The Missing Link: Gender Orientation
January 11, 2013
So, I hear trans people recently invented this whole cis/trans thing…
August 9, 2013

Transwomans vs Trans Woman

I recently received the following email:

I noticed you often use ‘transwoamn’ as one word as opposed to trans woman.

Hate to be nit-picky but it’s cissexist

“Trans” should be used as an adjective to describe “woman.” When the two are linked together, it becomes a noun all its own, distinctly separating it from other groups of women, acting as a qualifier instead of a mere description. Conjoining the words together denotes that the two ideas can’t be separated, that being trans is somehow fundamentally different from any other characteristic a woman can have, like (using your examples) being gay or black.

This is a predominantly West Coast assertion that erases the longstanding culture and rich lexical histories of other trans communities by casting such terminology as lexical tools of our oppressors. It’s a red herring. We say congresswoman, superwoman, etc. and none of these English terms erode the woman’s personhood.

I sometimes feel that the language polemics we so enjoy are created in part to support an environment which chases the ghost of empowerment through the reactionary policing of highly nuanced lexical epistemologies that inevitably privilege certain segments of the trans community over others.

For example, it’s currently correct to say transsexed (or gendered) but not transgenderd. It’s okay to refer to crossdressers, but not transsexuals. Referring to a someone as a transwoman is problematic but noting that she’s a businesswoman perfectly fine. We don’t speak it as trans-pause-woman, instead, we pronounce it as transwoman; however, if we utilize it as spoken, we supposedly cause offense.

The West Coast asserts transwoman is bad. The Gulf Coast has used that lexical configuration since the mid-1970s. Why must the Gulf Coast trans community surrender its lexical identities to West Coast policing?

Conjoining the words together denotes that the two ideas can’t be separated

This is an assertion that’s not tolerated in any other arena of discourse. If I refer to a male who’s woodsman, do English speakers not understand that the man has agency and a greater existence outside the context of his woodsy acumen? Strangely, we are expected to believe that this is precisely what happens when one writes transwoman. In fact, the same unsupported assertions I hear about “transwoman” (it’s an offensive lexical conspiracy by ciswomen to strip away our identity as women, etc. ) are made by RadFems concerning “ciswoman.” Everyone is pointing to each other claiming that the term is a function of oppression. Just stop. It’s not. Retronyms are a function of the language we speak.

When cyberspace came into use, the retronym meatspace came into popular use. Trans/cis is taking the exact some lexical trajectory that mail, email and smail is taking. To assert that womantranswoman and ciswoman is anything other than the English language doing what it does is unreasoned.

For me, policing the way others write transwoman/transman to support a  false history – to willfully erase trans history in favor of a false conspiracy theory – is simply wrong. I will not do it. So please, don’t ask me to do it and if you take offense because I won’t join with you in erasing our history, then so be it.

I use transwoman because claims made about its meaning are not taken seriously in any other context.  But, mostly I use transwoman because it honors a silenced community and an erased history.


  1. This topic deserves discussion, and you (as always) bring thoughtful points to the conversation, Cristan. For many years I used both spellings and the hyphenated version without much thought, until I received some impassioned feedback from a European reader. Her point was that historical context matters in matters of human oppression. If trans women had historically been conflated with those having superhuman powers, then ‘superwoman’ would be the best analogy. (and, come to think of it, why the hell not?? But that’s another essay) Instead, trans women have historically been ‘othered,’ as less than legitimate as women. In this context, using trans as an adjective seizes the opportunity for a teachable moment to emphasize our citizenship as women: not concatenated women, or prefixed women, or hyphenated women, but women. It was a point of contextual clarity, that was hard for me, as a geek, to resist (despite my Irish genetic imperative to stubbornly resist almost everything). My reader convinced me to change my habit and spell ‘trans women’ as separate words.

    >This is an assertion that’s not tolerated in any other arena of discourse.<

    Not always. It is universally offensive to refer to men of oriental heritage as "chinamen." I think that may be the best analogy to the question of "transwomen" vs. "trans women."

