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.
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.”
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.
The word enby, alternately spelled enbie or enbee and pluralized as enbies or enbys, refers to a non-binary person (someone whose sense of self is not exclusively girl/woman or boy/man). Continue reading “What’s in a Word: Enby”→
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?
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.