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a note on terms

2009 February 4
by J S

i’ve heard these terms being thrown around in this class. i’d like to bring up my concerns with them. get ready for a lot of quotation marks… 🙂


this is not an appropriate term for people with intersex conditions/disorders of sex development. the term hermaphrodite developed in 19th century medical literature, in which understanding of intersex conditions was extremely limited. technically, the term refers to an organism possessing complete sets of both male and female sexual organs. although some animals and plants can be accurately classified as hermaphrodites, very very few humans have anything resembling this condition. the term fell out of use in the 1950s. “intersex” is generally preferred, although many intersex groups are attempting to phase out that term as well, as it conflates gender/sex identity with a congenital medical condition (refer to Cheryl Chase’s critique).


this one’s a little more contentious, but i still think it’s worth bringing up. generally, i don’t think it’s ever respectful to refer to someone as a noun version of their gender identity, sex, orientation, or gender expression, especially when that noun derives from an “authoritative” dominant discourse (such as medical language). calling people “homosexuals,” “females,” “intersexes” et cetera. is reductive and dehumanizing. it reminds me of 19th century imperialist discourses about race, in which calling whole groups of people “mongoloids,” for instance, was considered a legitimate and scientifically authoritative use of language. in the examples mentioned here, a far more respectful language would employ terms like “gay people,” “women,” “people with intersex conditions,” et cetera.

this is particularly relevant in the trans community, where the umbrella term “transgender” is used, problematically, as a noun to “name” individual people; if that wasn’t silencing enough, the term transgender is itself fraught with a conflicted history of discursive oppression and internal contradictions. the term is a construction of mainstream psychological/social practice, and its basic function is to class all people of “variant” (quotes emphasized!) gender identities, expressions, and histories under a unifying conceptual “identity.” trans people is a less problematic and more accepted term, as it is far less specific, and less dehumanizing; although, if you must, “transgendered people” is a little more acceptable.

in this class, we’ve been talking a lot about “other” people: people who are “differently” gendered, sexed, et cetera. In general, but especially since we are talking about these individuals (rather than with them) from a position of privilege, centrality and majority, i feel that our language should strive for maximum respect and accountability. if not, we are in danger of replicating the oppressive discursive practices that we are (hopefully) setting out to critique here – and which create these problems in the first place.

3 Responses
  1. Ryan permalink
    February 5, 2009

    J S:

    You’ve obviously put a whole lot of time, thought, and care into how words can affect the way people see themselves and those around them. That’s really incredible, and kind — thank you for that. Sincerity is hard to get across in text … but really, I mean that.

    I would urge you to reconsider your statement that, in class, you are talking “about these individuals (rather than with them).” There are as many identities in the world as there are people. No two people are exactly the same; we all know what it’s like to be different, whether or not that difference is visible on the surface.

    While “striving for maximum respect and accountability” is certainly a commendable goal, I must disagree that it’s either that or “replicat[e …] oppressive discursive practices.” False binary, anyone? There’s a whole lot of middle ground in between those two points, and it’s in the middle ground where true discourse happens. Everyone needs to be willing to keep an open mind; everyone needs to be respectful of difference, and forgiving of mistakes and missteps. Communication is not the responsibility of one party; it’s not up to the non-trans folks to be trip over themselves to be respectful while trans folks correct every noun and pronoun.

    I can only speak for myself, but I am personally more offended when others see fit to treat me with kid gloves, than when someone uses “the wrong pronoun.” I understand and very much appreciate that your intention is to make those who have historically been treated with disdain, or who have been silenced, to feel comfortable. But making everybody ELSE uncomfortable isn’t necessarily the answer. An eye for an eye …

    As for me? Well, Ryan’s my legal name, but my Dad still calls me Erin, my mom sometimes calls me Morgan (my sister’s name), my grandparents call me Slash, and my best friends call me Tranny Bitch. Any of the above’ll do just fine …


  2. Anne permalink*
    February 5, 2009

    thanks, js, for attending to terms.

    words matter.

    i’d add, to your cautions, the idea that what counts as respectful is itself contentious; i used to say “trans people” and “transgendered individuals”–until a few months ago, when transgendered individual told me it was far more respectful to use “transgender” as a noun instead of an adjective; doing so, si felt, gave weight/realness/respectability to the category si was claiming; it ceased to be a descriptor, and became the thing itself. but then another transgender gave me hell for using that noun, because she was a woman, not occupying a category inbetween, and wanted to be named as woman.

    There was even a group called Hermaphrodites with Attitude
    that flourished–in a self-conscious “re-claiming of the negative term” position–up @ least through 2005….

    so, yes, let’s be thoughtful about the words we use. and call people what they want to be called. but also recognize that what works, and what signals respect, alters not only over time, but from individual to individual…

  3. Anne permalink*
    February 6, 2009

    A report on what I just learned from Patricia Williams about liberation (like respect?) looking different in different contexts. Go see, and let’s keep on talking about this a little more….?

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