On Labels

I’m rereading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, and it’s making me think about labels again: which I take, which I don’t take, why, and what they mean.

The tricky part about labels is that they imply a unified meaning for everyone who uses them, and frankly, that’s not the case. Much of the language transgender folks use to describe our experiences was invented in the last two decades, and most non-trans people don’t know what any of it means since they’ve rarely ever had to use or read it.

My friend Rachel asked me to define genderqueer to her a while ago. It was really hard to do, since I haven’t met a lot of people who are openly genderqueer, who talk about genderqueer stuff a lot, or who even use the word. I think I told her some wrong stuff. I thought genderqueer had more to do with style than identity. And bless her heart, she’s trying to learn. I wanted to honor her request, and I told her what I knew. But perhaps doing something like that–acting like a dictionary or a representative of my people–could be more harmful than helpful in that it supports the belief that trans people are experts on trans people. We’re not. Would you expect every woman to be an expert on feminism? Or every South African person to be an expert on post-colonial politics? Of course you wouldn’t.

Serano uses genderqueer in Whipping Girl more like I would use the term nonbinary. Who of us is wrong? I would actually like for one of us to be wrong, so that the vocab can solidify in the common lexicon. I volunteer to be wrong here.

I suppose the most accurate thing I could do, then, instead of pretending that I am the authority on how every person uses these words, would be to tell you what I mean when I use them. Other people will use them differently.

ALLY PROTIP: The best thing you could do if someone tells you they’re trans or nonbinary or whatever and you don’t completely understand what that means (or even if you think you DO completely understand what that means), would be to ask, “What does that mean to you?” or “Why did you pick that word?” or something of the like. It will give your friend an opportunity to explain hir understanding of how that term describes hir life.

I take these gender labels. I call myself

transgender person

transfeminine

gender dysphoric

nonbinary/genderqueer

gender fluid

depending on what part of my gendered identity I am currently discussing.

I call myself transgender because I’ve felt, for the majority of my life, gender dysphoria: that something is wrong or off or painful about the gender I was assigned at birth and that my body matured into. I would think that’s the most basic common factor between anyone who identifies as transgender: a life of feeling something is wrong about the gender ze was assigned at birth.

I call myself transfeminine because I’m transgender and I lean feminine. I have more of an affinity for stuff our culture traditionally associates with females and femininity than I do for stuff our culture typically associates with males and masculinity. Further, I’m transitioning away from a generally-classified-as male body into having a generally-classified-as female body, and legal identity, and appearance, and manner of behavior, etc. Femininity is the shit yo.

I call myself gender fluid because my experience of gender changes depending on who I’m around, what I’m doing, what’s going on, how I’m feeling, etc. My experience of gender is fluid, not static.

I consider myself politically nonbinary and/or genderqueer because I don’t believe in pre-fab binary genders, I think the gender binary is quite harmful, I don’t believe there are only two genders, I don’t believe anybody IS one gender, I don’t want to have to be forced to pick a gender (though when I am I picked female), I wish our society recognized more than one gender existed, and I want to undermine the influence of the gender binary everywhere.

Gender dysphoria is difficult to describe. I made a post on a different site a while ago about my labels. Here:

I consider myself transgender because my physical gender and identified/subconscious gender are misaligned, and I experience gender dysphoria as an effect of the relationship between them. It’s a very physical, chemical, internal experience. Another way to think of this is that my brain has a map of what it expects to find when it checks to make sure everything is cool with my body every few seconds, and it’s kind of constantly on red alert because it doesn’t find what it expects to. There are other reasons people take this label, but that’s why I do. For me, it’s less about the state of my body and more about my body’s experience of itself.

Having gender dysphoria is the one reason above all else that I consider myself transgender.

Well, those are the labels I take. I am really interested in hearing what labels other folks think and why people take them!

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