, male assigned at birth/MAAB and assigned male at birth/AMAB are terms that I’ve noticed relatively recently.

So, what might a study of trans language look like?

As a linguist, I’d be inclined to break this into three main categories: the umbrella terms used to describe the diversity of trans identities; the terms used to describe identities; the terms used to describe trans bodies.

There have been surveys on trans language, but as a corpus linguist I’m interested in naturally occurring language – while data elicted through surveys can be interesting and useful for identifying words that might be of interest, ultimately I’m more interested in how these words are actually used. Which are common terms? Are certain words used more frequently in different parts of the community? Do these words have different meanings within the community? When do words start being used and how do they spread out? What’s the effect of the internet (particularly user-created material) on language? Do people use language differently if they’re seeking medical involvement or as that progresses? Happily, there are quite a few trans-related sites, forums, tumblrs etc so there is suitable data out there to include in a corpus.

One of the things I’m interested in is fine-grained use of data. My corpus made up of Times Digital Archive texts allows me to split up the data by year and, using some php, by type of article (Letters to the Editor, for example). There are loads of interesting ways to split up the trans data I’d hope to collect and to an extent it depends on what I’m trying to find out. For the questions I outlined above, it would be good to be able to split the corpus by year the text was produced, site it came from from, and some details about the writer – their age, how they identify, the variety of English they use, possibly some information about any medical involvement they’ve had or are seeking (if applicable).

Sadly this has to go on the back burner for now because of my thesis, but at some point I’d love to do more research into this. To me, trans language highlights the explicit negotiation of language in a community. New terms are coined, defined and disputed. It also is a place where queer and gender theory and practice collide in a way that has incredibly important, real-life implications – these are not the debates of the ivory tower, but affect how people lead their lives and indeed, what sort of lives they are able to lead.