A few months back I got a great question from some fellow trans writers who run a project that offers free support to other trans writers. They shared that they often struggle with what terms to use to let people know who can participate, and they asked if there is a single best term for everyone who isn’t cisgender.
The short answer was a big fat nope, but a longer answer feels worthwhile, because the question of how to best refer to everyone whose identities don’t conform to mainstream gender expectations/norms is a super challenging and multilayered topic. Language around gender is quickly evolving, so knowing which terms are most current and ensuring basic understanding across lines of difference is a real challenge.
Four and a half years ago, I decided to launch a project on using language in anti-oppressive, liberatory ways. It’s been really gratifying to create content on all sorts of things I’ve thought about and practiced for years, and I’ve been so happy to hear that my work is helpful.
I don’t post all that often because as a financially vulnerable freelancer it’s hard to prioritize unpaid work, but I want to change that! So I’m inviting you to support me, via my new Patreon page, in putting more content out in the world. In exchange, you’ll get an inside scoop on edits I make, questions I answer, and fabulous content I come across from other language lovers and activists.
Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and the longest night in the Northern Hemisphere. In Inuvik, a town in the Northwest Territories of Canada, tilted by the Earth’s axis as far from the sun as possible, there is no daylight at all today.
This is a day of deep spiritual significance in many traditions, and particularly after a year that has brought so much suffering and loss, there will be millions of people reflecting today on the symbolism of the darkest night and the coming of the light.
Metaphors have deep power, and the widespread metaphor that darkness/blackness is bad, evil, or otherwise negative, while lightness/whiteness is good, pure, or otherwise positive, has inestimable effects. The metaphors we use feed implicit biases. Many different studies have shown that associating darkness with negativity translates into associating darker-skinned people with criminality. Today I am holding in my heart the words of Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson, a beloved Unitarian Universalist leader. HOPE, as she styled her name, had respiratory problems ever since serving as a first responder and chaplain on 9/11, and passed away suddenly last month, only weeks after sharing these words:
This update reflects a comprehensive revision to bring the guide up to date on language trends that have progressed in the three years since I first wrote it, expand a number of sections to provide additional guidance, and add a new section on intersex considerations and new guidance on the nuances of what is often referred to as “sex versus gender.”
Language isn’t neutral or objective. It is a vessel of cultural stories, values, and norms. And in the United States, everyday language plays into the violent, foundational myth of this country’s origin story—Europeans “discovering” a virtually uninhabited wilderness and befriending the few primitive peoples who lived there—as well as other cultural myths and lies about Indigenous Peoples that are baked into U.S. culture and everyday life.
A month ago, I was hired to do a sensitivity read of a manuscript prior to publication, because the publisher wanted to ensure that the book was sensitive to trans communities. When I read it, I was horrified. It was a murder mystery that featured a cross-dressing killer.
I wrote a seven-page letter to publisher and author alike, explaining in painstaking detail that the fictional cross-dressing killer is a harmful archetype and describing the impacts of this archetype, including the decidedly not fictional trend of violence directed at Black trans women.
So it was with a sense of having a recurring nightmare that I read that JK Rowling’s fifth installment in her pseudonymously authored murder mystery series, Troubled Blood, released today, features a cross-dressing killer.
Be a radical copyeditor. When someone says “all lives matter,” engage with them (particularly if you are a white person, like me), and help them understand why saying this makes things worse, not better.
As many people have articulated over the seven years since the Black Lives Matter movement began, no one interrupts a breast cancer awareness event by yelling “all cancers matter,” or defaces “save the rainforest” bumper stickers with “all ecosystems matter,” or blocks a rescue crew from reaching a burning house because “all houses matter.” Continue reading ““All Lives Matter”? Not Until Black Ones Do”→
In the days since Toni Morrison became an ancestor, the outpouring of feeling has served as a testament to her greatness and her impact on the world. Thousands—perhaps millions—of people have shared quotes by her and about her, striving yet inevitably failing to express the fullness of what she meant and what she did here on Earth.
The story that white culture has long told about her is that she is a great novelist. (A great, Black, female novelist, of course.) But her greatness could never be contained in such a limited frame, and the millions of people whose lives she changed won’t allow it. For Toni Morrison, being a writer, an editor, a critic, and a teacher were inseparable from one another. She was all of these at once, and more. The power of language demanded no less. Continue reading “Toni Morrison and the Power of Language”→
Over the last year, a number of public figures have drawn praise and ire for referring to the facilities in which tens of thousands of people are being imprisoned by the United States without due process as concentration camps.
What has resulted is a “rhetorical cacophony regarding historical accuracy and proper terminology,” in the words of Lauren Duca of The Independent.
If, like me, you believe that language not only describes but creates reality, the primary question should not be “what is the correct definition of concentration camp and is that definition being accurately applied?” but rather “how am I morally obligated to describe and respond to what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border?”
The five practices below are designed to help you use language to humanize in the face of dehumanization and practice liberation in the face of violence and hate. But first, some context.