First, read this from Little Light’s blog Taking Steps: On Cartography and Dissection Go on, read the whole beautiful post and then come back here.
In my offline life, I’ve been talking a lot about language recently. About how sticks and stones can break my bones and words can deny my existence, my humanity, my gender, my rights… How words can kill me.
Yes, I said it. Words can KILL me.
But words can do something else. They can affirm my existence, my rights, my humanity, my gender, my life. Words are tools and they can be used in a multitude of ways.
Which is why, when talking about me, about my life, my gender and most especially my body I need people to use my words . Not their words, not your words – MY words.
I’m feeling guilty for even writing this, for staking out a claim on my own body and saying “It’s my right to name this” and my own story and saying “It’s my right to tell this” because, as Little Light conveys so much more eloquently than I yet know how to, it’s my experience that people like me aren’t allowed to own their own bodies and their own stories and the only language we get to use is language formed by cis people to talk about us but not to us.
I am a man. I happen to be transsexual. I happen to be queer, as my sexuality, my gender, my relationship structures, my politics, my worldview… I could go on but it’s hard to find the words. A talk I never gave started “My name is Theophilus Zachary Oliver Mallinson – or Theo for short. I am a kinky sex-positive polyamorous heterodemisexual queer panromantic femme genderqueer transsexual man – or Theo for short”. Look at all those words that I’ve chosen as vague approximations and short forms of my experience, words I’ve found and words I’ve had to invent, and notice one thing – these words don’t boil down easily to “straight man” or “queer trans guy” or “male-identified femme” – all I can say they reduce to is “Theo” but that’s no reduction. I’m not saying that people should use my full set (insofar as it is full, it isn’t it’s just the gender and sexual parts of my identity) of words to talk about me but.. panromantic heterodemisexual is NOT “straight” and straight isn’t a word I’d use to describe my sexuality – queer is a much better fit or even, if it’s that important to note, spell it out and say “He’s a man who is sexually and romantically attracted to women”. When you talk about me, I need you to use words I would use because other words don’t convey my experience. Take “straight” as an example. I’m not straight because I am queer, I’m not straight because I am in a relationship with someone who isn’t a woman, I’m not straight because I can be attracted to men and people of nonbinary gender. Straight also implies heteronormative – which I’m just not. I’m not monogamous, I don’t believe in the gender binary and I’m attracted to genders not body types. Heck, I’m such a femme that my girlfriend calls me the gayest boyfriend she’s ever had – and several of her previous boyfriends are homosexual. Straight implies too many things that aren’t true of me that it ceases to say anything about me at all. I’m not straight. The best word I can come up with is heteroqueer.
The crux of this issue though isn’t sexuality or orientation – it’s gender. You’d think that one would be easy for people to understand but apparently it’s not.
Here is a really easy rule of thumb: If you’re thinking of using a gendered word to describe me, my body or any part of it, my past, my future, my clothing or any experience of mine and that word isn’t male or neutral and maybe even if it is, ASK ME. Make sure I’m comfortable with that word being used. If you aren’t going to ask, don’t use a gendered word at all and wait until you’ve heard me use words for what you wanted to describe and then use my words . This rule should work for pretty much any person and especially for trans people. I know it’s tedious, I know it’s difficult, I know it’s a lot of information to keep inside your head.
It’s also a pretty clear sign that you respect and honour all people’s right to their own genders and their right to use language in ways that affirm and celebrate their experiences instead of ways that deny or degrade them. It’s something I try very hard to do and I wish more people would try.
It’s not just the medical profession who are bad at this with their insistence that I am a “female to male transsexual” with “Gender Identity Disorder” and that I need hormone treatment to “masculinise” my “biologically female” body. I am a man, with a male body. I happen to be transsexual and I need hormone treatment in order to feel more comfortable in my own male body. It’s also anyone who starts a sentence with “When you become a man..” “When you were a girl..” “When you stopped being a girl..”. Those people deny me my lived experience which is that I am a man *now* and that I have never been a girl.
It’s the people who call the shirt I’m wearing a “blouse” and the ones who call me “masculine” or “boyish” or a “tomboy” instead of male. People who think nothing of calling me “she” or “it” instead of he. A pyschotherapist who insisted I was tall when I’m one of the shortest men I know. And, recently, a counsellor who decided to mention the weird out-of-place lumps of flesh on my chest and call them “boobs”.
THAT WORD DOES NOT APPLY TO ANY PART OF MY BODY. Ever. I don’t have anything that I would recognise as female breasts yet the word she chose to use is a word that means female breasts. I felt like I’d been physically hit, I felt sick, I felt completely off-center because she had colonised by body with that word, showing disrespect for my experience of my body as unequivocally MALE. She didn’t mean anything by it, of course not, but it hurt. It hurt me badly.
This man is male and he knows that in every cell of his misshapen body but he also knows that his status as a male is precarious, balanced on an edge, a borderline that he cannot control. He knows that other people have taken for themselves the right to proclaim him man or woman and that his own identity as a man is something he has to fight for every single day – it hurt so much to be reminded of this, to once again have it shoved into my face that my identity can be brushed aside by a careless person with only words.
So get your words off my body. Get your theories (a whole post of their own) off my life story. Take your language and use it to describe your own experiences. And listen to me and my words, my language, if I tell you mine.