Transgender language reform
some challenges and strategies for promoting trans-affirming, gender-inclusive language
Keywords:language reform, transgender, discrimination
Transgender people’s recent increase in visibility in the contemporary United States has presented new linguistic challenges. This article investigates those challenges and presents strategies developed by trans speakers and promoted by trans activists concerned with language reform. The first of these is the selection of gendered lexical items, including both gender identity terms (woman, man, etc.) and more implicitly gendered words (e.g. beautiful, handsome). The second is the assignment of third person pronouns like she/her/hers and he/ him/his as well as non-binary pronouns like singular they/them/theirs or ze/ hir/hirs. Both of these challenges tap into the importance trans people place on individual self-identification, and they come with new interactional practices such as asking people directly what pronouns they would like others to use when referring to them. The third challenge addressed here is avoiding gendering people when the referent’s gender isn’t relevant or known, which can be addressed through the selection of gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language. The final challenge is how to discuss gender when it is relevant – e.g. in discussions of gender identity, socialisation or sexual physiology – without delegitimising trans identities. Several strategies are presented to address this issue, such as hedging all generalisations based on gender, even when doing so seems unnecessary in the normative sex/gender framework or using more precise language regarding what aspect(s) of gender are relevant. Taken as a whole, trans language reform reflects the importance of language, not just as an auxiliary to identity, but as the primary grounds on which identity construction takes place.
Armstrong, J. D. (1997) Homophobic slang as coercive discourse among college students. In A. Livia and K. Hall (eds) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality 326â€“34. New York: Oxford University Press.
Associated Press (2016) â€˜She her hersâ€™: pronoun pins handed out at University of Kansas. NBC News, 28 December. Retrieved on 1 February 2017 from http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/she-her-hers-pronoun-pins-handed-out-university-
Bershtling, O. (2014) â€˜Speech creates a kind of commitmentâ€™: queering Hebrew. In L. Zimman, J. Davis and J. Raclaw (eds) Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality 35â€“61. New York and London: Oxford University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199937295.003.0003
Bing, J. M. and Bergvall, V. L. (1998) The question of questions: beyond binary thinking. In J. Coates (ed.) Language and Gender: A Reader 495â€“510. Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Bodine, A. (1975) Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular â€˜theyâ€™, sex-indefinite â€˜heâ€™, and â€˜he or sheâ€™. Language in Society 4(2): 129â€“46. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0047404500004607 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0047404500004607
Borba, R. (2015) How an individual becomes a subject: discourse, interaction and subjectification at a Brazilian gender identity clinic. Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies 163.
Brontsema, R. (2004) A queer revolution: reconceptualizing the debate over linguistic reclamation. Colorado Research in Linguistics 17(1): 1â€“17.
Cameron, D. (ed.) (1998) The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. New York: Routledge.
Chen, M. Y.-C. (1998)_ â€˜I am an animal!â€™: lexical reappropriation, performativity, and queer. In S. Wertheim, A. C. Bailey and M. Corston-Oliver (eds) Engendering Communication: Proceedings of the Fifth Berkeley Women and Language Conference 129â€“40. Berkeley, CA: BWLG.
Craig, S. (2016) U of T professor attacks political correctness, says he refuses to use genderless pronouns. National Post, 28 September. Retrieved 1 February 2017 from http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/u-of-t-professor-attacks-political-correctness-
Edelman, E. A. (2009) The power of stealth: (in)visible sites of female-to-male transsexual resistance. In W. L. Leap and E. Lewin (eds) Out in Public: Reinventing Lesbian/Gay Anthropology in a Globalizing World 164â€“79. Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444310689.ch9 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444310689.ch9
Edelman, E. A. and Zimman, L. (2014) Boycunts and bonus holes: discourses about transmasculine bodies and the sexual productivity of genitals. Journal of Homosexuality 61(5): 673â€“90. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2014.870438 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2014.870438
Ehrlich, S. and King, R. (1992) Gender-based language reform and the social construction of meaning. Discourse and Society 3(2): 151â€“66. https://doi.org/10.1177/ DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0957926592003002002
Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Gratton, C. (2016) Resisting the gender binary: the use of (ING) in the construction of non-binary transgender identities. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 22(2): article 7.
