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?

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Update to Transgender Style Guide: Avoiding Invalidating Language Traps

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Today I made a third major update to The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People to add four sections on how to avoid writing or talking about trans people in ways that are invalidating or otherwise harmful. (Remember that context is everything, and that all trans people have a right to describe themselves in whatever language feels best to them.)

I also updated section 1.4 and the note that follows it to reflect better language that has emerged for instances when you want to be clear that when you say trans you aren’t referring only to trans women and men but also non-binary people, as well as the recent trend in trans communities to perceive trans and transgender as having separate meanings.

See below for these new sections or click through for the updated style guide.

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Update to Transgender Style Guide: Bodies and Anatomy

Word bubbles and text that summarize two updates to the Radical Copyeditor's Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People on the topic of bodies and anatomy
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Thanks to great feedback from readers, it quickly became clear that The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People was missing vital guidance on writing about bodies and anatomy in ways that are sensitive and inclusive.

So today I made the second major update to the style guide by adding two sections: one on practicing sensitivity around trans people’s bodies and anatomy in particular, and one on decoupling anatomy from identity when referring to people in general.

See below for these new sections or click through for the updated style guide.

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Update to Transgender Style Guide: “They” as a Personal Pronoun

A word bubble that says "Elizabeth loves their cat; they are a big cat lover; they did something nice for themself yesterday," plus the text of an update to the Radical Copyeditor's Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People (text in graphic reprinted in full below)

Thanks to great feedback from readers, I realized on Sunday that the style guide I published last week was missing a section. The guide addresses singular they as a generic pronoun for people whose gender is unknown in section 3.1, but it did not explicitly provide guidance on singular they as a personal pronoun.

Therefore, yesterday morning I added a new section: 2.4.4. Respect singular they as a personal pronoun and use it appropriately.

Click through to “The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People” to read the update in full, complete with helpful hyperlinks.

The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People

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Introduction (Read This First)

A style guide for writing about transgender people is practically an oxymoron. Style guides are designed to create absolutes—bringing rules and order to a meandering and contradictory patchwork quilt of a language. Yet there are no absolutes when it comes to gender. That’s why this is a radical copyeditor’s style guide. Radical copyediting isn’t about absolutes; it’s about context and care.

There are profound reasons for why the language that trans people use to describe ourselves and our communities changes and evolves so quickly. In Western culture, non-trans people have for centuries created the language that describes us, and this language has long labeled us as deviant, criminal, pathological, unwell, and/or unreal.

As trans people have fought for survival, we have also fought for the right to describe ourselves in our own language and to reject language that criminalizes, pathologizes, or invisibilizes us. Just as there is no monolithic trans community, there is also no one “correct” way to speak or write about trans people.

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The Spectrum of Language

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United States mainstream culture promotes the idea that language is either “correct” or “incorrect” (in terms of grammar, spelling or pronunciation, word choice, and content). But language—along with everything else in this world—is so much more complex.

As a radical copyeditor and as someone who believes that words have incredible power for destruction, oppression, healing, liberation, and more, I understand language to exist on a spectrum from actively hateful to profoundly loving—and I strive to help people use language in the most life-affirming ways possible.

Continue reading The Spectrum of Language