Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On Language: keeping "gender" specific

I have written a lot on this blog about the need for clear and concise language when discussing issues relating to the legal, medical, and sociological effects of our identities. This post is specifically about transgender identity and language issues, but I think this need to use accurate language applies across many identities.

A recent article originally published in the Matangi Times and a Huffington Post blog from June outline these issues for me. The Matangi Times article focused on a group of men and transwomen from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands and New Zealand with HIV or AIDS who also have sex with men. The participants, like so many groups in the US, are struggling with the issue of self-identification. Terms such as gay, transgender, and bisexual don't quite speak to their experiences, and years of war and colonization have led to the erasure of any non-Western influenced words. Using words influenced by Western culture ignores the specificity of their experience, but likewise reaching into the past for language doesn't correctly identify current experiences. The article summarizes this very well:
“Participants…stressed the need to identify an appropriate and culturally sensitive terminology for 'MSM' and 'Transgender' in the Pacific Island Region. But the participants acknowledged that coming up with such a term was no easy task and would require further dialogue.”
In the Huffington Post blog the same importance of language is highlighted but without the respect for difference. In this article Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign blogs about the importance of the Transgender Workplace Discrimination hearings but refers to them as the Gender Identity Discrimination hearings. Now the meaning here is extraordinarily different, and I think that very few people understand the huge level of difference between transgender and gender identity. Everybody has a gender identity. Not everybody is transgender. Therefore bills such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would protect all people from gender identity discrimination - not just transgender people. After all, transgender people can be discriminated against because of sex, race, ability etc. In fact, a recent court case out of Texas summarized this exactly when the Southern District Court of Texas ruled that a transwoman was discriminated against because of sex, as she didn’t look like a “traditional man”. In a reverse version of this, Khadijah Farmer, the butch cigender lesbian booted from a woman’s bathroom, suffered gender identity discrimination when she didn’t look like a “traditional woman”.

One of the things that irked me throughout the entire ENDA campaign is the consistent replacement in both LGBT and non-LGBT press of “gender identity” with “transgender”. No matter how many times transgender advocates patiently explained the differences to reporters the terms remained conflated. Gender identity non-discrimination has been equated to only discriminating against transgender people, and this has created a jargon where a universal discrimination became specific to a much smaller population. Now, when that population wants to have a day in court specific to discussions of their personal discrimination, the language is reversed. All of a sudden someone attempts to universalize the day through labeling it the “Gender Identity Discrimination” hearings, yet it doesn’t even achieve that universality. As the participants telling personal stories were all transgender – or transsexual – identified, gender identity discrimination once again looked like transgender-specific discrimination. The majority of these participants revealed stories specific to gender identity discrimination, but it’s possibly that the trans women suffered from sex discrimination as well (after all, working at NASA or in construction isn’t “traditional” for a woman) and Diego Sanchez has already discussed his encounters with racial discrimination.

I’m happy that the HRC is trying to get back on board with transgender and gender variant folks, but I think they should leave these discussions to the people with the right ability to discuss them – folks from the National Center for Transgender Equality, the various state-wide Transgender Political Coalitions, and the Center for Lesbian Rights – just to name a few. By letting the people who understand these issues the most lead, we will ensure that the discussions reflect the reality of all constituents, and that the best possible language is used.

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