Living Gender: Labels – Being Politically Correct and Queerly Correct

This post is part of the Gender Celebration Carnival. Check it out and consider joining in the next one! Be sure to also visit Ellie Lumpesse my predecessor in the carnival (and curator) and then on the 9th will be something from Curvaceous Dee.

Once long ago I wrote up a post about navigating genderqueer identities for the cis/hetero/suburban person.  In my post one scenario I referred to was a person who worked in my building and was currently transitioning from male to female. I assigned the term, for ease and speed of speech/wording “MTF”. Or maybe it was an already-transitioned (if it weren’t for the feminine name plate on the cubicle you’d not have known) FTM where I worded it so that one single person took great exception to my using that label/term. They said it was offensive to all who are in some stage of transitioning from cis-female to male and that I should have used the (lesser known to me, a clueless cis-female) term “female assigned at/before birth”. To be honest I had never once heard that term and I do read blogs (and interact with on Twitter) a few people whose gender is not necessarily what meets the eye. But boy, that last line just smacks of “I’m not homophobic, one of my best friends is gay!” oye.

“Tranny” is offensive, “shemale” is offensive (is it? I mean, it’s used SO much in porn, but I personally find it offensive). I get that, I accept that. There is a huge spectrum of gender roles at work here and so many, many labels that can/should be used. What about the butch woman who is so very masculine and butch that they “pass” as male? Or the cis-male who simply likes dressing up as a woman sometimes, and has no intention of living full time as a woman or transitioning in other ways to being female? What about the transitioning woman I used to work with who was visibly male-to-female transitioning? And there really is a whole spectrum of trans, from those who pursue no medical interventions to help them appear physically as the gender they are to those who use hormones, cosmetic surgery and even sexual reassignment surgery.

Am I being offensive by even using the terms MALE and FEMALE no matter how I try to be PC and GC and sex-positive and sensitive? I’m trying to throw in the “cis” to be more accurate and such but I feel like that’s almost disingenuous. Or is it? I was born female, I was raised female, I identify as female. “F” is my gender, through and through. “F” is my sex.

Is there proper terminology? Is there something that offends no one? And in case it even matters, the person who was offended by my original post was a straight, cis-gendered female who admitted that she “in no way speaks for trans people”. Enlighten me, everybody, is “FTM/MTF” really that fucking questionable or offensive? And if one person doesn’t think so but another does, how am I to write to appease everybody? I don’t like offending people but yet there has to be a line drawn somewhere where enough is enough and can’t context and intent be taken into account? Not a single person could dare claim that in my aforementioned post I used the terms in a derogatory manner, meant to offend. I just simply did not have the exposure/knowledge to know all 16 other abbreviations and terms (and even if I did, would I have had to trot them all out with an apology to those offended by one of the 16 terms?). Why do I care? Because I do. Because, as difficult and frustrating as it might be, I don’t want to leave out anybody the few times I dare to branch out and write about a gender other than the two I’m most familiar with.

I have a lot of question marks in this post. I’m hoping that my confusion and questioning sparks dialogue and opinion and maybe some answers. I encourage discussion and comments here and if something sparks enough in you to write your own post about it please come back and tell me.


6 Responses

  1. Molls says:

    I was just having this conversation the other night. A group of us were at a bar with two bathrooms, one male and one female. We got into this discussion about how this was completely inefficient. It’s a single stall so here’s no need to segregate gender. And I pointed out how this discriminates against people who don’t identify as one gender or the other very neatly.

    No one in my very liberal, progressive group had a good answer about how to properly refer to people who don’t fit into the gender binary. Should census form have “Male, Female, Other” as options? Isn’t “Other” exclusive in and of itself?

    ~ That was something I found myself wondering too, at #mcon, where there were a number of trans people or just butch women and the way they presented physically did not match up with “female”. I have such empathy for those who have to deal with making that choice, because no matter which one they pick someone will think they’re wrong.

  2. DDog says:

    Some people even go so far as “coercively assigned [female/male] at birth,” or CAMAB and CAFAB for short.

    I think there’s an urge to talk about classes of people. Labels are useful as long as they’re not imprisoning. Broadly, people with different attributes experience the world in different ways. Some of these attributes are given more weight than others which makes them more difficult to talk about and makes it easier to hurt people. Eventually, one founders on another’s pain, ever-narrowing categories, or the sense that none of it is real and it’s impossible to say anything about the world.

