Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Adventures in Gender


Crafting Language: Transmasculine

One thing that fascinates me (and gives me endless headaches) is the proliferation of gender terms in the queer realm. A search on Wikipedia for one of these outside-the-gender-binary terms will lead you to several others, and there continues to be more are popping up here and there as people try to come up with words that comfortably convey how, or who, they understand themselves to be. New terms are often used by only a small group of people, and even many of the older terms are not known in mainstream America.

How such terms arise and are negotiated in lgbtq communities is worthy of investigation. I am already in the middle of a project that examines social negotiation of the transgender category in an lgbtq community, but I feel prompted to examine new language that arises in queer communities in general as well. I plan on doing some research into this phenomenon in the coming weeks, drawing largely on linguistic studies of language and sexuality and language and gender. I want to examine the functionality of newly crafted terms like transgender and transmasculine among people who use those terms, as the terms are intimately connected to the formation of identity.

Here are some terms I have encountered, in no particular order, boi, grrl, transman, transwoman, womyn, drag king, drag queen, flaming queen, queer, genderqueer, androgyne, third gender, polygender, cisgendered, pansexual, omnisexual, polysexual, multisexual, butch, femme, dyke, diesal dyke, fairy, boy-chick, no-ho tranny boy, faggot-identified dyke, andro, tryke, bio-femme (these last six courtesy ofRiki Wilchins's book Queer Theory, Gender Theory), and of course, lesbian, gay and straight, man or woman. What does it all mean? I'll leave it up to you, the reader, to google any terms that leap off the page for whatever reason, captivating your curiosity.

The term that set me off on this post was "transmasculine." I first encountered this term on the Sugarbutch Chronicles and it enticed me with its apparent newness and possible meanings. Sinclair Sexsmith, Sugarbutch's author, is using a definition pulled from TransMasculine Community Network*:
Transmasculine refers to any person who was assigned female at birth but feels this is an incomplete or incorrect description of their gender.

This, of course, is a rather wide-open definition, similar to many I have seen for transgender (herehere, and here, for example). I am inclined to believe that new words are not crafted on a whim, that the people who invent them are usually trying to address a perceived inadequacy in the existing language. What precisely were transmasculine and transgender meant to cover when they were coined? Were they intended to be so inclusive, or has that characteristic arisen in a struggle for meaning that occurred as people began using them?

Ferdinand Saussure notes that language, once used by those other than its creator, is no longer under the control of that creator, and indeed, Susan Stryker, in Transgender History, states that the meaning of transgender “is still under construction.”

For example, under a broad definition, tom boys and sissies can be transgender right alongside postoperative transexuals. However, actual usage of transgender, in my own experience, is not always so generous, tending to invoke someone who exists close to the realm of transexuals or who may take up that label at a later date. Descriptions of transgender I have heard use words like "opposite gender," implying transpeople simply have a body opposite to their gender - the same notion historically used to describe transexuals. Transgender, then, simply expands outward from transexual to include those who have not yet or will never adjust their genitalia and/or hormones to coincide with their gender, but who are nevertheless somehow in the "wrong body."

I find this all rather upsetting. Why would transgender, so open to the "spectrum of gender" definitionally, ever be locked into binary conceptions in application? Why must one be living (or feeling) "opposite" to assigned gender? Could one be "half way" or less to being that "opposite?" And what is that opposite? Whose definition of man or woman is being used when we measure whether or not someone qualifies as trans? The thinkers behind official definitions may have had all this in mind when they decided to be so incredibly inclusive, however, on the street, old conceptions of what gender is to begin with still seem to hold powerful sway. The struggle over meaning continues for transgender. Is that the case for other terms like transmasculine? If not, how is a consensus ever reached? Why was such a term needed in the first place? These questions will be driving my upcoming research. Stay tuned to see if these mysteries can be solved!

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