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:

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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 
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Why We Need to Stop Saying “Politically Correct”

 

45 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 4 people

    1. Roger that! I bear malice toward none and have no desire to insult or offend, but how in the Hell is anyone going to relax if our next microaggression (LOVE that word) is just one word away? Oh, That’s the way I like it baby I don’t want to live forever!

      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 4 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 7 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 3 people

      2. Your clarification of cis here was super-helpful. And it was by distinguishing it from trans, explaining their Latin meanings, and putting both in front of “gender,” that finally did it. I was just about to leave and Google it when I landed here. Thanks. Great post.

        Like

  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 6 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. ✌️

    Like

  8. Ultimately it comes down to respect and I think you did a great job of highlighting. I’ve been insulted with “queer” and a few other terms I won’t get into now, but I’ve made the choice to embrace those terms. But that’s my choice. Nobody made it for me and I don’t expect anyone else to wholesomely endorse such descriptors.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You stated – “My firm belief is that every person gets to have full agency over the language they use to describe themself. Nothing supersedes that right.”

    That’s impossible, many things supersede that right. It would be unrealistic to make that action an absolute when there are none.

    Like

    1. I’m curious to know why you think it’s impossible for people to have agency over the language they use to describe themselves. I sincerely can’t think of anything that supersedes that right.

      Like

      1. You stated — I’m curious to know why you think it’s impossible for people to have agency over the language they use to describe themselves. I sincerely can’t think of anything that supersedes that right.

        My response — I never said they couldn’t have “agency over”, I said they couldn’t have “full agency over” in opposition to your statement that they do.

        It’s impossible because there are no known absolutes. God supersedes rights, the courts supersede rights, etc. Example: If you were to describe yourself as a member of the FBI (in the right setting) then you would go to jail. Or as another person (identity theft). Or as a God (judgment could fall on you).

        Liked by 2 people

  10. I must admit I get all kinds of confused. I just want people to treat each other with dignity and respect. Tell me how to address you, but I would rather to also be called by my name. I just want to keep things simple.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The term “cis” is only redundant if you believe that “man” and “cis man” are synonymous or interchangeable. But they aren’t. Trans men are also men. So the term “men” includes both cis and trans men and it’s important to have a word/term other than “normal” or “non-trans” or “men who were assigned male at birth” to talk about men who aren’t trans men.

        Like

      2. I do believe that, Alex. I also believe that the finer you split the hair, the more likely you are to cut yourself. I’m a white man, but I am not a WASP. I am descended from the Suebi, an ancient tribe from northeastern Germany, so I am not an Anglo-Saxon. I don’t believe in God, so I am not a protestant, but how would anyone know these things without knowing me and, even if they did, what would they really know?
        I identify myself by my name. It’s easy, uncomplicated and eliminates the opportunity to offend based on a large amount of dubious terminology.

        Like

  11. People can call themselves whatever they want,but it is another thing to force some one else to agree. I for one don’t get the purpose for using the word cis. You may call me what you want.but generally if some wants to interact with me and uses the term cis I ignore them. What is going on with our society is a very small fraction of the society trying to redefine every thing things for the majority and thinking the majority gets no input which is not the case.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t force you to agree with me, lordfreeza; all I can do is explain why something is important. U.S. society is indeed founded on a small fraction of people who redefined reality for the majority, who had no input: European Christian white wealthy men came to this continent and redefined “ownership” of land and redefined “civilization” and “human” as concepts that only applied to themselves and not to Indigenous or Black peoples. Oppressed peoples carving out space for our existence in language, in law, in public, in life is not “redefining everything for the majority.” It is literally creating space for ourselves to exist in a society that doesn’t want us to.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. There is a line in this that hit me. It was, “I have a right to have my own language of identity respected.”
    You may have a moral right, sure. But I’m not entirely sure you can make it a legal right. To make people speak in a way accorded not by themselves but by someone else, really does encroach on the basic fundamental right of any country that claims to be a democracy.

    Like

    1. It is not within my power to make anyone speak in any particular way, nor do I have the power (or desire) to legislate language. The purpose of this website and blog is to help folks use language in ways that foster respect and liberation from oppression. Respecting another person’s language of identity is one way to do this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s all fine. But when you said ‘I have a right’ then it implies, there can be legislation made to control language. That’s all. Another problem is, where do you draw the line between freedom of speech, innocent mistake and oppression, when it comes to using the required pronoun, or any other words like such?

        Like

      2. No, the word “right” does not solely belong to the legal sphere. I am talking about human decency and morality, not legislation. With respect to free speech, I believe that everyone should have the freedom to say insensitive things; my hope is that they will choose not to.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Right. I get that. I’m not entirely sure how morality applies here. Common decency, sure. But morality with respect to respecting identity is perhaps very vague. On the free speech thing, I don’t think progress will be at all possible without people saying insensitive things. Perhaps not all the time. But frequently. And I feel these things will also continue to be ‘controversial’ as long as people keep judging whether or not a particular statement is insensitive or not. If we could de-sensitize the entire pond, then people can actually progress.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Gordon, you seem to want to engage in a philosophical debate about this, as if the things you are discussing don’t have a real impact on people’s lives. That’s not something I’m interested in doing, so this will be my last reply to you.

