When columnists try to get funny about ‘trans’ :: A lesson in language

When I started writing the W24.co.za sex column (then Women24.com) in 2009 I had no idea just how far down the rabbit hole it would take me.

Very unexpectedly, I started taking this shit seriously – seriously enough to start getting pissed off with bad, misguided, narrow-minded or ignorant information touted in South Africa by doctors, ‘doctors’, opinionistas and the like.

For example, sex therapists who extrapolate personality types from sex positions; heavily PR’d books that make big statements about cheating, for example, but draw their stats from disqualified sources, such Ashley Madison, for example; and goddess authors who slate women activists for making their voices heard in protest, for example…

BUT.

Since our country is a small little fishbowl, and the players in this arena few, I thought I would err on the side of support rather than calling out each verbal and conceptual piece of poo that crossed my path.

However.

At the beginning of the year I decided I wouldn’t shut up anymore. I wouldn’t concern myself with the goings on on Twitter and Facebook, I decided, since there is literally too much shit to wade through there, but if I saw something published, I told myself, I would Have A Word on my Blog.

And then today’s Sunday Times landed on my table with a column called ‘When transition turns into a verb’ by Paige Nick.

Now. I have written only one column about trans matters before – and then only to explain ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ and that it was a boiling mess of confusion for most heteronormative cis peeps who start educating themselves about this.

In general, I tend to keep a low profile on this matter, because gender is a deeply complex conversation that I’m still learning to navigate myself, and frankly there are people in far better positions to speak about the topic than I am.

But every now and then a really good learning moment presents itself and it seems only fitting to say something.

In offering her views on the journey of a trans man, and in an attempt to be funny I assume, Nick’s column is one problematic statement after the other. And I’d like to unpack some of it for you, so that you can be aware of how ignorance shapes language and then perpetuates itself in mass media.

A note though: These comments only cover the wide and general base. It is not an inclusive or even nearly comprehensive answer to all the different gender and sex identities and expressions that abound. But it’s a good start. 


‘A close friend’s sister is on a journey to transition into being a man. She’s on testosterone and meeting with surgeons, and I can see on Instagram that her jaw has widened and I hear that her voice is deeper.’

Someone who identifies with a particular gender is respected with the pronoun of their gender. In this case, the trans man that finds himself in a female body is referred to as ‘he’: ‘He is on testosterone and meeting with surgeons.’

A close friend’s (trans) brother.

His transitioning process involves hormone therapy and possible sex reassignment surgery or gender confirmation surgery so that his body reflects his gender.

If you want to refer to the sex, you can say: ‘He is transitioning to a male body’.

In basic binary terms: Male/female = sex. Man/Woman = gender.

Of course, it could be perfectly possible that the person in question has chosen to refer to herself as ‘she’ until ‘she’ has fully transitioned. But since he has started the sex realignment process, it seems unlikely, and if there was this level of sensitivity to the person being written about, a mention of this choice would’ve been appropriate.

If you’re not sure: they/their or simply ASK the person you’re speaking to what pronouns they use.

‘When I picked his brains about it, my friend’s husband was conflicted. He said: “I’m a manly guy, I surf and ride bikes, but I’m honestly not sure why she wants to be a man.”‘

While it’s always good and necessary to get a hetero cis man’s opinion about gender stereotypes and the value of people’s choices over their own bodies (God knows we don’t have enough of their opinions), ‘she’ doesn’t ‘want to be a man’, ‘she’ is a man. He is a man.

Possibly a better choice for comment would’ve been the person in question.

‘My friend has some reservations too, she loves her sister and wants her to be happy and comfortable, but she’s concerned; once she’s on the other side of her transition she will be a white male lawyer in South Africa, fighting for gender equality as an ex-woman’

Jirre. Where to start with this.

Let’s repeat: ‘Once HE has gone through the process of creating the body that matches HIS gender…’

A note about being on the ‘other side’ of ‘the transition’. For one thing, not all trans people undergo sex reassignment. It is a wild and immense process that not every trans person feels they need to undergo to feel whole. Many don’t have the resources for it. It doesn’t make this person any less the gender they identify with.

In this case, HE is already HIM. HE is not SHE who will suddenly become HE because of ‘wide jaw’ or a ‘deep voice’. There is no ‘ex-woman’.

The only ‘other side’ is a place where his body feels more comfortable to him.

And he will be a white male lawyer in South Africa? Wow. Like a gazillion other lawyers in South Africa… but he will be fighting for gender equality… I really don’t see the problem here.