    • Cristan says:

      The person set her argument upon a false lexical history. She speaks as if trans was something cis people foisted upon us. It isn’t. Cis people didn’t invent “transwoman” to identify us, WE did. Transman, transpeople, transwoman were all terms WE created to describe our own experience. Her argument implicitly erases that history. Moreover, it completely ignores the fact that the trans/cis dichotomy is around a century old.

      Spreading the notion that transwoman was a creation of our oppressors to otherize us is not only false, it maligns the lexical efforts of those who came before me. They, who struggled to define and express their experience, are sacrificed to this false narrative of subjugation.

      If people want to write trans woman because they like it, then I support it. If people are writing it as a reaction to a false narrative and erased history, the I have a problem with it. I can’t support a historical narrative I know to be false.

      [Not always. It is universally offensive to refer to men of oriental heritage as “chinamen.” I think that may be the best analogy to the question of “transwomen” vs. “trans women.”]

      Again, this implicitly supports a false history. Chinaman was a term conferred upon slave workers by people who held power over them. For transman, transpeople, transwoman this is not at all the case. The reality is that these our OUR terms that WE invented to describe and communicate our own experience.

  2. >The person set her argument upon a false lexical history.<

    Do you mean your reader who wrote you, or my reader who wrote me? To clear up any misunderstanding and a red herring, my reader was not speaking of the history of the terms (and you certainly are the expert on that history). Rather, she was speaking of the historical context of trans women 'othered' and marginalized with respect to cis-privileged women. Given a choice between two spellings within our own communities, 'trans women' and 'transwomen,' she felt that the former more clearly asserted our place at the table. I was persuaded to agree.

    Using the same noun for us as for cis-women carries a message of inclusion. It communicates our experience more clearly. Using an 'other' noun for trans women carries an-'other' message.

    Disclosure: being jobless and on the road, I have lived on both coasts and many points inbetween the past months and years. I identify as geographically agnostic and don't see this necessarily as a West Coast issue. On the other hand, I've never lived on the Gulf Coast, other than my recent stay in New Orleans. I don't know if living there would change my spelling preferences, but who knows?

    • Cristan says:

      Yeah, what your reader wrote.

      If she wasn’t rooting her claims in history, then I’d need to see some evidence to support the notion that ciswomen have used transwomen to otherize us. Even it were the case that some asshats were trying to appropriate our language in an effort to further oppress us, I’m not willing to support that effort by surrendering our dialectic history and culture to those bigots. It’s not their term, it’s ours and we get to define it, not them. For me, it’s a disservice to privilege their appropriation of our language. For me, it’s a disservice to erase our lexical history.

      Again, I’m indifferent to transwomen or trans woman when written that way due to personal preference. That’s about choice. However, when we allow others to appropriate our language, redefine it for us and erase our history, that takes away the choice of preference.

      Just as I never had an issue with people referring to themselves as transsexual instead of transgender, I don’t have a problem with someone writing trans woman. However, if you’re not using transgender or trans woman because you bought into a false history, then I have a problem. If you promote that false history, I have a problem. My problem is about an erasure of history. My problem is demonstrably false narratives which inform perceptions privileging certain identity terms over others.

      If someone tells me that they refer to themselves as a transsexual and trans woman because it’s their preference, I’m totally going to support their choice. If, however, they tell me that they’re transsexual because Virginia Prince coined transgender and that transwoman was coined by cis people to oppress us, I’m going to call BS.

      Similarly, if you write trans* because you think it looks awesome, I’ll think that your choice is awesome. However, if you tell me that you write it that way because it means something other than trans, I’m going to call BS and furthermore, I’m going to show you where trans was used by the trans community to mean trans* in the 1970s.

      I don’t support taking away choice through misinformation. I don’t support misinformation that erases our history. I don’t support misinformation that sacrifices the hard work of those who came before me.

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