Ask a Radical Copyeditor: Are There Limits to Self-Identity Language?

Agency and identity
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Are There Limits to Self-Identity Language?

Q: In response to your piece about person-centered language, my mind goes to difficult situations where I’ve interacted with marginalized people who use/identify comfortably with terms I understand to be oppressive, e.g., a trans woman using the term “tranny.”

In another more privileged direction, I’ve interacted with people who don’t identify with the term “cis” despite being cis, and have heard members of oppressed groups say, “you don’t get to choose not to be cis.”

So I guess my internal query is, how far does the agency of one’s identity go? And does language that marginalizes an oppressed group supersede the desire of an individual in their expression of identity through language?

A: Great question!

My firm belief is that every person gets to have full agency over the language they use to describe themself. Nothing supersedes that right.

Many people use words to describe themselves that have a history of being used oppressively or violently, such as cripple, tranny, and queer. There is nothing inherently oppressive about any particular word; everything is contextual, so if someone wants to call herself a tranny, that is absolutely her right. And if I ask you to call me queer, because that’s the only word that accurately describes something essential about me, I’m going to need you to do that even if you personally hate that word. I don’t get to insist that you call yourself queer and I don’t get to use that word for you if you hate it, but I have a right to have my own language of identity respected. Full stop.

That said, context does matter. There are many identity-related words that are okay to use within a group that shares a cultural context but are not okay to use outside that group. The most notable example of this is probably the n-word. There’s nothing oppressive or violent about Black people using this word within Black contexts, but the history of white people wielding this word is so horrible and ever-present that there is no way that it would ever be okay for me to use it, as a white person.

When it comes to accurately describing dominant characteristics, that’s a really different situation. I don’t get to say, “I’m not white; that word doesn’t resonate with me.” Regardless of whether or not I identify with the word/concept white, I am white. It’s an accurate descriptor. When a marginalized person claims language to describe their oppressed identity, they are speaking themself into existence in a society that is trying to annihilate them. When a privileged person rejects an accurate descriptor of their privileged status, they are refusing to acknowledge that they are privileged—that there are particular hardships they get a pass on because of this facet of who they are.

People who resist cisgender and cis (neutral descriptors for people who aren’t trans) are basically saying that they prefer the words normal and default and that they want to continue thinking of trans people as not normal.

When a marginalized person is described using language that they don’t identify with, that is often an act of further marginalization and harm. When a cis person is accurately described as cis, that is not an act of marginalization or harm, it’s an act of using language to help equalize an oppressive power dynamic (one that says some people are trans and everyone else is“normal”).

Remember that feeling uncomfortable is not the same thing as being oppressed. You can’t legally be fired from your job in 29 states for being cisgender. You’re not exponentially more likely to be murdered or to attempt suicide because of being cisgender. Being called cisgender, even if it makes a person feel uncomfortable, is not analogous to being oppressed.


Addendum: Some folks who have read this have claimed that being called cis is disparaging and/or denies their ability to have agency over their self-identity language. To these folks, I offer the following additional explanation.

First, sometimes people call someone cis without taking care to confirm that in fact the person is cis. There are plenty of trans women, trans men, and non-binary people who get perceived as cis and aren’t. So just to be clear, I’m only talking about instances when people who are cis don’t want that word used to refer to them.

Second, there’s a difference between speaking disparagingly about people who have a dominant/privileged identity and using a slur, or a violent/weaponized word. If a person of color called me a white asshole, that would be disparaging, but that doesn’t make the word white in that context a slur: (a) it doesn’t invoke a system in which I am oppressed based on race, and (b) it’s still just descriptive—the actual disparaging word is asshole, not white. So if trans people speak disparagingly about cis people, that doesn’t make the word cis a slur.

Third, cis is not (necessarily) an identity, it is a neutral description of the interaction between a person’s identity and their birth-assigned sex. A cis man’s identity is man, or male. Calling him cis does not deny anything about his identity as a man. It’s like describing the color blue as a primary color. If blue says, “Don’t call me ‘primary’! I don’t identify with that word!” that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Blue, yellow, and red are primary colors. Primary is just a description of the type of color blue is; it doesn’t modify or deny anything about its identity as blue. Same thing with cis.


What’s your take? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me! Was this post helpful to you? Consider making a donation!

Note: This piece was updated August 13, 2018, to add the addendum.