‘And if you think renewing your passport at home affairs on a regular day is challenging, try it with a new face, a new name and a new voice…’

Wow. Badumtoosh. Now for extra LOLs imagine a person choosing to NOT go through sex reassignment surgery, but still wanting to change their name. So hilar. Try THAT idea for kicks cisgender people who enjoy all kinds of privileges but hate the nuisance of standing in icky home affairs queues. Ha ha.

Except that this very thing is a major protest point for gender activists in this country and others. It sits at the very heart of the stigma and shaming that many trans folks have to endure.

‘Plus she’s married to a woman, so after the transition they’ll be heterosexuals…’

He’s married to a woman. Whether or not his partner will identify as hetero is really not an assumption you can make.

‘I’m no expert…’

yes well I think that much is clear

‘but that feels like a step backwards.’ 

What does this even mean? That ‘they’ll be heterosexuals’ will be a ‘step backwards’?

For a couple to stick by each other through a revelation and/or a process of transitioning like this is testament not only to their commitment and love for each other, but to each individual’s capacity to evolve and expand their views on sexual and relational being in the world. Seriously what the fuck.

‘It feels like trans and gender questioning is so trending right now. It’s a bit like tattoos were 15 years ago, a statement that was with you for life, until they figured out how to reverse it.’

This sentence had my blood boiling. I don’t know if Nick is trying to be funny here, but if so it only serves to amplify the general tone of blind ignorance and prejudice in this column.

‘Trans’ and ‘gender questioning’ are not ‘trending’ like ‘tattoos’ did. I know fashion magazines and agencies might confuse this as a on-trend statement for the 2010–2020 season, but I think you’ll find, if you read a book or two, or maybe speak to people who identify as trans or queer even, that it’s not a funny little quirk they’re going to want to reverse when they grow up and before they settle into being good, proper cisgender people.

‘Caitlyn Jenner and the popular TV series Transparent have all done more to popularise, normalise, and remove the stigma from the transgender community in the last three years than we’ve managed in decades.’ 

Read up on Alexis Arquette, Laverne Cox, Andreja Pejic, Buck Angel, the Wachowski sisters and Chaz Bono for public media figures who have been doing a lot for quite a few years. Not to mention the thousands of activists, support groups and brave trans people who have been building networks for decades, if not centuries.

I think you’ll have to agree, given the preceding sentences, that ‘removing the stigma’ and ‘normalising’ are not really astute observations on this column’s part.

‘We live in an incredible world. Women who no longer want to be women can transition into men. Men who no longer want to be men can grow breasts. And people who no longer want to be decent can be US politicians. It’s not easy or cheap, but it’s possible.’

Good Lord.

A trans man is not a woman who no longer wants to be a woman. It is a man whose gender does not identify with his female body. Maybe he will undergo hormone therapy or surgery. Maybe he will do both or a bit of both. Maybe he will only change his name.

A trans woman is not a man who no longer wants to be a man. It is a woman whose gender does not identify with her male body. Maybe she will undergo hormone therapy or surgery. Maybe she will do both or a bit of both. Maybe she will only change her name.

To be sure, not all transgender people know from the moment they’re able to identify an ‘I’ that they’re ALLOWED to feel what they feel and so might take many years to come to terms with their identity.

I don’t think I have to repeat myself with the pronouns and the blunt jab at body parts as being indicative of gender, but to imply that choosing to undergo sex reassignment surgery so that your body matches your gender is on the same continuum as corrupt and indecent US politicians is a shallow and malicious stretch.

And I’m going to pretend that Nick didn’t actually just equate a trans person to Donald Trump. But hey, it’s like getting a tattoo right, so who knows…

‘What would I choose if I had the opportunity to transition?’

The last bit of the column has her toying with the idea of ‘transitioning’ to aliens, dogs, cats and toddlers (cos, totally the same thing ammirite ha ha ha…) – a selection of standalone topics that Nick should probably confine her future prattles to.

Anyway.

As a columnist I understand how tricky it can be to think of new and relevant topics for an extended period of time. When it comes to sex and relationships, especially, I know that sometimes its easier to slip into tap-dancing levity about serious matters that involve real people. There are columns I wrote that I no longer agree with and columns I feel uncomfortable having written. People have put me straight, pointed out flaws or offered their points of view.

As a columnist, this is what you can expect when you put your two cents forward and one can take what serves you and leave what doesn’t.

But I’m hoping that this has been informative for you, dear cis plum, who might publish your own thoughts somewhere – yup Facebook and Twitter even is publishing – that you will consider your language before talking about trans people and their experiences. Do what you must do, opinionate as much as you like, but please don’t spread stigma with misinformed and problematic language.

That’s my soap box pitch for this week folks. From here on out you can expect more of my unsolicited opinion on local media boo boos when it comes to sex and relationships. After all, I gotta get my kicks somewhere…

Love and tugs always,
dot

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