Navigating The Transgender and Non Comforming Language Trail
The path into adulthood is a fluid and progressive state into stability. We start our lives as chaotic sponges, attempting to absorb answers to the questions that come up when we experience life. Is that right? Is that wrong? How do I do this? How do I acquire that? How do I respond to this? Why? The questions and answers mold us into the person we become as an adult. Variable responses give way to preset responses with time as repetition does its magic on the brain.
The sources we seek to answer our questions within the context of language, the origins of information, vary almost as greatly as the amount of questions. Some simply ask someone else. Their parent or parents maybe. Maybe a religious leader of some sort. Maybe an arrival of conclusion based on perspective, calculation, empathy, experience, or all of the above. Between these sources of information and many more is an infinite number of combinations that get molded by our core psychology into acceptable answers. The one thing that is present through out the question and answer process is language. Language helps us to present and process every single idea. Indeed language is at the very core of our thinking. Ever try to express an idea to yourself without using language? Try it as a thought experiment. It's not easy.
Hidden within the questions and answers that we receive or come up with, hidden in the language that we use to present the information, is code with answers of their own. Why is he doing this. Why is she doing that. This code can reinforce the message presented with language or contradict it entirely. Most of us do so without ever realizing just how much language affects our thinking and identity. I would even dare to say that language does it's part to mold our thoughts and identity in subtle ways. This is not to say that language can not be influenced as well as be the influencer. Rather, it is like a cycle. Society influences language, which in turn reinforces societies affirmations on social constructs with language structure and grammar, which in turn molds us back. It is a cycle that mirrors societies trends, social psychology, and evolution. With gender roles defined in a particular way in a particular society for instance, gender identification in the language follows suit.
In the world that I grew up in, my learned language suited my lifestyle and cultural surroundings fine. Everyone was either a he or a she and it was based on sex and that was that. Through forty two years of language conditioning, everything has fallen into these brackets. "Its" are objects (or multiple scary clowns) and "he" or "she" are persons of sex or gender identification.Anything else was gay or not worth validating. But it has been a steady growth away from my limited social constraints that have landed me where I am today, and is forcing me to reevaluate my language and vocabulary.
I have strayed away from religion into reason. I learned to view things through the humble lens of agnosticism. I chose to open up my mind to all information. To judge, analyze, and process it thoroughly. This along with an interest in politics, civil and social justice issues, morality, and perhaps a deep down instinct to lead, have placed me in a very different intellectual location as a human being than perhaps I was directed to by my cultural upbringing. The first step in my current stage of metamorphosis is the opportunity to host a boxing program for transgender, non conforming persons. A safe space idea brought to me by friends Nola Hanson and Joss Martinez, Trans Boxing Brooklyn, as the organization is called, allows me to actively participate in helping persons on a social justice level. But for me it has gone from a safe space and leadership opportunity into an immersion to a blossoming world with it's own nascent language.
The english language, to my surprise, is rather limited on the topic of queer, trans individuals and those of non-Binary, non-conforming attitudes. In the trans world, he and she gender options are too limited in scope to cover variations in gender identification and sex conversion. A male going through a transition into a female can perceive themselves as not only the goal gender, but somewhere in between male and female as well. Some find gender to be a mute point and not worth validating. Human is the gender. Because of the many variations of trans and gender reluctant persons, there are many viewpoints on what gender a person should choose to be identified as.
But grammar is not the only issue with language I have encountered. Grammar has evolved from previous eras and social norms and will continue to do so, but as society evolves within a given lifetime, the conditioning that is happening to an individual with the use of language early on in life is difficult to undo. The main issue I discovered for instance is that when I see a transgender person, usually I am either consciously (if they are not far along in their metamorphous) or subconsciously able to perceive the original gender. This triggers an automatic classification which triggers my automatic learned language response. In the case of a he wanting to be a she, I perceive the first, and nouns like "him" get triggered. This can of course be incorrect by transgender standards, but correct by my more gender limiting, masculine dominated cultural upbringing. It becomes then a battle between my conscious and my subconscious, where I am attempting to slow or stop all together my auto responses involving language in order to adapt to a new situation that involves vocabulary I don't even have.
