Transgender Language: Tensions with and Responses to Gendered English

The Violet Fairy Book, from the famous series collected by Andrew Lang, gives us a tale in which a princess rescues another princess, they fall in love, and upon their elopement, are cursed by a hermit who turns the rescuer into a man. The ex-princess is delighted at this change, and lives the rest of his life happily with his bride. With just a phrase, intended by the speaker as a hex, the ex-princess found his true self by accident and discovered the way he wanted to live.

To many transgender people who live in the world outside of fairy tales, language is the only means they have of manifesting themselves. It becomes a tool to birth a reality that is in congruence with their own beliefs about themselves. The almost-magical power of choosing their own name (reminiscent of some rites of passage) and proclaiming preference with a certain set of words allows a transgender person to take control of their life and their gender, legitimize themselves in the eyes of their friends and families, and ease the strange jab of tension that is part of the experience of dysphoria. In fact, the social aspect of transition (as opposed to the physical, which may range from haircuts to hormone therapy to gender affirmation surgery), consists almost entirely of making it known what language a transgender person prefers for themselves.

Not only is language key for the comfort of transgender people, but some find parallels between language theories and their feelings about gender. Natalie Reed, a prominent transgender activist and blogger, recognizes the importance of language in her own life, and uses it as a metaphor for her own experiences in her blog post “Signifying Gender.” Many who have not experienced transgenderness in their own life wonder how it is possible to “feel” like a particular gender. Isn’t gender socially constructed? Shouldn’t we be striving for a gender-neutral society? Reed says no.

Like language, while the specifics of gender may be socially constructed and in some way arbitrary, those features don’t make it “meaningless, under our control, or divorced from a phenomenological reality.” She comes to the conclusion that gender itself is a semiotic system or “code”, and therefore almost a form of language, and that our society couldn’t function without gender any more than it could function without language. She believes that it is part of every interaction between human beings, and a key part of the “sameness” or “difference” that we use to understand and express our individuality in relation to other people.

Using Reed’s model, through which we can see the intersections of language and similar systems of social meaning, one can take a closer look at transgender language habits. This speech sub-community is unique, in that their language ideologies differ greatly from the dominant ones. This will manifest itself in the way these people purposely use language. For example, in an effort to create inclusion, transgender people and their allies might say “all genders” instead of “both genders,” as the majority of English-speakers would without compunction. The crusade to create language that transgender people can use comfortably, both in reference to themselves and for other people in the community, has resulted in the creation of a unique lexicon to supplement standard English.

Like in any subculture, a specific vocabulary set is necessary to describe particulars that other people might never encounter or experience, but contemporary transgender people are also influenced by queer theory’s stake in postmodern viewpoints on language. Many have rejected traditional medical and psychoanalytic designations, like “transsexual,” “female-to-male,” and “male-to-female,” in favor of more inclusive terminology like “transgender,” “transmasculine,” and “transfeminine.” Others, who identify with third genders, no gender, or multiple genders, must create names for these concepts that have no traditional English words, like “genderqueer” or “genderfluid.”

A daily, concrete problem that many transgender people are forced to address is the pronouns used for them by others. In particular, non-binary people (those whose genders step outside the dichotomy of male and female) whose preferred pronoun is “they,”are often criticized by prescriptivists, and high school English teachers, for being “incorrect.” Many choose instead invented pronouns like “zhe,” but often their peers and family have trouble using those in a sentence. What are these queer people, who feel the same dysphoria as a result of masculine pronouns as they do feminine pronouns, to do? Hopefully, a trend that has pervaded Baltimore for at least a decade may catch on. In city schools, many youth use the interjection “yo” as a gender neutral singular pronoun instead (“Yo in Baltimore”). Other enterprising queers, dissatisfied with the way they are treated by the inherent gender biases in mainstream English, have constructed their own community-specific languages, often abbreviated to conlangs. Reddit, a popular internet news site and forum, has a community devoted to the hobby. Most are concerned in particular with convenient yet descriptive pronoun use, and others have developed very specific systems for diverse sexual orientations and genders. It is possible that, with enough cooperation, a better system of pronouns might be introduced artificially into the language, as knowledge of and tolerance for transgender people increases.