Hausman, B. L. (1995) Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822396277
Hazenberg, E. (2016) Walking the straight and narrow: linguistic choice and gendered presentation. Gender & Language 10(2): 270â€“94. https://doi.org/10.1558/genl.v10i2.19812 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1558/genl.v10i2.19812
Kitzinger, C. (2005) â€˜Speaking as a heterosexualâ€™: (how) does sexuality matter for talk-in-interaction? Research on Language and Social Interaction 38(3): 221â€“65. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327973rlsi3803_2 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327973rlsi3803_2
Koppelman, B., Levien, D. and Sorkin, A. R. (creators) (2017) Billions (television series, season 2). USA: Showtime.
Kulick, D. (1999) Transgender and language. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 5(4): 605â€“22.
Lippi-Green, R. (1997) English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.
Livia, A. (2000) Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender. New York and London: Oxford University Press.
Livia, A. and Hall, K. (eds) (1997a) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press.
Livia, A. and Hall, K. (1997b) â€˜Itâ€™s a girl!â€™ Bringing performativity back to linguistics. In A. Livia and K. Hall (eds) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality 3â€“18. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press.
Lorber, J. (1994) Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
McConnell-Ginet, S. (2002) â€˜Queeringâ€™ semantics: definitional struggles. In K. Campbell-Kibler, R. J. Podesva, S. J. Roberts and A. Wong (eds) Language and Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice 137â€“60. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
Murphy, M. L. (1997) The elusive bisexual: social categorization and lexico-semantic change. In A. Livia and K. Hall (eds) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality 35â€“57. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ochs, E. (1992) Indexing gender. In A. Duranti and C. Goodwin (eds) Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon 335â€“58. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Pastre, G. (1997) Linguistic gender play among French gays and lesbians. In A. Livia and K. Hall (eds) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality 369â€“79. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press.
Penelope, J. (1990) Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Fathersâ€™ Tongues. New York: Teacherâ€™s College Press.
Peters, M. (2017) Womyn, wimmin, and other folx. Boston Globe, 9 May. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2017/05/09/womyn-wimmin-and-other-folx/vjhPn82ITGgCCbE12iNn1N/story.html.
Pflum, S. R., Testa, R. J., Balsam, K. F., Goldblum, P. B. and Bongar, B. (2015) Social support, trans community connectedness, and mental health symptoms among transgender and gender nonconforming adults. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity 2(3): 281â€“6. https://doi.org/10.1037/sgd0000122 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/sgd0000122
Queen, R. M. (1997) â€˜I donâ€™t speech spritchâ€™: locating lesbian language. In A. Livia and K. Hall (eds) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality 233â€“56. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press.
Sattel, J. (1983) Men, inexpressiveness and power. In B. Thorne, C. Kramarae and N. Henley (eds) Language, Gender and Society 118â€“24. Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers.
Schultz, M. (1975) The semantic derogation of women. In B. Thorne and N. Henley (eds) Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance 64â€“75. Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers.
Serano, J. (2007) Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
Shapiro, J. (1992) Transsexualism: reflections on the persistence of gender and the mutability of sex. In J. Epstein and K. Straub (eds) Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity 248â€“79. New York: Routledge.
Silverstein, M. (1981) The limits of awareness. Sociolinguistic Working Paper 84: 1â€“30.
Spender, D. (1980) Man Made Language. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Books.
Valentine, D. (2003) â€˜I went to bed with my own kind onceâ€™: the erasure of desire in the name of identity. Language and Communication 23(2): 123â€“38. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0271-5309(02)00045-9 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0271-5309(02)00045-9
Zimman, L. (2014) The discursive construction of sex: remaking and reclaiming the gendered body in talk about genitals among trans men. In L. Zimman, J. L. Davis and J. Raclaw (eds) Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality 13â€“34. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199937295.003.0002
Zimman, L. (forthcoming) Trans self-identification and the language of neoliberal selfhood: agency, power, and the limits of monologic discourse. International Journal of the Sociology of Language.
Zimman, L. and Hall, K. (2009) Language, embodiment, and the â€˜third sexâ€™. In D. Watt and C. Llamas (eds) Language and Identities 166â€“78. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press.
How to Cite
© Equinox Publishing Ltd.
For information regarding our Open Access policy, click here.