Avoiding Trans Erasure

I find this video pretty funny & I was excited to post it up here to keep the Planned Parenthood conversation going… but then, it made me sad.

“You can tell [I am a woman] because of the whole vagina-having thing.”

Except… not all women have vaginas, and not all vagina-having people are women because sex (your anatomy) and gender (your identity ie. “woman”) are two totally different things!

This line is problematic, because it conflates sex and gender and ignores the existence of the trans community. Yet, at the same time, I still think this is a fairly effective video… and I have no idea how I’d want them to rewrite that line (“You can tell by the whole… shit, there is no universal marker of a woman now is there?“)

So what the heck am I even trying to say here?

I guess, what I am trying to say, is that being inclusive of all people is important.

I want to take a moment to make it clear that I am not saying that this video or the people who made it are somehow wrong or bad. How could I be saying that when if you comb through this very blog long enough I guarentee you would find posts that engage in erasure because there was a time where I honestly wasn’t aware that making statements like “all women have vaginas” left many trans women out of the picture.

Its somewhat ironic that this post was sparked by a video in support of Planned Parenthood, because Planned Parenthood as an organization has a reputation for being inclusive (as far as I’ve been informed)!

No one is perfect, but I think that the important take away, for me and for you, is that we should be trying to minimize if not totally do away with the amount of erasure that we engage in.

That’s not always easy though. I have several blog posts that honestly may never see the light of day because the writing in them has gotten so clunky and weighed down with qualifying statements intended to make sure I am not leaving anyone out (or including anyone in a statement that doesn’t really apply to them.) It’s not always pretty and its not always eloquent but at this point in my blogging career I’d rather sit on a fully written article until the right words fall into place than publish something that has the potential to make someone feel unwelcome here.

Inclusion isn’t always natural and easy and eloquent because society has not trained us from birth to be aware of the existence of people who fall outside the gender binary. We haven’t been given a language or a frame of understanding for many things… which is why we have to seek them out from the communities in question, and start using the words that they claim.

It isn’t always easy, but it is important to be mindfully inclusive because this is honestly the only way we can change the tides and make it so that future generations are just naturally inclusive. This means a lot of things: it means not leaving trans women/men out when you are talking about all women/men but it also means not including trans people when you are only talking about issues as they effect cis people. (For instance: when talking about DADT I would not call it a victory for the LGBT community so much as the LGB community… because trans people still aren’t protected, so it would be inaccurate for me to claim this as a victory for that group.)

Learning to use inclusive language is a small but important part of being an ally. I like how Renee, of Womanist Musings, puts it best

Part of being an ally is making a conscious decision to learn about the issues of the community that you are trying to advocate on behalf of.  This takes a conscious effort, as society will continue to affirm various isms thus ensuring that those of us that have undeserved privilege seldom consider the true cost of the social hierarchy that we have naturalized.

Being an Ally to the Trans Community 101

To help that mindful inclusion along I’ve done my best job to compile some of the most common trans* related foot-in-mouth situations here as sort of an etiquette guide for the uninformed. A small disclaimer: I am a cisgender woman (meaning my gender identity is congruent with what society would expect, based on my sex.)  I am coming at this as an ally to the trans community; a person who has trans friends and acquaintances, but (obviously) no experience living as a trans person. This means I am not immune to fucking up and if I have done so I would ask my more knowledgeable readers to please drop a comment or an e-mail correcting me so I can amend the post. That said, I see this as one small way that I can help as an ally… by educating other allies to the movement, and making a small dent in the frustrating erasure and ignorance that trans* people have to deal with. So, here we go!

What Words Shouldn’t I Say?

This is the most basic place to start: figuring out what words are totally offensive and off the table. Check out the UC Davis LGBT Center’s Words That are Transphobic and Why for a comprehensive overview. (It seemed silly to compile a list here when its all there already!)

What Should I Do to Be a Good Ally?

The UC Davis LGBT Center also has a great list of tips for allys on their site.  Examples include: never outing a trans* person to others and asking if you’re not sure what pronouns to use. I know that the second one can feel awkward at first… but it doesn’t have to be. I personally tend to just ask people, “What pronouns do you prefer?” in the same tone I use when asking, “What’s your name?” because, honestly, gender identity is just as natural a part of someone’s identity as their name! That said, be mindful not to pry… if someone isn’t comfortable answering the question then just let it go, but don’t be afraid to ask! The whole list of tips is honestly worth a read, so please take a moment to check it out.

Anything more complex?

Some gaffees are not quite as straightforward. For instance, some involve grammar… a topic that many of us weren’t ever taught very well to begin with:

Transgender should be used as an adjective, not as a noun. Do not say, “Tony is a transgender,” or “The parade included many transgenders.” Instead say, “Tony is a transgender person,” or “The parade included many transgender people.”

The word transgender never needs the extraneous “ed” at the end of the word. In fact, such a construction is grammatically incorrect. Only verbs can be transformed into participles by adding “-ed” to the end of the word, and transgender is an adjective, not a verb.

[Source]

Others are complex in a more theory-based way. Like the following statement, which I hear made all the time by people I know who identify as queer or pansexual:

I’m not bisexual… I could fall in love with a man or a woman or a trans person.

This statement, one that I honestly made in the past, seems perfectly tolerant at first but it demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding for the trans community. Some trans people are men or women and treating them as if they belong to a third category can be incredibly invalidating. (That said, yes, some trans people are genderqueer or consider themselves outside of the binary, but that is not a universal rule.) Its complicated, but to avoid invalidating anyone’s identity I personally prefer to tell people that I am queer because my attraction doesn’t have a sex or a gender – I am personally attracted to people for their personalities, not their body parts.

Anything else?

One last thing: don’t derail. This post from feministe sums things up pretty well. If you don’t have the time to commit to reading the post, the takeaway is pretty simple: don’t turn conversations about trans issues into conversations about cis issues.

More than that, also avoid turning conversations about trans issues into your personal classroom. If you don’t understand a word (like cisgender for instance!) do the work  to uncover the answer on your own before taking people’s focus away from the conversation at hand. I mean, think about it: if you had to stop every single time you were discussing a crucial part of your identity to explain the same basic definitions to a new person… you’d get pretty frustrated too. Personally putting in the effort to google a definition once is much less frustrating than asking a trans person to explain something for what may be the 50th time that week!

(This is honestly a good tennant to follow in almost any online conversation where you are in the role of an ally, unless the person you are speaking to has explicitly stated that they don’t mind answering 101 questions.)

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At the end of the day, engaging with good intention is important but as allies we have to remember that intention does not negate the harm we do through erasure and insensitive comments. Finding the right balance between engaging and stepping back to listen and learn when you are unsure of what to say takes practice, but as long as you are willing to put in the work, listen, and accept the times where you do fuck up with an honest aplology you’re gonna do just fine.

Further Reading:

GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide

How to Be a Trans Ally

Ciscentrisim Sucks

Feel free to share feedback about the post & anything you feel I have missed  in the comments! The comments section to this post is also a great place to ask those 101-level questions that you just can’t find the answer to… I’ll try to help you out.

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