In attempting to learn new vocabulary for the Transgender world, I have been rather unsuccessful so far. Issues with preferred nouns and grammar come into play. The use of they and them for an individual become hard to adopt when you have years of use for these words in the plural. I use "they" for a person and I can feel the back of my brain hurt, confused as it targets only one person for it's use. Perhaps it doesn't help that I was a creative writing major either, where grammar is focused on intensely. It feels like a buzzer going off in my head, "wrooooong!", while the front of my brain is going "no, actually that is right, we are changing this." It would be much easier for me to just adopt a totally new word like "boobiddybeep".
But it doesn't end there. You see, I am latino. Though I was born in the United States of America, my family comes from Colombia. I was raised in a bilingual home and so I speak spanish rather fluently for a second generation immigrant. Spanish creates even more problems. You see, in spanish, not only is every person classified into a he or a she, but so is almost every damn object. A car, mountain, animals, or even a table will have a sex attached to it, and therefor gender, if only because the relationship between the two is so close that the mind melds them together. That's psychology for you. Is it a surprise that a product of a group of cultures known for being "macho" and with a larger catholic population, which enforces traditional gender roles is so gender categorized? I suspect the spanish language will go through it's own metamorphosis as gender roles broaden there as well.
There is a general link between english and spanish as far as the letter "A". In spanish, most feminine words end with "A". In English, most feminine names end with "A". This double reinforcement affects my language response to gender, with the labeling process heavily affecting my auto responses. If I here a feminine name, I have an automatic response to label that thing feminine. In the case of a person, or more specifically, a trans person, if they have a feminine name, that will override in most cases my conscious awareness of sex origin. That person is called Amanda? Amanda is a feminine name. The names ends in "A". That person dress like a woman. That person is a she. This happens deep down in the back of the brain where the squirrels live. They high five themselves when they do this, thinking "yea! we got it!", until of course they hear they are wrong. No, it's "they" guys... Then it's a lot of punching the floor, clenching fists towards the sky yelling "Damn it!". The squirrels start arguing and wrestling and yelling things at each other like "they is plural!" "but it's okay!" as I stand their stoically smiling. Can you see the struggle in my eyes or is that just schizophrenia.
Language. You would think it's just a technicality, and for some, it may be. But for others, incorrect use can be offensive and hurtful. Even giving a compliment can be, while well meaning, just plain wrong.
And so I find myself constantly frustrated at my consistent failure in using proper language. Further more, the issue is not just incorrect language usage, but the reinforcement that language causes in gender identification and gender attitude. I find myself still saying things like "I am a man" or "be a man" to denote positive attitudes that really are not gender specific at all. Any person can be hardworking, honest, have sexual needs, etc.. The very languages that I speak are forcing me to identify things by gender and add societal perceptions of gender to things with cultural insinuations embedded in the language, creating a subconscious overall viewpoint. A viewpoint quickly becoming obsolete.
Now, if you are one of my friends that's constantly correcting me in order to help me learn, don't think you are frustrating me. Your not. You for sure are my guide through this linguistic trail. It's my ultimate desire to get it right that creates the frustration. The fact that a mistake can cause even the slightest discomfort in any person, and the fact that it is taking me so long to adapt my language. Call it a blow to my ego. I thought I was smart! It's just a couple of words. No problem. I spent and entire morning watching the sunrise while pondering the previous nights use of language and remembering all my errors. There was more than frustration at play. Genuinely uncomfortable feelings arose. Did I offend this individual? Was I misread? Misinterpreted? But then I remembered a very important thing. We were all a bit tipsy and having a good time. I started thinking back on other persons use of language and it was helpful to know even with experienced trans or queer persons, a few shots and some beers and language goes all to hell for everyone.
In the end, It is clear the english language needs to evolve. Speaking to someone of hungarian descent, she mentioned to me that her native language doesn't really use gender/sex for it's nouns much, if at all. I wonder if that says something about the culture the language came from? It will be interesting to see if my theories on language evolution hold true in that particular case. If or when the english language does evolve to suit the needs of modern american society, it will also be interesting to see if it will be a process of simplification, or if it will just simply add the vocabulary necessary to fit the needs of the transgender world. Whatever the case maybe, it's time for some changes. Changes that will create avenues of openness in the minds of all, from children to adults, trapped within the cage of linguistic barriers. Barriers created in a world no longer relevant. Society is changing, and so let the cycle occur and the changes in language begin.