Monday, May 24, 2010

Transgender is an adjective. Not a noun. Or a verb!

What does the word transgender lack?*

It is not a noun. Or verb. It describes an aspect of a noun. But like other adjectives in formal language– green, strong, female, etc. - it describes the type of noun in question, and explains something about a noun that’s relevant to the context.

Transgender describes folks who were assigned a sex or gender at birth incongruent with their actual sex or gender. Transgender is an adjective – it cannot stand on its own, but must be attached to a noun. Like other adjectives, transgender exists to modify and clarify some aspect of the noun at hand.

Transgender is a word that modifies, but when I open up my Google alert for “transgender”, it’s rarely attached to a noun; instead, cis journalists (out of ignorance and fear bred of cissexist society) often use it to dehumanize their subjects when reporting their lives and all too often, their deaths.

I notice the misuse of these words most glaringly in titles. Here’s a sample from May:

Transgender is not a noun. It is an adjective, and reducing people to just one of their qualities is necessarily reductive and denies their gender and their humanity.

"Transgender" is also, as you'll notice above, the catch-all for many different kinds of people. Dyssonynce wrote on this earlier this year:
Especially since while I am one of those trans people, I am not a transgender person. I am a transsexual person. This is why I don’t use transgender. This is why I do use Trans. If you can’t see that there are serious differences in just the letters used there, please, learn something about us.
Using transgender as a noun is occasionally an ignorant, symptomatic mistake made by a careless writer. But more often, it's an indicator of more issues: transgender or cross-dressing male to describe trans women, a she where a he is needed. It is indicative of a pattern of dehumanization, of degendering. How can a writer too lazy to check the AP style manual or question their own use of nouns and pronouns be trusted to write about trans issues? (The answer is systematic cissupremacy.)

Transgender is also not a verb because gender is not a verb. I do not cisgender every day when I put on a skirt or wash my genitals. I do not gender when I do anything, because gender is not a verb. Using transgender as such reflects a lack of understanding and avoidance of research on the part of the writer.

Transgender can modify “woman” in the case that the woman in question was assigned male at birth. Transgender can modify “man” in the case that the man in question was assigned female at birth. Transgender can modify “person” when talking about (particularly though not exclusively) nonbinary folks on the trans spectrum. Transgender can modify “people” when talking about a community, and “issues” when talking about issues of concern to the trans community.

Transgender can modify whatever nouns can be used to describe a trans person. Trans mother, trans father, trans political candidate, trans writer, trans blogger, trans journalist, trans veteran, trans student.

Transgender even as an adjective is not always necessary. Woman and man describe trans woman and trans man just fine, and in fact, that's probably better unless the story is somehow about them being trans. And it almost always is about the person in question's trans status, because that is what folks without cis privilege are reduced to.

Describing a person as "a transgender", article and all, is dehumanizing because it makes the person in question less than a noun: it defines them as not a person; they are not even a thing**, a place, or an idea. They are an adjective: one aspect of their life that has been pulled out of context of their humanity to mock and to shock.

Devon puts it this way:
Nouns are the primary components of speech, and they possess greater power and more potential for abuse than any other element. Consider this example: "a black man" versus "a black." The second construction strips the individual of his status as a man, an insidious thing. However, when the same word is used as an adjective modifier the problem disappears; "black" then simply describes the noun "man," the most important component of the sentence. Similarly, when "transsexual" is used as an adjective the implicit meaning changes -- the emphasis is placed on person, man, or woman first, transsexual second.
These words as a word doesn’t exist on its own. It is an adjective, a word used to further describe a person, a noun. Transgender is a quality, not an entity.

Also of importance:

I hate MTF and FTM
Put the Goddamn Space in: “transwoman” “transfeminism” “transmasculine” etc (language politics #1)
"GLBT" newspaper's transmisogynistic framing of assault erases Janey Kay's gender

*Ironically, I’m often using these words as nouns. In their capacity as words, they are nouns, as “run” or “exciting” is a verb or adjective in most contexts but a noun when discussing their qualities and construction as words.
**Describing trans people as "things" is degendering and no better than describing them as "transgenders".


  1. This is really awesome. One minor quibble though: while I do agree that "gender" isn't a verb in the examples you give, I've seen it used as one when talking about gendering other people. IE, assigning them a gender in our heads. Which in itself is a problematic behaviour (witness how often some people I know--and many trans* people I don't--get misgendered). I feel like "gender" is probably the best verb to describe that process, really.

    But that's a quibble. This is a fantastic post.

  2. I love this post, although the list of kinds of people that the word trans* could modify makes me think more of them being transitory whatevers: eg, transitioning to becoming a mother, or a trans candidate: someone who switched political parties halfway through.

    The use of the term "trans" as a way to describe people on the transgender/transsexual/gender queer/beyond spectrum is making it largely irrelevant as a broader prefix, which isn't a bad thing or a good thing, but is sort of a weird thing.

  3. Excellent points, all - I hadn't considered "misgendering", but you're totally right.

  4. Excellent points, all - I hadn't considered "misgendering", but you're totally right.

  5. I just came across this post, and I'm glad I did, even if a bit late. This particular issue - of using transgender as a noun - has bothered me for a long time. Even before I really started making an effort to beter educate myself, that phrase just did not sound correct to me, so how people can still use it is beyond me.

    This was a very well-written post. Would you might if I shared it with the people who are fans of my blog on Facebook?

  6. Not at all, Amelia, in fact I would greatly appreciate it. :) Thanks for your kind words.

  7. If "transsexual" is a noun, "transgender" could be one too.


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