Your labels matter: working for inclusive and accountable language

TL;DR: If you are trying to support marginalized genders, don’t use narratives suggesting gender isn’t real to seek legitimacy.

We may not chose our gender or sexual or romantic orientation, but we do chose how we talk about it.  No decision happens in a vacuum and your choices affect others.

Finding our own gender can be very complicated.  For some agender people, that means coming to terms with the fact that gender is really important!  To a lot of people!  For a lot of cisgender people it means understanding that there are more than two categories out there and that they aren’t set in stone.

When it comes to self-identifying as trans, I embrace a broad definition that makes space for people who are questioning and who want to break down social norms around gender and for whom social norms of gender are an incredibly important tool in decolonialization.  There’s also an important space to be held for people who aren’t trans, but are gender non-conforming for a similar variety of reasons, pick your bouquet.  All of us have a space in a movement that is truly intersectional.

A common objective includes respecting all identities so that people may live authentically and well.  However, this does not give us a means of addressing people who would mock or subvert our language of inclusion.  Nor does it address that all of these conversations happen in context, and all work is done of the work of those who came before.  We need a space to talk about how people with whom we may share words, labels, or experiences, may also have different experiences or perspectives, and that the way we chose to articulate ourselves can have a negative impact on our compatriots.

People will mock the intimacy of self-searching processes with superficial statements that suggest attraction is superficial and trivial.  “I’m pizza-sexual because right now I want pizza.”  Does this mean I think you should not express your near sexual hunger for really good food?  No of course not!  But don’t equate it to a marginalized experience or deny that for some people figuring things out is a complicated process.

This kind of mocking category is used by many people in conversations about language.  Often even by people who aren’t cisgender or heterosexual, yet have little empathy for people who want to find more specific language for themselves.  Everyone who experiences oppression, and claims to speak out against it, needs to hold themselves accountable to the movements that benefit them too.  Treating gender like a made up category is not beneficial.  While it is important to understand how culture shapes the categories such as gender and sex, and how that’s harmful and not biased on inherent biological realities, the social realities have a tremendous power to harm us.  Social constructs are everywhere, all the time.  Children are gendered before birth based on poor understanding of sex, and sexed at birth with a poor understanding of biology.

We all operate in context.  When seeking support, resources, language, legal rights, the groundwork is always set by past generations.  It the responsibility of each following generation to learn from past work, past mistakes, but also past injustices, all of which tend to be ongoing.  When people within trans communities choose to use language that deliberately avoids engaging with these movements, I want to ask: do you think you don’t need these movements? How can they be made to serve us or you if we are not alike.  And if we are not alike, then why do you claim a shared experience?

Words should serve to communicate.  Labels are often criticized for categorizing and homogenizing various experiences, but they are useful for connecting to shared experiences, and shared identities.  The difference between the experience and the identity is what makes labels descriptors.  They serve to say: we want to group ourselves together because we understand the connections between our experiences to be relevant, and something we need to come together to address.

There are people who have various strong connections with animals, or non-human entities such as furries, dragonkin, etc.  Some chose to use these identities to communicate something about gender, using entities and cultural artifacts that themselves can be gendered in various ways.  This fails to acknowledge the social power of gender.  Animals, fairies, dragons, are all entities that are variously gendered according to science, culture and mythologies. These identities are not less legitimate, but they are constructions that can actively engage or disengage with sex and gender.

An analogy that some people will dislike: if you do not have a religion, your religion is not be atheism(etc.) but atheism or agnosticism or “not religious” is (one of) your religious affiliation(s).  If you do not have gender, you can still have a gender identity, which will probably be agender/neutrois/still looking/I don’t identify with anything related to gender deal with how long this is/etc.  Your gender and identity are two concepts that are sometimes separate.

Language is complex because both greater inclusiveness and specificity as appropriate are what allow us to communicate respectfully. The way in which different people use these terms varies a lot and is often contextual to their experiences of oppression because language is often coopted by people in power to oppress the originators and delegitimize our work.  We cannot establish legitimacy by policing our own, but to claim legitimacy in ways that denies the legitimacy of others hurts all of us. If you are or are supporting of a marginalized genders, don’t use narratives suggesting gender isn’t real to seek legitimacy.


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