More posts you might like:

Speech bubbles illustrating the difference between "person-first language" and "person-centered language"
On “Person-First Language”: It’s Time to Actually Put the Person First
A paragraph of text that's been corrected to be more respectful of trans people
The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People 
Flowchart for whether to use the term "politically correct." Full text description at bottom of page.
Why We Need to Stop Saying “Politically Correct”


20 thoughts on “Ask a Radical Copyeditor: Are There Limits to Self-Identity Language?

  1. Reblogged this on Cartoon Tree House and commented:
    This post really opened my eyes to how people expect to be treated. I always wondered if it was ok to call someone a tranny or queer etc. (being that some individuals don’t prefer the context of either term). Now I know, they will tell you if it is ok and we shouldn’t automatically assume that we have the right to call them whatever we want.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. My take is that language requires a modicum of consensus to be effective. An individual can choose to identify themselves as they please but a society will agree how the person is identified. When it comes to language, it’s a numbers game…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ok. What is cis? Is it an acronym? Perhaps people are not as offended as perplexed by the term.

    If you were to be taught how to call yourself Hungarian in North America, you’re going to be taught to call yourself noble versus gypsy.

    Privilege is generally a statement of fact. However, when someone infers that I need to apologize or deserve some kind of asterisk beside my accomplishments, I take issue. My privilege is not optional. It means I owe acknowledgement.

    Thanks for your article.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Rejean — “cis” is short for “cisgender,” which as I noted in my piece above is a neutral descriptor for people who aren’t trans. “Cis” and “trans” are both Latin prefixes; where “trans” means “to cross” or “on the other side,” “cis” means “on the same side.” Someone who is cis has a gender identity that aligns, according to mainstream expectations, with the sex they were assigned at birth. For a comprehensive explanation of the word (as well as the backlash against it), check out the great Advocate article “The True Meaning of the Word ‘Cisgender’” by Sunnivie Brydum.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Thank you.

        My son attempted to explain it to me. His viewpoint was uneducated, but his exposure ro social media brings me to an interesting point. Apparently, those of liberal viewpoint have used this term as a sort of beatstick. Perhaps the offense comes from being told this sexual identity requires an apology.

        With that said, if someone referred to me as a cis WASP (white anglo-saxon protestant) man in an unbiased census, offense would not make sense.

        It may be the correct term, but I don’t foresee it becoming normative. Partially, I recognize that my privilege allows me to only care if one’s plumber has a wrench in one’s overalls.

        I do feel that your article is correct . Thank you

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I love this post, as you’ve actually read my mind. I call myself a “Tranny”; I actually use the phrase “Six foot Scouse Tranny” in order to describe myself as I’m from Liverpool, England and I’m a mid forties Transgender Female. What I’ve found (and I suspect this is the case elsewhere) is that using these derogatory terms as a form of comical humour, can help relieve the tension that is created when someone doesn’t understand the type of person that you are. Back it up with education and knowledge transfer as to what it means to be that type of person, and you can find a diverse number of ways that will enable you to win people over and help them accept who you are. You just have to be very careful how you approach the subject and be attentive to the other person’s feelings with regard to humour.

    Love it my friend, you are all over it.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Loved this article. I am glad to have also read the comments. I was not aware of where the term cisgender comes from. It is an actual word, not something made up. That is awesome. I hear so many people saying it is made up. When you said it is the use of a prefix, that makes so much more sense. Thank you!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I will have to state that reclaiming of a word is usually done so in ignorance or by changing viewpoints of a generation. Queer still is defined as ‘abnormal’ or an ‘offensive slur directed towards homosexuals’. Older generations remember and refuse the use, compared to the youth that may use the term in ignorance (or assuming that queer is an appropriate generalized term). Same with the ‘n-word’ a term offensive still to older generations but commonly used by younger generations in ignorance (or the slang version is actually defined as a black male friend and commonly misused). I do not encourage the policing of language but to self-identify as a slur or misused slang terms should come with some knowledge of the origins of such words. As a black lesbian I often provide the definitions to those that self-identify as queer or ‘b-word’ or ‘n-word’ to see the person perplexed. The person did not know the origins or actual definitions and purposes of the offensive terms and slang words, but may still continue to use them out of familiarity. As well some use the terms freely as self-identifiers to reject or lessen an offense.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Society, in my honest opinion, labels every damned thing. We live in a time and space now where we are made to reconsider those labels and the contexts in which we use them. This has proven challenging when you see it completely disregarded from the top (i.e. high society), down (average society). Very good arguments here and I learned a thing or two. ✌️


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