    FAAB/MAAB or CAMAB/CAFAB are used to draw attention to the roles doctors and hospitals play in determining sex and gender, to the fact that one doesn’t get to choose the gendered messages one receives for a number of years after birth, to the reality for many people that gender is a violent and oppressive system, to how poorly the prevailing paradigm of binary gender fits many people, to society’s attribution of one’s gender having not much to do with oneself in the end.

    As a cis person, you don’t have to keep your finger on the pulse of language coming from the trans community; it’s not like trans people can all agree on what the best words to use with us are. But does help for you to listen, observe, learn, consider and share the issues that the language supports or undermines, so please continue.

    And ask people. If you’re writing or speaking about someone and something about their gender or history is relevant, ask them how best to describe them in particular. It may align with the words you’ve been using in general or it may be something new, but in the end it is their decision and your responsibility as an ethical and caring human being to respect it.

    ~ To me, a label is like a clothing label. It helps me understand how to treat something. I like (most) labels. I am very appreciate of your comment, your input is very valuable here and exactly what I was hoping to hear from people. Thank you for taking the time.

  3. Ellie says:

    I think you’re getting excellent responses to this question above. It all seems to distill down to, “ask questions before you guess wrong.” In my experiences most people are receptive to answering honest questions about what pronouns they use or how they describe themselves. They will also correct you when you make mistakes. The key thing (which you already seem very clued into) is to acknowledge it graciously when you make a mistake and make an effort to use the preferred terminology when it is described to you.

    Thank you so much for participating in the Carnival. I hope you’ll continue to be involved with it as it grows.

  4. K says:

    All very good responses :)
    I’m genderfluid, so I know a bit about this.

    Generally, in my circles MAAB and FAAB are preferred.
    However, plenty of binary trans folks use MtF or FtM instead, if that’s what they find easier/more comfortable. There’s nothing explicitly wrong with it- the only thing offensive was the ciswoman commentator, trying to be a trans authority

    From my knowledge, binary trans folks tend to use MtF/FtM. Occasionally there’s ItM/ItF as well, for Intersex folks. (although never FtI or MtI, due to the underlying appropriation)
    (And ItFtM or ItMtF or ItFtI/ItMtI, since many intersex people undergo forced (and illegal!) medical transisitions as children and grow up to discover they are not the gender that was decided for them)

    MAAB and FAAB seem tied to NonBinary people if they want to say ‘I have these genitals, and they are my genitals, and because I am nonbinary so are my genitals, however most of society would see them as female/male’
    So often it’s used to make sure people realize that we are trans and that our bodies are trans, because quite often trans people have to deal with “What are you /Really/”, and MAAB and FAAB are quite good, neutral terms to use.

    Yeah, the overall term used for people who aren’t male/female is nonbinary. Theres lots of flavours of nonbinary, of course, but that’s the catch-all.

    So yes, unless a person specifically tells you “This is how I like to be referred to”, FtM and MtF are still pretty safe bets.

    ~ Wow, thank you so much for that detailed comment. Truly, info I didn’t even know about.

  5. Bianca says:

    Thank you! I had a similar post on my blog that received the same variety of negative feedback for terms that were considered offensive or outdated. I have heard of Male/Female Assigned At Birth, but have never felt comfortable using the terms in conversation. Not sure why.

    I had a pretty nasty altercation with a trans* person in Kenya, where ze accused me of being a bad ally, which led me to realize that essentially, you’ve just got to do the best you can with being PC and understand that the people who get offended are only biting themselves in the foot for spitting on an ally who-at the core of it- is only trying to help.

    In my opinion, any ally is a good ally, whether or not the terminology they use is perfect.

  6. Alex says:

    Part of the underlying issue is that vocabulary for trans and gender diverse people has been evolving fairly quickly, as we have found our voices and ways to be heard/hear each other.

    On one hand, I think that allies who make a good-faith effort to use appropriate terminology, who can ask when they are not sure, and who can accept correction if make a mistake – either with a term in general or with one particular person – are doing an amazing job. There is a lot of variety in what’s offensive; there are some people who are legitimately triggered by some words, and folks that just like jumping down your throat.

    With regards to MtF/FtM… I do still sometimes use “FtM” because it’s one of the most well-known terms (and there is something to be said for utility!), but I don’t like it personally, and I think the movement away from those terms is part of the community’s growing ability to express ourselves, rather than *explain* ourselves to cis people. As Eusi and DDog kind of touched on – I feel like describing me as “female” – even in past tense – is privileging the doctor’s experience of me over my own. Regardless of how I looked, or what I did during the years it took me to figure out, my brain has always been male.