The T-word

by Devon

I am not a transsexual. I am transsexual. See the difference? Although it may seem subtle, there is a vast difference, with complex philosophical and social implications. Understanding this difference is essential to understanding ourselves and how we fit into society.

In the first instance, "transsexual" is used as a noun; in the second, as an adjective. One significant problem with use of the noun form is that it replaces gender completely. Instead of being referred to as men and women, or even transsexual men and women, we are called simply transsexuals -- in effect, invalidating our gender. The following exchange between two male characters in a television program I watched recently illustrates this point:

"Who's that woman over there?"

"That's a transsexual."

Notice that his response was not "That's a transsexual woman," or "She's transsexual." The implication is that a transsexual is not a woman. Using "transsexual" as a noun divests people of their basic, essential qualities -- man, woman, or even person. Thus, it dispossesses, and often, dehumanizes. In many cases, that's the objective, the implicit goal.

The power of language to shape perceptions, opinions, and behavior has long been recognized. Thought processes at a basic level are extremely susceptible to manipulation by language. Advertising and political propaganda depend largely on language's ability to influence, for questionable purposes. Likewise, perceptions about those who have changed sex are forged by language. To our detriment, the prevalent use of "transsexual" as a noun has not had a positive impact on these perceptions.

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.

It's important to note that the adjective and noun forms of "transsexual" have different connotations. The adjective's meaning and implications are, by comparison, benign. The noun is easily co-opted as a slur; it lends itself all too readily for use as an epithet. The phrase "That's a transsexual" is easily infused with derogatory implication, and even when this is not the intent an undesirable connotation remains. The adjective form, "That's a transsexual person," has far less power to disparage than does "That's a transsexual," even if that is the speaker's objective. Try saying both phrases yourself, as contemptuously as possible, and compare the slur-quotient of each.

Adding considerably to the problem is the word "transsexual" itself, or more specifically, one of its components. Any noun that ends in "sexual" is unavoidably imbued with a great many negative connotations. "Transsexual" is tainted by this unfortunate characteristic, as are "homosexual" and "bisexual." Somehow this trait ensnares and contaminates us even more when the noun form is used. So that makes three strikes against it.

Popular abbreviations are also a cause for concern: "trannies," "transies," "T's" -- all these terms should make us cringe, for the same reasons as the noun from which they are derived. While we're on the subject, we also should not be enamored with "trans-men," "trans-women," and "trans-people." These labels are subtly denigrating; let's expunge these rascals as well.

Intersexed people faced a similar problem with language when they were called "hermaphrodites." After years of being saddled with this repellent, sinister-sounding label, they finally decided they'd had enough. Letting it be known that the use of "hermaphrodite" was unacceptable, they insisted that "intersexed" should be used instead. (And another struggle may lie ahead for them if the use of "intersexual" as a noun becomes prevelant.) As a result, it has gradually come to be considered insensitive and politically incorrect to use the old term. We should applaud them for recognizing the disservice it caused them and then doing something about it. Furthermore, we need to take a lesson from them; they have shown us it is possible to change the language.

It's crucial that we wake up and realize that language can do us tremendous harm when misused. Sinister things can sometimes be very subtle, and cause great damage before they are perceived as detrimental. For our own well-being we must learn to be discriminating about the use of language as it applies to us. Whether to use a word as a noun or an adjective may seem to be a subtle distinction, and therein lies the danger. Make no mistake about it, the use of "transsexual" as a noun injures us, as individuals and as a group. It is often employed as a weapon by those who seek our destruction. Its use divests us of our identity and personhood, dispossesses us, and vilifies us.

If we show the resolve demonstrated by intersexed people, we can look forward to the day when calling someone a transsexual is seen as politically incorrect. On that day we will have made a significant gain. In the meantime, we must make sure the language we ourselves use does not make us accessories to our own debasement. We are transsexual -- transsexual women, transsexual men, transsexual people. We are not transsexuals.


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