Word choice can make a real difference

assigned-maleNot that this is a unique problem to People, but this article is a perfect example of a pernicious issue in the way trans* people are discussed in the media or even by the people around us.

What’s so bad?  You might be asking that.  I mean look, they used the right pronouns, the right names, etc.  Whatever could they have done wrong, cake and pats on the back all ’round, yes?

Well … no.

Oh, bugger, they’ve edited it already!  Well, in that instance congratulations!  But as it’s important we’ll continue as if they hadn’t for rhetorical sake.

The original text had been:  “[…]Stephen was born a girl[…]”

Now, some people might not realise what’s wrong with that.  Well, that’s where we get to the importance of connotation, of perception, of what language does on a more psychological level.

In short, let’s discuss why we must choose our words wisely.  I’m in favour of accuracy in language.  Not the “concrete” imagery of some literature and “creative writing” courses that say you should never say ‘azure’ just say ‘blue’, no … that’s muddying the language.  I’m not talking about some aspects of the political correctness movement that wants to reword the language in idiotic ways that sound good to social justice ronins, but pisses off the groups that are being crusaded for who might prefer the “un-PC” term/phrase.  I’m talking about logical language analysis here.

Let’s look at that statement.  “Stephen was born a girl” or “Jaye was born a boy”.  First and foremost, it’s simply wrong and inaccurate.  He was not born a girl, if he were he would be a girl.  I was not born a boy, if I were I would be a boy.  He was assigned female at birth, and I was assigned male at birth.  Semantics?  No, very much not so.

The former states the inaccuracy as if it were a given fact.  It implies that we used to be X and have elected to become Y.  We have not.  It implies terrible things about trans* people that are a lot of the ignorance that lurks behind the bigotry and rejection we face.

The latter, on the other hand, that accepts and acknowledges us.  Not our “preferred” gender, not our “preferred” pronouns, not our “identified as” or anything of the sort.  It says that the doctors and parents made an assumption, regardless how statistically likely to be correct, based on the anatomy they found between our legs and that that assumption was mistaken.  No one is to blame, really, besides an arbitrary methodology, or an antiquated ID system that bothers with such idiot details before the child is old enough to answer if asked which they are, etc.  Not any person‘s mistake, and not anything wrong with the trans* individual, just a reason why such assumptions are no better than any other assumption.

Some people have never heard of transgender, transsexual, trans[whatever].  If the first time they do they see it as “Mary was born a boy, but when she was 16 …” or, worse, “Mary was born a boy, but when he was 16 …” they store the word as a choice.  They see it as “Mary was born to Catholic parents, but when she was 16 she converted to Buddhism …”.  But, if the first time they hear/read about a trans* person it is seen as exactly what it is.

Please don’t take this away just related to talking about trans* issues, not just for even LGBTQ+ issues.  Please take away from it that while, yes, I do think the political correctness movement and social justice movements, feminism, LGBTQIA+etc activism, and so on do go too far sometimes and more importantly that some people go too far … occasional extremists and periodic extremism does not change that we really ought to consider our language and our word choice.  “Sticks and stones …” et al is well and good, but sometimes the harm isn’t to the person as an individual; the harm in your words can be harm on a larger scale that impacts the person by dint of being part of the demographic you just hurt in broad terms.

So … let’s be careful what we say so as to say what we mean.  Lazy language, at best, makes us look foolish, at worst you may hurt a lot of people in ways you may have never imagined.

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11 thoughts on “Word choice can make a real difference

    • Thank you. The curse of being a writer: words become rather an obsession, we can’t stop thinking about them and the shape/direction/meaning of sentences we see, hear, or think.

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      • I love writing but find it painful to do daily – as one must to be truly devoted to the craft. I am facinated how language can constrict our thoughts outside of our own awareness until something shakes us from our slumbers.

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        • Oh writing can be painful, certainly … I’ve had the most horrendous cramps in my wrist after a good spell of inspiration 😉

          To be more serious, writing requires no dedication, only interest. It’s like in Keeping the Faith the old priests advice to the seminary students about if they can imagine doing anything else, they ought to reconsider their career. I find that’s true of many things, but writing especially: take two aspirin, have a lie down & wait for the feeling to pass … if it does not then may the gods have mercy on the tattered remnants of your sanity. But if you’re interested you’ll write. There’s a great myth circulating you must write constantly, but it’s a solid lie. If you’re interested in the story you’ve set off to write then you’ll write it sooner or later as the muse takes you. Everyone is different, my wife is a procrastinator and must force herself to stop wiki surfing long enough to START writing, after that it can be hard to get her to stop.

          If it is a question of forcing yourself to endure some of the less pleasant bits, yes, you may have to force butt into chair, but any other context may mean either writing is not for you or that what you’re writing was a bad choice/direction/etc.

          My best advice to aspiring writers is: if you’ve a story that excites you, write it, otherwise wait till you do; a story you want to read is a story you’ll put your soul into and will be art and glorious, anything you aren’t excited to read you won’t be excited to write and the loss of soul will spoil the art and sour the reader.

          I’m being preachy. Sorry. I’ve a number of posts in my archive on this subject if you’re interesed, by the way.

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      • Being trans I’ve been reading a lot about Leelah, thinking about what would have happened to me if I’d tried coming out at her age, and all the struggles I’ve had because I wasn’t raise how I should have been raised. I’m happy to see all the discussion now; it would seem some small good has come from her anguish.

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        • Well … it was her dying wish, after all.

          All I really remember well about the day I read about her death, which was in an article that quoted her suicide not in its entirety, I was devastated and heartbroken. I seem to recall that I cried, I know I went numb and just spent a while just rereading it, maybe part of me hoping I’d spot something saying it was an Onion article, or from The Mirror or The Daily Mail or something else. Something to say it wasn’t real.

          As I’ve said, I was fortunate in the family and friends I have. That, however, only meant I wouldn’t have got the Christian conversion therapy business if I’d come out as a child; which I believe I would have if only I’d known the words for what was going on inside me. Other than that the note so easily could have been me several times over in the course of my three-odd decades.

          It’s really sad how often in our history as a species it’s taken martyrs and tragedies to open peoples’ eyes to things.

          Even to some of us who are trans* ourselves. I know my mind was changed on more than a few things.

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  1. Pingback: 7 Tired Phrases That Marginalize Trans People – And What to Use Instead — Everyday Feminism

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