A War in Words


A War in Words: Transphobes and Language

Transphobes like to work very carefully. With many hate groups, people like to juxtapose “what they say” and “what they mean” but for transphobes, generally, what they say is exactly what they mean - the problem is that what they say is so rife with implication and subtlety that it’s very hard for most people to see exactly what lies underneath.

Transphobes like to work in phrases that sound entirely reasonable. This means that when trans people point out the transphobia inherent in them, we seem unreasonable and unfair. After all, what harm could possibly be meant by phrases such as:

  • “Lesbians are women”

  • “Men shouldn’t be allowed in women’s spaces”

  • “We need single-sex changing rooms”

  • “Women are female”

The thing is, transphobes work with words. They understand the power of definition and expression, and try to destroy and twist language to their own aims. I’m a writer, so I know exactly how dangerous that is, and I see what they’re doing, and I’d like to share some of it with you.

Transphobes obsessively police the divide between “sex” and “gender” - In their circles, sex exclusively refers to someones biological sex, and gender is ridiculed as an indefinable concept as vague and - it is implied - as unscientific, as souls (a suggestion that trans people are not and cannot be real. That we are either liars, or deluded). In a world where “sex” and “gender” are used interchangeably by the general public, they use this general ignorance to drum up support for their cause.

When a transphobe calls for “single sex spaces” they are calling for trans people to be forced to use the toilets / changing rooms / etc of their birth gender - with no exceptions - this is a position that is unarguably transphobic. But if they are called out on this, they declare they are not transphobic, and are simply being attacked for wanting to “protect single sex spaces” - The “protect” is important, it again lies heavy with the implication that they are standing up for the status quo against some undefined danger. The trans person is painted as unreasonable, hysterical, and easily angered, and their concerns dismissed. This is the power of words.

Transphobes also confuse the casual observer with the way they refer to trans people. They will often use made up jargon such as “TiM” or “TiF” - phrases which stand for “trans identified male” and “trans identified female” - inherently refusing to accept who trans people say they are. This is an extension of them simply refusing to gender trans people correctly, and referring to trans women as Men and trans men as Women. This is then used to create their “reasonable” statements - such as “Men shouldn’t be allowed in Women’s spaces.” Nothing controversial there - except when they say “Men” they are talking about trans women. But again, to the casual observer, they have said nothing untoward at all.

More dangerously is that in transphobe-speak trans women become “transwomen” and trans men “transmen” - what is so dangerous about that? The missing space.

A “Trans Woman” is a woman who happens to be trans. Trans is simply a qualifier, identifying a subsection of women, the same way you would refer to a Gay Woman, or a Short Woman. Whereas a “Transwoman” is not a woman at all. Without the space, they have been defined into something else entirely. The deletion of that space signals a refusal to accept trans people’s genders, ever. Some go further, and use it as a way to refuse trans people’s humanity. People, they say, are Men and Women. Transmen and Transwomen do not fit into it. It is an attempt to define us out of existence. It is a form of othering, used to remove any empathy towards trans people.

While inventing their own vocabulary to speak on trans issues, transphobes also attempt to remove our own. They state, without explaining why, that “Cis is a slur”. They do this to take from us the power of words. If I am speaking about “trans people”, and cannot speak of “cis people” in comparison, what am I to do? When the word for “not trans” is removed from people's vocabularies, due to transphobes claiming it offends them, we are left with no choice but to compare “trans people” and “people”. It is another way of using language to erase the humanity and personhood of trans people. 

They state “concern” over trans people being allowed in toilets, changing rooms, classrooms. They “worry” about us being near children, or over children simply knowing of our existence. They never state what they are “concerned” or “worried” about, but the implications are more than enough. This, by the way, is transphobic. If you are “concerned” about trans people doing nothing more than existing in the same spaces as you or your children, you must believe we are somehow disgusting or dangerous. That is transphobic.

I use “Transphobes” as I write this, because, being a writer, I, too, am conscious of the power of words. Transphobes will always claim they are not transphobic. They shift the definitions of what they are as people catch up. Years ago, transphobes claimed they were not transphobes, but TERFs. Then the general public came to realise TERFs were transphobic, so they called themselves Gender Critical. I’m sure soon they will move to another definition, ever upholding the veneer of respectability. Ever refusing they are transphobic, as they state transphobic things, coded in language that makes them seem entirely reasonable.

When a group is defined out of existence, there is little we can do to stand up for ourselves. If we cannot point out the disingenuous undercurrent to their “reasonable statements” there is nothing we can do to defend ourselves from them. This twisting of language is clever, but every time it is pointed out for what it is, we win a little victory. I hope you have learnt enough from this, that you can help us win some little victories.

I hope you see what they are doing, and stand against it.