Here’s a piece Helen Boyd wrote for her blog; she asked me to add a postscript, which of course rapidly swelled to a thing larger than Helen’s original. Submitted for your consideration.
By Helen Boyd and Jennifer Finney Boylan.
I’m well aware that the term “transgendered” is objected to by some for a variety of reasons. Most of us who did use it once upon a time have dropped it; Jenny Boylan, for instance, changed all of the instances of “transgendered” in her 10th anniversary edition of She’s Not There to “transgender” instead. I haven’t used it on my blog or in my writing for years.
But here’s the thing: interpreting any use of it as some kind of bad faith politics is also a mistake, because it was an acceptable form for many years. The reason some of us chose it – and again, I’ll cite Boylan and me, along with theorists like McKenna and Kessler – was for grammatical reasons.
Adding an “ed” to a verb is a common way to come up with a past participle in English, and past participles then function as adjectives. If you ice your tea, for instance, afterwards you’ve iced your tea, and so wound up with “iced tea”. It’s not complicated. You can do it with a lot of verbs – different verbs become adjectives/past participles in different ways – when you break a toy, it becomes a broken toy, because broke is, for whatever reasons, the past tense of “break”.
Some of these uses have become problematic, but the one I see cited most is “colored” of course, which was used to talk about African Americans and others marginalized by the color of their skin. It’s no longer acceptable because it implied that white people, for instance, have no color – but of course we do. That said, there are neutral ways you can use colored: you could, of course, color a picture in a coloring book, and so wind up with a colored picture.
It was the same idea. Gender is a verb. You can gender an infant (“it’s a girl!”) or degender a pronoun (My pronoun is “they” because I identify as genderqueer.) The logic then was that you could transgender something; you can find it used as a verb (“transgendering”) in the work of McKenna & Kessler, who did some of the first, best work on degendering and on trans issues – work that influences the likes of Kate Bornstein, for instance. And while it strikes an odd note now, for the people who were first writing about these issues, no one knew what the grammar was; we were making it up as we went along. So, if “gender” could be a verb, and made into a past participle (Most children are gendered by others when they’re born”) and so into an adjective: transgendered.
That’s all. It was a grammatical choice. It was neutral. That it’s now seen as implying more than that – the same way colored came to – is how this community has chosen to interpret it. As I said before, most of us who did use it don’t anymore because of the way its interpretation changed. “Transgendering” in McKenna & Kessler struck me as odd, too, when I first read them, but there is no doubt their work is trans affirming and trans inclusive.
So, if you would, don’t automatically judge the author of a work that uses this term. It has fallen out of fashion but it’s still in an awful lot of literature by people who were (1) trans themselves, and (2) trans positive. When people use it now it’s often because they’ve seen it elsewhere; it takes time for bad usages to work their way out of the lexicon, just as it takes a long time for some words to work their way in.
Postscript by Jennifer Finney Boylan:
I agreed to write a few words on this topic for my old friend Helen Boyd, whom I would also like to say, has been doing work to support the loved ones of trans people longer than anyone else I know about. Our books— her “My Husband Betty,” and my “She’s Not There” were published within a few months of each other in 2003, and since then as authors we have kind of been like a pair of babies born in the same hospital. It has been an honor to me to share a bookshelf with her for these many years.
Neither of us, I think, could have predicted how much progress would have been made on behalf of trans people (and their loved ones) when we first started writing our books. It has been amazing and heartening, and I am sure that, while downplaying our own individual roles in this movement, we would both still agree that one of the galvanizing forces in this progress has been the courage of individuals who stepped forward and told their stories, at a time when there was no public language for talking about trans issues.
I used “transgendered” back in the day because because—as Helen notes, “gender” is a verb, unlike “gay” for instance. (A bicycle, for instance, is gendered; but a bicycle cannot be “gayed,” at least not unless you start singing it show tunes.) Plus, it’s the word my own therapist used; I did not know when I began that I could challenge the discourse. I was very polite back then.
I did begin to hear about trans peoples restlessness with the term within a few years after my own book (which I abbreviate as SNoT) was published. I pushed back for a while against the criticism (being a professor of English), but finally came to accept that “transgender” or “trans” really had become the acceptable parlance by the middle of the last decade. I did indeed change the words in the 10th anniversary edition of SNoT, even when many other things about that book that I wish I’d said differently remained unaltered.
In thinking about language, and the way it morphs, I sometimes think about the new landscaping that was put in at the school where I used to teach. They put the new lawn in after a period of construction, but didn’t put the paths in until the following year. The reason? The architects wanted to see where people would walk, before they made the sidewalks. And so, after a year of seeing the natural paths formed by the shoes of people using the space, the paths were put in along those lines. I think language is like this too— it can take a while to figure out where the paths go, especially when we are finding a new route across uncharted territory.
I’d also note that no one is harder on the trans community than the trans community itself. We are relentless in our desire to tell others that They Are Doing It Wrong; that being trans is not That but This; that living in our world demands constant vigilance and apology and fury. As someone involved in this work for fifteen years now, I understand the urgency of being seen (and spoken of) in the terms which we define. But I also feel that we would all benefit from a little more love, starting with the love we might show each other. There is no one right way of being trans, and there is no one right path to tread. This is true not only in our language, but in our hearts as well— the place where that language finds its source.
In the new prologue to SNoT, I also recalled the story of the author James Thurber, who was told at a party in Paris how much funnier his stories were in French than English. “Yes, I know,” said Thurber. “They do tend to lose something in the original.”