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We’ve demonstrated quite a few times here at DDP that we’re particularly adamant in the belief that words matter. Language can shape how we feel about ourselves, how others perceive us, and even the tone and course of societal ideas. Language can be used to uplift individuals and communities, organize and inspire entire social movements, devastate our emotions, and yes, even as a tool for dehumanization.

Language is particularly important to social justice movements because it’s often used as one of the most insidious forms of oppression. Hurtful and oppressive language has been and is used by explicit racists, misogynists, and LGBTQIA-antagonists to assert superiority and to actively erode the will, mental health, and perceived humanity of the groups they antagonize. Thankfully the number of those people is shrinking (though can still absolutely be found, and are still a danger in our society), as is our general tolerance of the hate that they profess.

But oppressive and offensive language is commonly used by implicit oppressors as well, meaning people that say “lighten up” or “that’s just the way it is”. People who cling to biological determinism or who “don’t see race”. Everyday sexism, benevolent sexism, and microaggressions of all kinds can fall under this category. Implicit oppressors usually “don’t mean to offend or oppress” but that plausible deniability is what makes it so insidious. By not challenging the norms of an unequal society AND using language that apes or reinforces explicit oppressors we are only allowing that oppressive society to persist.

I’d like to talk now about one particular linguistic tweak that we can all make that will help us on the path to not being implicit oppressors, and that’s “people-first language”. Now, if you’re already familiar with this concept and are about to close this browser tab please stick around because I hope to also provide some nuance and complexity to the subject that you’ll appreciate!

Earlier this week The Transadvocate posed a question to their Facebook group:

Someone says, “We can say ‘lesbians’ so why can’t we say ‘transgenders?’” What is your response?

The question got the usual flood of responses criticizing noun/verb/adjective usage, sexuality vs. gender, and “because when trans people say it’s offensive then it’s offensive” which are fine but none of them really tackle the question in a satisfying and representative way for me. As a person who lives on the internet who generally thinks language (in the grammatical sense) shouldn’t be prescriptive (hello! science is a verb now!) I respect but don’t put too much stock in arguments of noun/verb/adjective usage, especially when it relates to personal and conceptual subjects.

Illustration of a cat flying through space with a jet pack above the words "Science Is A Verb Now"

Thanks to Jeph Jacques of the webcomic Questionable Content for this wonder

I also don’t think the sexuality vs. gender argument is sufficiently[1] relevant in this case because the question wasn’t really talking about a conflation of separate identities, it’s a question linguistic implication. And finally, the “because we said it’s offensive” should absolutely be sufficient in my opinion, however the beauty and frustration of social justice movements is that they are not united fronts. Making broad statements is inevitably non-representative and, as I witnessed in the comments on Facebook, there will always exist people within a group who find things not offensive. That can lead to tone-policing and tokenism whereby a non-trans person uses a word that a trans person finds offensive and the non-trans person says “but my friend/random internet person says it’s not offensive [to them], so you need to lighten up!” which is a classic derailing technique.

Let’s take a look at our culture and try to answer the original question, why do so many trans people find “transgenders” offensive, and why there are better ways to words. While the American Medical Association has made some progress through the years, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) still classifies being trans as a type of mental illness. With the persistent stalling of the ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) in congress the United States still doesn’t have even basic federal anti-discrimination protections for people based on gender identity or gender presentation. Depending on which state you go to there are wildly different laws about what services, protections, and rights trans people can have. Regardless of personal identity or legal documentation trans people who are arrested are routinely placed in facilities based solely on their genitals. Trans women are more likely to be victims of anti-LGBTQIA hate crimes than other groups and that rises significantly for trans women of color. Trans women of color are also sent to prison for fighting back against hate-violence (CeCe McDonald) or even just for daring to exist in the world (Monica Jones).

These factors and MANY others contribute to a culture that pathologizes, erases, or abhors non-cisgender identities. Slurs like tr***y and sh*-*ale are unapologetically used and defended by cisgender people. And with no protections, trans people face the very real risk of social, physical, and/or economic devastation for speaking up and advocating for themselves. It all betrays a society that tells trans people that they are something less than human and that they are undeserving of respect and equal rights and protections, and then side-eye reminding them that if they say they ARE human and they DO deserve rights they will likely face some sort of violence.

This is finally where people-first language comes in. In the face of such systemic violence (and yes, social and economic oppression are considered violence) it’s natural for a group to want to forcefully declare their humanity. To say “I am a person and I demand you treat and respect me as one”. Referring to a group as “transgenders”, once the context of all of that culture I described above is taken into account, is one more way of saying “you are defined only and entirely by this one aspect of your identity. You’re not a complex human being, you are an ‘other’ and you don’t belong.” Instead, by referring to an individual[2] as a trans person, or a person who is trans, or the trans community, trans-men, trans-women, trans people of color, or lots more variations on the theme you are implying that you have at least the most basic understanding that they are something more complicated and unique than one single thing. That is to say, a person.

People first language pops up in many other communities as well including the umbrella terms “people of color”[3] and “people with disabilities” which are also partially used as a reminder to society that the complexity and diversity of humanity should be recognized and respected.

But even within these communities there is nuance to the issue that make these terms and this format not a set-it-and-forget-it solution. The autism rights movement rejects the term “people with autism”, asserting that such language implies that autism can be separated from the person. The National Federation for the Blind adopted a resolution in 1993 expressing vehement non-identification with people-first language. The deaf community has generally chosen to adopt deaf-first language as a source of positive identity and pride (“deaf/hard of hearing person”).

So you might say “What the damn do I do then?! There’s so much going on that I’m never going to get it right so why even bother?” and my answer is deviously simple:

USE YOUR WORDS

If the individual or community to which you’re referring is present, ask them how they prefer to be referred to! If they’re not, and they’re not one of the exceptions I mentioned above, try out people-first (or people-somewhere) language as your default. If someone approaches you and says “hey, the language you’re using is offensive to me or others” then thank them and ask if there is preferred language (protip: if they aren’t polite and instructive when calling you out don’t flip. Remember all that culture I talked about earlier, thank them, and try to correct yourself.)

You might just find that making a conscious effort to always refer to all types of people as people will open up a wide window into the vast complexity and beauty of humanity.


[1] I say “sufficiently” because this confusion is still alive in our society which makes it relevant, but just not completely satisfying as a stand-alone argument

[2] One should also question if the context of the reference even requires the qualifier of “trans” in the first place. Are you talking about a beach trip you took last weekend with your trans friend? Then just say friend, as if they were any old normal person. Because they are.

[3] The term “people of color” has a long history and was adopted for many complex and intersectional reasons. While I’m using it here for illustrative purposes, I don’t wish to devalue that important history so please read up on it. I’ll start you off with this quick video!

Here are some things: