As a young person in the ’90s, one of the first and foundational experiences of radical copyediting I had was when I encountered folks who advocated for calling abortion opponents “anti-choice” rather than using their own term for themselves—“pro-life.” It was immediately apparent to me how powerful words were in shaping perception, and how vital it was to not lend validity to the mythology that the anti-abortion lobby is primarily concerned with “life.”
Back then, I couldn’t imagine a world without Roe v. Wade, but I also couldn’t imagine a world in which trans and nonbinary people like me were seen as real and valid and worthy of visibility in language. Today, those who understand the power of words are tasked with a new challenge: how to talk about the wreckage of Roe and who is being most impacted without erasing anyone.
The landscape of gender, bodies, rights, justice, and language is super complex and nuanced, so our approaches to it have to be complex and nuanced too. Here are seven practices that can help.
Anyone who has ever experienced bullying, harassment, or oppression knows that the age-old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is at best wishful thinking and at worst a lie. This adage has been passed down, generation to generation, as if it’s a shield that can ward off the impacts of hateful speech, but it’s no protection at all. Words, like arrows, cut through the falsehood that only physical assaults cause pain, debilitation, and death.
Violence takes infinitely variable forms. Death can occur from a single gunshot or from long-term low-level exposure to a toxin. No one would say that lead is harmless simply because it won’t kill you immediately if you ingest some. Words are the same way—most often, they cause harm through accumulation, not one-time use.
This quirky, mighty word carries so much meaning. Self-identity, umbrella term, academic discipline, political orientation, verb, and—yes—slur.
Yet more than three decades after a fundamental shift in what this word communicates, the mainstream still resists acknowledging the fullness of what queer means. What’s this resistance to queer really about? And how should this complexity be navigated?
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.