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September 16, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

What’s in a Name?

For some of us, language isn’t a problem. But the words we use sometimes can’t capture the entirety of a person. Trans* people in particular are the victims of a language that doesn’t do them justice.

Bradley Manning, the soldier found guilty of a cocktail of treasonous offences against the United States relating to her leaking of documents to WikiLeaks, announced the day after her sentence was handed down that she desired to be known as Chelsea Manning, and that she wished, in the future, to undergo hormone therapy. This was big news, but a perhaps surprisingly prominent tertiary story emerged as media outlets grappled uncomfortably with pronouns. Some publications described Manning as a woman, while a larger number (at least initially) did not. New Zealand newspapers by-and-large reprinted stories from the Associated Press, which usually went with Manning’s preferred pronoun. USA Today published a confusing article on this split within the media, while quoting its own editor who explained that while modern consensus over style suggests that using a person’s preferred pronoun is the way to go, they weren’t going to because, well, they just didn’t want to. The New York Times, taking a dim view of their readership, published an op-ed explaining their refusal to use the feminine pronoun, explaining that people would “be totally confused” by the switch. The Times reversed its decision to refer to Manning as male on 26 August (four days after the fact). I hope their readers didn’t find it too difficult.

The explosively icky furore caused by Manning’s announcement is a taste of what trans* people have to deal with—either the erasure of their identity via the inability of language to accurately sketch them, or the refusal of people to acknowledge that people can relate to their bodies and to people in other ways.

Lumping non-cisgendered people together as a single thing is tricky. In the interest of rehashing another ‘Trans* 101’ piece, let us turn to “non-binary swoonprince” Sebastian Maddox, who helpfully explained that interesting little asterisk in Salient’s queer issue: “The ‘*’ in trans* signifies the diversity of identities that come under the category of trans. It recognises the invalidity of the traditional idea of the gender binary—the belief that only two modes of expression and identity exist: male/masculine and female/feminine, and the belief that those absolutely correlate… People often argue that gender is psychological/social while sex is biological. This is simplistic and not really true! Sex and gender are both diverse spectrums! Intersex people exist, after all—people whose junk doesn’t fit clearly into our arbitrary standards of male/female. People also have varying levels of hormones and secondary sex characteristics.”

Language can do horrible things to people. There isn’t anything new about this idea, which has been the subject of work by almost every notable thinker in the history of forever. After all, it is language, a rather messy and uncontrollable construction, that dominates the way we conceive of and define others. Gender is an integral part of this, and it in many ways defines the way we understand each other, and is an important part of the performance that defines who we are as far as those around us are concerned.

What sort of primacy, then, does gender enjoy within the English language? Dr Brian King, Assistant Professor at the City University of Hong Kong, makes the point that gender is dealt with differently by different languages: “There are… languages in which gendered pronouns (at least) are less of a problem. For example, in Spanish, subject pronouns can be dropped unlike in English. This means one can avoid them without sounding impersonal or ‘socially distant’.”

This feeling of distance isn’t just an assumption on King’s part: “in fact, in English, some psychology research has demonstrated that avoidance of pronouns (i.e. saying the name of the person repeatedly instead of using a pronoun) is associated with untrustworthiness of the speaker.” This effect is something that has been labelled the “Pinocchio effect” by Lyn M. Van Swol, Michael T. Braun and Deepak Malhotra in a study published in 2012.

King also notes that where Spanish is able to avoid certain limitations, it “has its own issues because gender is built right into the syntax and morphology. That is, the endings of words are different depending on whether you’re speaking to a man or a woman, and there’s no gender-neutral option.” German, at least, “has gender-neutral pronouns for third-person reference (similar to gender neutral ‘you’ in English). However, German poses a new set of challenges. No language is trouble-free in this regard.”

