Community Linguistics: The Great Divide

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Since we use words to think, I think the emotional connections we each have to those mental labels are important. TransHouston has had a number of debates (some of which were quite emotional) about definitions (12345).

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: of, relating to, or being a person (as a transsexual or transvestite) who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth — trans·gen·der·ism \-ˌi-zəm\ noun

The name game recently started up again when Bilerico editors allowed Ronald Gold (an old California/New York gay rights activist) to post an article questioning the existence of transsexual people.

“Let me state it categorically. There is no such thing as a male or female personality. Personality is not a function of gender. So where does that put the concept of transgender? In my view, down the tubes! And that leaves the further questions of how transsexuals got to think the way they do, and what to do to resolve their dilemmas. I hope I’ll be forgiven for rejecting as just plain silly the idea that some cosmic accident just turned these people into changelings. What happened, more than likely, is that, from an early age, when they discovered that their personalities didn’t jibe with what little boys and girls are supposed to want and do and feel, they just assumed they mustn’t be real little boys and girls.”

Bilerico later pulled the article, canned Gold and apologized for allowing the article to be published. If you’d like to see what started all of this, you can see Ron’s original post on Pam’s blog.

(Note: a community member took it upon themselves to educate Ron about transsexuals. It now seems that Ron accepts that transsexuals are basically biologically intersexed and that we are not, in fact, drag queens.)

One of Ron’s apologists, Wayne Dynes (also an older gay California activist) made his own blog post in response to Bilerico’s actions. A few days later, he suggested that the trans community’s effort for GLBT rights is basically negligible and that the TG community tries to make it seem more than what it is. Between the two posts, the author seemed to infer that the gay and transgender community should not be lumped together because:

– they are two different things that should not be talked about together

– that people need to stop using the acronym GLBTQ to refer to him because it offends him

– that transgenders are crossdressers and drag queens

– transgenders drag the gay community down

– transgenders didn’t do any of the political work and are riding on the coattails of gays.

I responded to his post pointing out that the entire modern queer movement was launched by the transgender gay man, Magnus Hirschfeld (was a crossdresser). In support of the point that transgender people were intertwined and at the fore of many social justice movements, I pointed to transgender people like Mary Edwards Walker who did a lot of work on behalf of the suffrage movement by challenging gender archetypes. I noted that Christine Jorgenson was the first to use mass media (a 1958 LP) to talk about GLBT rights. I also pointed out how well the Houston GLBT community works together and pointed to the tangible results this produced.

This lead to an older California transsexual responding to my reply saying that transsexuals and transgenders are:

– two different things that should not be talked about together

– that people need to stop using the word transgender to refer to her because it offends her

– that transgenders are crossdressers and drag queens.

To which I replied that Houston has a different culture and that we tend to be really okay being GLBT, working together and having all the gender atypical people work together under the transgender umbrella. This didn’t set well with many of those replying.

“Christine Jorgensen was not transgender. Just as I am NOT transgender. She was like I am transsexual. Transgender is a social construct. A political identity that grew out of the heterosexual transvestite movement founded by people like Virginia Prince.”

“I matter not one whit to me that a bunch of people came along years later and invented a social construct, a political identity that they embrace. I expect my definition of self to be as much respected as they expect theirs. That does not mean a retroactive hegemonic colonization of my life experiences under the rubric of transgender.”

“For what it is worth I do not consider myself part of any sort of “Transcommunity” either.”

“I find it annoying to be lumped into the alphabet soup. The TG movement would like to try and count me as part of their “T” But I am not a “T” There needs to be dialogue that Transsexual doe not equate to transgender.”

“Many transsexed people, myself included, reject transgenderism as an ideological construct. We argue the need for empirical evidence and do not accept the TG narrative, which we interpret as a pseudo-science, drawing what little substance it has from John Money’s theories.”

Sidebar: Many of you will recall that after I came back from San Francisco I talked about being amazed at how disjointed and argumentative the T community was. I had expected to find a community that had moved past the whole “I’m a transsexual, so I don’t work with crossdressers” thing.

All of this back and forth spawned other blog posts about language and labels. Jillian Weiss made a recent blog post about terminology the other day at Bilicro and reflected:

“This reminds me of the problems that occur with other types of categorization. Is it right to call someone “Hispanic” who does not identify that way, and who has problems being associated with some of the other groups lumped in that category? After all, the term “Hispanic” was a term invented by the government, and it lumps together colonizers and the colonized. Is it right to insist that someone who identifies as multi-racial, but whose complexion is dark, must be okay with being considered “African-American?” If my mother was Jewish, and the traditional Jewish law considers me Jewish, is it right to insist that I am Jewish even if I consider myself a Christian?”

