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