I really feel like the title of this post is sufficient to make the point of this post, but since this is an issue that comes up routinely, people clearly need to have a little sit down. So pull up an armchair and let’s talk about how ‘trans’ relates to various parts of speech. And if you already know that trans is an adjective, well, how about a lovely piece on green funerals instead? The rest of you, sit down and pay attention. Yes, that includes you.
The words ‘trans’ and ‘transgender’ are adjectives — they are used to describe a noun, just as ‘cis’ is also an adjective. Unless we’re talking about something other than gender, you should never use ‘trans’ as anything other than an adjective. Here are some ways to use them: ‘She is a transgender woman.’ ‘He is a trans man.’ ‘Her sister is transgender.’
Here are some ways not to use them*.
- As a noun. Trans is really seriously not a noun. Not sure what I mean? Here are some examples: ‘He’s a transgender.’ ‘She’s a trans.’ ‘There were a lot of transgenders at Pride this year.’ These uses are dehumanising and deeply transphobic. Here’s some context to help out: ‘Female’ and ‘male’ are adjectives — thus, saying things like ‘she’s a female’ and ‘he’s a male’ feels clunky and wrong, because it is. What you want to say is ‘she’s a female sculptor’ (though why you can’t just say that she’s a sculptor is beyond me, because you’ve already established that she’s a she and reiterating her gender makes it sound like this is somehow something that needs to be stressed, as though it’s unimaginable that a woman could be a sculptor). We also don’t say ‘he’s a Black’ or ‘they’re a gay.’
- As a verb. Trans is really seriously not a verb. A verb is an action word! You don’t transgender down the street — and you aren’t ‘transgendered.’ Some examples: ‘She’s transgendered.’ ‘He’s a transgendered man.’ No, no, no, no. No please. No. Here’s some context to help you out: Sexual orientation isn’t a verb. We don’t say that people gay down the street or that ‘She’s lesbianed.’
- As a compound modifier. What the hell is a compound modifier? Glad you asked. It’s a compound that includes an attribute (like an adjective) and a noun. Examples: ‘Trans-woman.’ ‘Cis-man.’ These terms come up a fair amount lately for reasons I don’t really understand, and they’re also dehumanising, because they exceptionalise transness and suggest that transness is some kind of ‘other gender.’ A transgender woman isn’t some sort of special magical different sort of woman. She’s just a woman, who also happens to be transgender. Some context for you: We don’t say ‘Black-man’ or ‘Asian-woman.’
- As a closed compound word. You know all those short words that you say without thinking like ‘housewife’ and ‘football’? Those are actually two words popped together. A housewife is a particular kind of wife (a wife who stays at home). A football is a particular kind of ball. Here are some examples of the kind of language I’m talking about: ‘Transwoman’ and ‘transman.’ This, like a compound modifier, exceptionalises transness — a trans woman is no longer just a woman, but a modified special different class of woman. Quibbling over a space might seem irritating, but the space is critically important, because it makes the difference between a noun described by an adjective, and an entirely new compound word.
These niceties of language matter because they aren’t niceties. When people use ‘transgender’ and ‘trans’ as compound modifiers and closed compounds, it suggests that trans people aren’t ‘real.’ It suggests that there are regular men, women, and people of other genders**, and then there are trans people. This is not true. Trans people are people…who happen to be trans. Their identities, when relevant to a conversation, should be discussed as attributes.
The use of ‘transgender’ as a noun is deeply dehumanising, as is its appearance as an verb. These usages deny fundamental aspects of identity, using ‘trans’ as a weaponised word instead of a neutral adjective.
If you’re not sure about whether a usage of ‘transgender’ is correct, think about how a sentence looks and sounds, and try swapping in other identities to see how they feel and look. Do we say disabled-person? Latinawoman? Bisexualed?
Lightning bonus round: Don’t say ‘transgenderism.’ Ever. And be very careful about the use of ‘transsexual,’ because some people identify as transsexual and/or transgender, and others do not. It’s not a good idea to use it as a broad term, and if you are using to to describe a specific individual, make sure they identify that way and consider contextualising it so people understand it’s not appropriate for broad usage.
*Those who actually teach English, linguistics, and related matters, please forgive me for taking some shortcuts here with parts of speech and discussions thereof. I am 1) terrible with parts of speech and 2) determined to not drag everyone into a multipart discussion on the parts of speech — I wanted to namecheck what I was talking about without getting everyone bogged down. If I made a truly horrific error, ping me and I’ll fix it. Be warned, though, that I have a low tolerance for nitpickery on this subject.
**Some people argue that ‘other genders’ are by nature trans, but this isn’t the case. Not all people who aren’t men and women identify as trans — and not all identify as ‘nonbinary,’ which is why I didn’t use that word to describe them. Okay, return to your regularly scheduled programming, thank you for tuning in!
***Hey since I know it’s popular to reprint things like this without credit, please don’t reprint this without talking to me first, though excerpts with credit and a backlink to the original are always fair use, ethically and legally speaking.
Image: untitled is also an adjective, Procsilas Moscas, Flickr