I think this sums up the problem. I believe people choose to personalize terminology. I think folks tend to build a weak sense of self upon a term like “transsexual”. I notice that these folk tend to require consistent outside reassurance of their sense of self as a this or a that and take it personally (ie, don’t feel respected) when someone says transgender instead of transsexual, crossdresser, interesexed, gender-queer, etc. I think the problem with all of this is that the English language is not a dead language; terms evolve and become ever more complex through nuanced usage over time. When people use a term as their personal permanent avatar, the can’t see that the concept is more important than any label. I think that people don’t notice that when their sense of personhood is rooted in a term they expect to stay fixed, they set themselves up to be at odds with future generations of GLBT-people. I think  think this practice does real harm.

Personally, I think that everyone whose history transcends their assigned gender is transgendered (trans – crossing | gender – cultural sex stereotypes). To me the term transgender, as descriptive term, makes a lot of sense and doesn’t steal away anyone’s identity. I can be a transgender with Harry Benjamin Syndrome (even though the HBS website sates that this is an impossibility) or a transgender who is a lesbian that doesn’t want to take testosterone. For me – and I would say, for Houston – it seems that we all understand that the term transgender refers to our historical actions and not to our innate selves.

It seems, however, that our view may be radically different than the view of other communities nation wide. Folks who are cross dressers, stone butches, intersexed, transsexuals don’t seem to mix together the way they do in Houston. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that Ray Hill and Phyllis Frye were the significant Houston queer leaders in the 70s. However, this fact begs the question: What was it about the Houston culture that allowed a gay man and a trans woman to lead marches together, hold rallies together, organize together and fight together when people like Virginia Prince (also from California) was fighting hard to keep divisions within the queer community clearly delineated? What was it about Houston that made the cultural grounds fertile enough to create a concept like the Transgender Unity Committee?

I think that it has a lot to do with the words we use. In Houston, a fag was a fag. In the 70s Phyllis was just as much of a fag as Ray was – and both of them knew it. I think that when the Houston trans community began to coalesce under the transgender banner, we became stronger and more effective. I think there is little or no evidence to show that relying upon the ties that bind us together has harmed us in any way or diminished anyone’s sense of self as a transsexual, intersexed person, crossdresser, lesbian, bi and/or gay.

I think labels are really important in that they can be used very constructively. I think that Houston is probably the most organized, effective and productive transgender community out there and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we do have a collective identity. I think that we elected the first openly gay mayor because the GLBT community is a community. Phyllis Frye was the first person to give Annise Parker a campaign contribution when Parker first ran for office. Additionally, Parker’s first campaign was largely staffed by TG people who were organized by Vanessa Foster (who was on the board of the GLBT Political Caucus). The Caucus was open to Vanessa and Vanessa pulled a lot of TG people into Annise’s campaign and here we are today.

1997: Annise Parker and some of Parker’s TG campaign workers

I think being GLBTQI(xyz) is fine. I think that I am a transsexual who is also transgendered and queer. I think that working together and being inclusive has worked really well for all of us in Houston. I wish the rest of the country would catch up! I think that we are proof that inclusion, diversity and common purpose works while working to purposefully segment a community into it ever smaller parts works against us.

I think it is a waste of time to define the TG community by what we aren’t. Each of us can easily point to what separates us and in this way, I think it is intellectually lazy to engage in that practice as a means for self or communal identification. The bottom line is that skillfully using our common bonds for the progress of the entire GLBT community is noble, compassionate and – most importantly – effective.  I think the fact that Houston, Texas elected an out lesbian who makes no bones about her ties to the trans community is proof that recognizing that we have more in common than we don’t works… and works really well.

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Cristan Williams is a trans historian and activist. She started one of the first trans homeless shelters and co-founded the first federally funded trans-only homeless program, pioneered affordable healthcare for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. Cristan is the editor at the social justice site, is a long-term member and previous chair of the City of Houston HIV Prevention Planning Group, is the jurisdictional representative to the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services (UCHAPS), serves on the national steering body for UCHAPS and is the Executive Director of the Transgender Foundation of America.

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