The way language is actually spoken by transgender people themselves is also a key part of their social interactions. The pitch of one’s voice, as well as the gender stereotypes associated with the methods of communication a person might use, can influence others’ perceptions of that person’s gender. Those who wish to be perceived as a particular gender are encouraged to take on either the “hedging” and submission associated with women’s communication, or the aggression associated with men. Don Kulick notices, in his survey of studies done on transgenderness and language, that most advice for transgender people on how to speak targets transgender women. Transgender women who undergo hormone treatment cannot physiologically make their voices higher, unlike transgender men, whose voices are lowered with testosterone. Many choose to go to speech therapy, to achieve a more typically female voice range, but are also instructed by these professionals on articulation, rhythm, and word choice. Kulick explores the emphasis, to the point of “obsession,” on transgender women’s language. This may have something to do with our culture, in which attention to language and higher communicative competence are considered to be more feminine traits, and women are expected to be more interpersonally dependent and socially aware creatures. No such attention is paid to the speech of transgender men: it may well be that most assume that men’s speech is so simple that no coaching is necessary. This reveals our culture’s biases about gender roles and stereotypes, as perpetuated by professionals in the field of language.

Also affecting the lives of transgender people on a deep level is the narratives that they are expected to hold to, and the discourses our culture uses to address them. Because there can be no medical test or similar external affirmation of one’s gender identity, many people questioning their gender identity expect that they should fit the descriptions that cisgender filmmakers and writers endlessly repeat about trans people. An example is the “man/woman trapped in a woman’s/man’s body” trope, which is harmful because in addition to promoting binarism and excluding those who don’t fit into traditional genders, it implies that one must have a high level of hatred for one’s body (and that is never healthy). Potentially transgender people, who might not feel that this descriptor applies to them, may begin questioning their certainty and continue to feel alienated and confused, and held to impossible internal standards, increasing their psychological stress.

The transgender pride flag
The transgender pride flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These ideas also affect those who love and work with transgender people, like family, friends, and medical professionals. To receive aid from the medical establishment (in matters like obtaining hormone treatment and surgeries) transgender people must repeat their life stories to psychological professionals, who get to “decide” who is really transgender and who isn’t, and thereby function as gatekeepers. Often, these professionals do not specialize in transgender people or their care, and besides owning a copy of the official diagnostic criteria from the DSM-IV, they are as subjected to transgender narratives as anyone else, and often expect certain traits from those arriving in their office seeking referrals. This includes archetypes as well, like, as Natalie Reed describes, the “child who simply knew.” Publicizing only stories of very young transgender people with very strong sense of their gender identities and very high identification with gender roles (playing with dolls, etc) implies to questioning transgender people, and often their health care providers, that those coming out to themselves at twenty, forty, or sixty must not be really transgender (“The Eunuch, The Rapist, The Whore, and The Child Who Simply Knew”). Those in a position of authority in regards to transgenderness, like storytellers and counselors, must be careful of the language they are using to tell transgender stories, and the way it may affect the people who may identify with it.

Hopefully in the twenty-first century, cisgender people will become more educated about transgender issues and queer language will shift towards the center of cultural consciousness, which may unravel some of these twisted ideas and strange tensions that exist in regard to gender identity in our culture and the way we choose to employ our language.



  1. Fascinating article. As a now retired secondary school teacher, I watched as there was a subtle generational shift in a range of attitudes within our school community. As a school in a small Northern Ontario community the cultural diversity is quite different from much larger communities, especially in southern Ontario.

    First there was the inter-racial relationships, black, Asian, and white teens dating and mixing with no one blinking an eye. In my final years of teaching the Ontario government instituted educational laws to encourage the forming gay and transgender .youth clubs/associations. Often, as in our school, they were set-up by the students themselves with a teacher adviser ( as is required of any club or group) with the purpose of welcoming the youth and creating a safe positive environment for social interaction. It also was a means of including those heterosexual youth who wished to support their fiends within the school community.

    What was interesting about the law, was it was so framed that it opened the to other marginalized cultural groups, so at the same time the First nations Aboriginal youth also formed a group and was able to create cultural events, like a school wide Pow-Wow f. Once you open the door of diversit, it is open for all members of the community.

    Thanks for supporting my blog. You may find this post on my Media Literacy blog of interest:

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