        Denying people agency in self-identification is a harbinger of dehumanization. The problem is not that oppressed peoples are too sensitive, the problem is that oppressed peoples are oppressed. Language can contribute to that oppression or it can fight it. If you are actually interested in engaging with this topic and exploring a new perspective on it, I invite you to read more of the pieces on this blog, particularly The Spectrum of Language and the series I did on “politically correct.” Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. i agree with 99% of your article, here, and thanks for posting. But, I get ruffled with people whose histories include having sex with and enjoying it with people with both male and female genitalia but only identify as “gay” or “lesbian” and refuse to utilize the term “bisexual” or “queer” or anything else except the binary designation when they are clearly NOT binary.

    I think that bi people have been way too often disparaged by those who identify as or claim to be gay, lesbian or hetero, wrongly accusing us of being “confused,” or ‘refusing to choose a side.” Bisexuality, or poly, or omni, or queer sexual orientation identify IS our “side”!

    I think that the submersion of the label “bisexual” by those whose identities really are bi into one or the other pole of homosexuality is a lie and it serves to discredit and further marginalize bis and bisexuality while contributing to the confusion of everyone. People striving to illuminate/educate the world on what it means to be attracted to and engage happily in sex with people with both sets of genitalia/body parts ought to be supported, and one way to support us is to claim one’s actual identity, not just the “easy” one (now).

    Therefore, I do object when people who are bisexual refuse to use that self-identification.

    This is not to say that people can’t choose to stay with one gender as long-term partners or focus more on having sexual encounters with one type of gender and, therefore, “feel” more as if they are living on one pole or another for long periods of their lives. That leaning or choice, however, does not make that person lesbian or gay.

    Let’s differentiate between the experiences of those who are choosing to be with same-gender or opposite-gendered sex partners as we wish to do so from those who have pretended to like sex with opposite- gendered individuals to fit in but really were gay or lesbian. They couldn’t come out or self-label as “gay” or “lesbian” until it was safer for them to do so. These people get to use “gay” or “lesbian” as a self-identifier any time they want, IMO, because they clearly are not “bisexual.”

    Being able to enjoy sex with both or all genders is what makes people bi, omni, queer, or polysexual. Right? We can be celibate or asexual all or most of our lives and still have a sexual orientation identity label. Identity and behavior are not the same.

    My two cents.

    Best to you all,

    Sally

    Like

    1. Hi Sally. Thanks for your thoughts and for engaging with this topic.

      First of all, yes, bisexuality and bi people (as well as other polysexual folks) are way too often subjected to stereotypes, judgment, invisibility, and pressure to conform to a different way of being. I have personally experienced this too and this reality is crap.

      However, your closing sentence, “identity and behavior are not the same,” which is 100% correct, negates your argument. “Being able to enjoy sex with [multiple] or all genders” is behavior. Being bi, omni, queer, or polysexual is identity. None of us gets to dictate another person’s identity based on (limited) information we have about their attractions and/or behaviors. Full stop.

      I get that it’s frustrating to you when people who seem bisexual to you identify as gay, or lesbian, or straight. And obviously it’s a reality that many people who might otherwise identify as bi feel pressured to identify as gay, lesbian, or straight because of all those stereotypes, judgments, invisibility, and pressures above. That’s really sad. But saying that some people are REALLY bisexual and are lying or pretending to be straight or gay/lesbian is just as harmful and wrong as saying that some people are REALLY straight or gay/lesbian when they identify as bi. You and I know what that feels like. It’s never okay to tell someone that you know their identity better than they do.

      Sexual orientation isn’t solely about attraction or behavior. It’s the gendered pattern of a person’s attractions and behavior AND their internal understanding of what those patterns mean to them. I wrote a piece on this a few years ago that I encourage you to check out. The only person who can fully know what someone’s internal understanding of their sexual orientation is is that person themself.

      As another example of this, I identify as queer. Some people say that “queer” isn’t a legitimate sexual orientation and argue that I’m REALLY bisexual, that “queer” is just a different term for bisexuality. This is incredibly harmful and false. Bisexual and queer are unique and different internal understandings, even if my sexual attractions and behaviors are identical to yours.

      Finally, I encourage you to move away from talking about sexual orientation as having anything to do with genitalia, and particularly the idea that genitalia and body parts come in only two sets, since gender and genitalia are not the same thing. It is completely possible for a person to identify as a lesbian and only engage in sexual behavior with women, yet still have experiences with multiple different sorts of genitalia—because trans women are women.

      I hope this all makes sense. Respecting people’s agency and self-identification means respecting that each person is always the authority on their own identity, no matter whether I understand it or not.

      Like

      1. Thanks for responding. No. None of it “makes sense,” but I guess it’s always evolving.

        I am over 60, so I can say it’s all BS (“flavor of the month” terminology) and it’s critically important, both!

        Best to you

        Sally

        Like

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