Transgender Timeline
August 10, 2012
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October 17, 2012

A Whipping Girl’s Offence

A friend of mine asked me to comment on a passage in Whipping Girl:

While “MTF” may be useful as an adjective, as it describes the direction of my transition, using it as a noun – i.e., literally referring to me as a male-to-female” – completely negates the fact that I identify and live as a woman. Personally, I believe that popular use of “MTF” or “FTM” over “trans woman” or “trans man” (which are more respectful, easier to say, and less easily confused with one another) reflects either a conscious or unconscious desire on the part of many cissexuals to distinguish transsexual women and men from their cissexual counterparts (Serano 2007:175).

Here’s my reply…

First of all “… completely negates the fact that I identify and live as a woman…” is a fallacious statement. It asserts that when I (or someone else) says that I’m MTF, the acknowledgement is fundamentally different from saying that I’m a trans[pause]woman… That transwoman/trans[pause]woman and MTF are fundamentally different ideas. Transwoman references my history and experience in as much as MTF references my history and experience. She’s asserting that MTF is disrespectful because, she asserts, it excises her personhood… That one can’t be a person if they’re MTF. I call BS. The two (MTF and transwoman/trans[pause]woman) reference exactly the same history and experience.

Asserting that some monolithic group of “cissexuals” (note that she doesn’t write ‘cissexual people’ here) uses MTF in an attempt to otherize/stigmatize MTFs is just her bias opinion that’s not supported by anything more than her bias opinion… Which is exactly why she prefaces her opinion with “Personally, I believe…”

To quote Christopher Hitchens:

About this censorial instinct: we basically know already what we need to know, and we’ve known it for a long time, it comes from an old story form again a great Englishman (…) Dr. Samuel Johnson, the author of the first great dictionary of English language. When it was complete he was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him, (…) also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London (…). Dr Johnson, they said: “We are delighted to find that you’ve not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.”

“Ladies, said Dr Johnson, “I can congratulate you on being able to look them up.”

Anyone who can understand that joke gets the point about censorship, especially prior restraint as it is known in the US for it is banned by the first amendment of the Constitution. It may not be determined in advance what words are apt or inapt. No one has the knowledge that would be required to make that call and – more important – one has to suspect the motives of those who do so. In particular those who are determined to be offended, those who will go through a treasure house of English language (..) in search of filthy words, to satisfy themselves, and some instinct about which I dare not speculate…

I sometimes think that we look for the ghost of power in seeking to claim offense and I think that’s precisely what Serano has done here.

I call BS because inherent in her claim is the assertion that context is never-changing… That saying ‘I’m MTF‘ is exactly the same as saying ‘I’m just MTF.’ She’s superimposing a “just” into each context and then claims offense.

I find MTF no more offensive than referring to me as a woman, a Houstonian, a Texan or an American. No single term captures all of who I am. Additionally, each descriptive term one might use, by linguistic function, excludes other aspects of self. For me, Serano’s argument makes as much sense as claiming offence at being called an American because it doesn’t recognize your status as a citizen of the world. To claim offense because you feel a term doesn’t fully capture who you are is, IMHO, looking for offense.


  1. I think Julia has a point on this one. On issues impacting socially, legally and medically marginalized classes of people, historical context matters.

    > The two (MTF and transwoman/trans[pause]woman) reference exactly the same history and experience. <

    This would be true iff trans women were historically recognized and respected as women, rather than mentally ill "men." But that is not the case. I am in a lot of medical policy discussions where these terms have distinct shades of meaning that reflect the bias of the speaker. Here's the language spectrum:

    * trans woman — {affirming a woman who is trans}

    * MTF (n.) — {I refuse to acknowledge this person as a woman, though I won't stir up a shitstorm by saying "man"}

    * GID male/autogynephilic man/… — {I'm a trans-misogynist bigot and proud of it}

    If the language within the APA or WPATH were shifted from MTF-as-noun to trans women, the balance of power between anti-trans and pro-trans voices would shift as well, and the policy implications would be significant. At issue is the reality that trans women still have to fight for our dignity and legitimacy as women– dignity that powerful prejudiced people continue to deny us. (and vice versa for trans men). Until that legitimacy is commonly recognized, the W-noun (and M-noun) will remain important in discussions where the context demands clarity.

  2. On using terms like MTF, FTM, transwoman and transman

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