A: All words are made up, but they’re made up for a reason. Language is constantly changing and evolving in association with culture: Grammatical rules change, the meanings of existing words change (e.g. gay, queer, Democrat, Republican), and new words are made up in order to articulate concepts that exist and have reason to be articulated. It’s not the concepts that are made up. There are lots of gender identity labels because there are lots of gender identities. Trans and nonbinary people aren’t making up identities, just filling in a gap in our language.
Many of the concepts that describe the experiences of trans people are not part of the collective understanding of our society or milieu. As a result, when we try to describe our experiences, we are often written off as unintelligible, irrational, or outright insane. When we acquire the language to accurately articulate our own experiences as pertain to gender, and to communicate them to others, it gives us agency over those experiences.
This is why you’re seeing a lot of new words for gender identities. But if these identities have existed for a long time, then why are the words just now becoming part of our language? Apart from the general cultural taboo, part of the reason we don’t hear about very many trans people historically is that other concepts were used to describe trans identities: At best, transmasculine people were called lesbians or tomboys; transfemmes were called homosexuals or crossdressers; or they were just “different.” (Of course, cis lesbians, gender nonconforming cis women, gay cis men, and crossdressing cis men still exist– We just have more categories now.)
Why should you care about using, or engaging with, this language?
- Respecting the language someone uses to describe their identity is part of respecting their identity, and thus of respecting them as a human being.
- As philosophers and academics, we are and ought to be concerned with precision of language: We want to be able to communicate exactly what we mean.
- When the language doesn’t exist to articulate a relevant concept, it leads to innocent misunderstanding and confusion. When the language exists but you refuse to use it, you’re willfully contributing to misunderstanding, confusion, and frustration.
- In learning new words, you might learn something new about yourself. Even if you’re cis, learning about trans people’s experiences might help you to better articulate your own identity and experiences as pertain to gender.
- Many trans people experience physical and/or social dysphoria, which are known to beget various psychological and psychosomatic consequences. Physical dysphoria is discomfort or anxiety resulting from a feeling that one’s identity doesn’t match their body or certain physical characteristics. Social dysphoria is discomfort or anxiety resulting from a feeling that one’s identity doesn’t match how they are perceived by others. A trans person might experience social dysphoria when they are misgendered (referred to by gendered words to which they don’t relate), even if they don’t understand why. When we are gendered correctly and when our experiences are socially validated, we experience gender euphoria, but this is fully possible only if 1) the necessary linguistic resources exist and 2) others access and use them correctly.
- Talia Mae Bettcher, Trans Identities and First-Person Authority
- Lucy Diavolo, Gender Variance Around the World Over Time
- Miranda Fricker and Katharine Jenkins, Epistemic Injustice, Ignorance, and Trans Experiences
- Stephanie Julia Kapusta, Misgendering and its Moral Contestability
- Avery Martens, Transgender People Have Always Existed
- Rachel McKinnon, Stereotype Threat and Attributional Ambiguity for Trans Women
- Blas Radi, On Trans* Epistemology: Critiques, Contributions, and Challenges