There are ostensibly gender-neutral languages, although King is right in identifying that very few languages substitute gender as an identifying marker for personhood in the broad sense. Languages might be entirely free of all grammatical references to gender, but could still imbue certain words with gendered qualities. For instance, Chinese languages are (semantic meanings aside) gender-neutral. In Mandarin,  is used to refer to anybody. Its gendered meanings, however, appear in written form, where the character is altered to mean he/she/it. This seemingly strange divorce between written and verbal meaning is actually the result of the unshakeable need for gendered distinction on the part of 20th-century Westerners. In an interesting turn of events, a raging debate about gender-neutrality in Sweden has seen the emergence of several departures from established norms. Some preschools now forbid teachers to refer to children with gendered terms, insisting on the use of first names. An increasing number of sporting codes are seeing men’s and women’s teams merged. And, most notably, 2012 saw the emergence of a new, Swedish, gender-neutral pronoun: hen. Although hen is at this stage decidedly political in flavour and use, it is appearing with increasing frequency in a number of publications. The argument for hen is not just an egalitarian one. Rather, its proponents note that it reduces the awkwardness sometimes present in writing with she/he, or, in this context, the awkwardness of using ‘they’ that is so often encountered in English.

Outside of those more prominent difficulties presented to those people who, for whatever reason, desire to be referred to with different gendered pronouns, which is in many ways a (very, very relatively) straightforward shift, trans* people who wish to abandon gendered pronouns altogether are faced with a different sort of problem. The use of ‘they’ or ‘them’, for instance, meets with some recalcitrance from people who find it dehumanising in practice. King notes that the severity of this difficulty “depends on whether you’re referring to writing or speaking. In writing, one has time to ponder a solution, and unconventional language can be more successfully deployed. In face-to-face speaking with an intersex person, it rarely matters, but it’s when you start referring to him/her in the third person to others that it gets tricky.”

The danger, therefore, is that, “If you start switching back and forth between him and her (a suggested strategy by some intersex people) your listener could get very confused unless you’re only speaking about that one intersex individual.”

Another way of considering this ‘problem’, however, is that ultimately, it is in respect to the life of another person. If you aren’t aware of what the person in question prefers, or if they even have a preference, then whatever you use is probably forgivable.

Ultimately, however, English doesn’t provide intelligible ways for intersex (or trans*, in the wide context) people to either be talked about or, in some ways, to talk to each other.

Language isn’t the only demarcation of gender that can pose an unnecessary and ultimately harmful impediment to trans* people. In New Zealand, as King points out, we aren’t doing that badly; “you can opt to have an X in the ‘sex’ field of your passport instead of M or F. There are many challenges which remain, but at a recent conference here in Hong Kong concerning the legal situation of intersex and trans people worldwide, New Zealand stood out as a leader in the realm of affording intersex and trans* people a place.”

And that’s pretty damn cool, but if there is anything we should take away from this discussion, it is that it takes more than well-meaning policy to change the fundamentals of trans* existence. It’s hard to see if, in New Zealand’s case, politics and society are aligned. Unlike some cultures which make or have made dispensation for trans* people (of admittedly certain strains), like the Hijra of India or the Kathoeys of Thailand, where there is a historical precedent for trans* people as a prominent part of society, we don’t have a culture where trans* people are particularly visible, Georgina Beyer aside.

We’ve managed to construct a language that delineates the human experience into a few images. Language gives people a tool to oppress, intentionally or otherwise, and as such the struggle of trans* people remains for the foreseeable future mired in the repeated demand for recognition.

Change in the case of language might never come, anyway. King says that “…it’s very hard to engineer language change… You can sometimes kick off the use of a new pronoun or honorific, but then hegemony can take over and it ends up being used as a weapon against you.”

Some trans* people have moved toward the use of new terms of reference for either themselves or people like them. The difficulty with this, King rightly notes, is that “if new pronouns are ‘invented’ or ‘revived’ to refer to intersex and tran*s people, if they don’t have mass recognition, they won’t last long. A name that means nothing to most people is hardly a name. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, but it makes it very challenging.”

So, realistically, there isn’t a recipe for making things better. As trans* people individually muddle through a befuddling miasma of unfriendly language, the best people can do, as friends, family, allies, or even just as people with the most meagre modicum of respect for others, is to try to deal with their identities on their own terms.

The “two ticks” campaign initiated during the last census by activist group the Queer Avengers, whereby people were encouraged to tick both ‘male’ and ‘female’, was a grassroots attempt to force trans* people into public and political attention. In a fit of the most absurd irony, such action resulted in Statistics New Zealand inferring the respondent’s ‘gender’ through the other answers they give on the form. In many ways, that’s a fitting metaphor for the lives of many trans* people: they live in a culture that broadly refuses to acknowledge their identities, while the language they speak enforces this erasure.

So, as King reminds us, “the struggle continues”.


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