If I have learned anything in my education as an English and Women’s Studies Gender Studies major, it is that the language we use matters– it matters a lot.
Some people actually view understanding gender variance as learning a whole new language; a language which emerges and grows every day to accommodate for more types of bodies and to distance from prejudice.
But like any language, the semantics of gender variance can keep some people from entering the conversation (or on the contrary, incite endless debates between the “experts” who would rather focus on terms than on ideas). For this reason, I have created a quick little reference sheet to help understand where I’m coming from. Like everything, this list is not the end-all-be-all, it’s just what I knew at the time I was writing.
Let’s start with the basics….
Transgender: GLAAD has the most comprehensive and simple definition I have found. Rather than try to re-create it, I thought I would include it here:
Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender identity is a person’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or boy or girl.) For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into those two choices. For transgender people, the sex they were assigned at birth and their own internal gender identity do not match.
People in the transgender community may describe themselves using one (or more) of a wide variety of terms, including (but not limited to) transgender, transsexual, and non-binary. Always use the term used by the person.
Another little tip for those who want to be allies: don’t call transgender people “transgendered” or “transsexual”– those terms are offensive. And don’t make the assumption that all trans people have had surgery. If anything, this blog proves that some people may have a gender that differs from what their genitalia indicates.
Gender: Like GLAAD’s “gender identity,” gender indicates one’s deeply held, internal and psychological state. It’s how we identify ourselves with the world. It can be expressed in our actions or read by society (sometimes it can be read wrong, we see this regularly with trans bodies). It also gets classified into stereotyped behaviors, usually based on our cultural conceptions of “masculinity” and “femininity,” or what’s “acceptable” for a person of a certain sex to do. The possibilities and types of genders are endless. The most commonly known gender identities are the binary ones: male and female. Still many non-binary gender variant, genderqueer, agender, or gender fluid bodies do the work of expressing gender every day and every second (and their owners know this to be true).
Sex: The biological state of being female or male as determined by hormones, chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics (like hair patterns, body fat placement, voice register, and facial hair), and primary sex characteristics relating to internal and external genitalia — this is the “penis or vagina?” one . There are three options for one’s sex based on how these characteristics come together: male, female, and intersex.
Still confused? This infographic from TSER (TransStudent Educational Resources) may help…
FTM: FTM stands for “female-to-male.” It can be used as a noun to indicate a particular type of binary (male-identified) person. FTM also can be used as an adjective to differentiate different types of transgender bodies. Namely, there is FTM or MTF (male-to-female) binary trans bodies in the US, (NOTE: there are also are non-binary bodies who would qualify as trans. Those people have every right to claim trans-ness as an FTM or MTF, but they do not necessarily make the jump from one binary to the next). FTM bodies that I refer to in this blog have not undergone bottom surgery– that means that they still have their “female genitalia”/ vulva present. However, it is important to note that some FTM bodies do have “male genitalia.” AKA a phallus/ penis.
Fetish: I’ll use this one a lot. It is important for me to determine that there’s a difference between a sexual act fetish (the best known example being a “foot fetish”) and the process of fetishization. Fetishization happens when something (here, the FTM body) becomes an objectified, commodified, and consumed by its audience. When we fetishize something or someone, we make them non-human. Instead, they appear as a magical entity, with the sole purpose of satisfying our desires.
Transgressive: According to Brian McNair in Porno? Chic!:
[transgressive] means that it cannot be defined absolutely or objectively, once and for all, by its content alone. It is an historical category, culturally specific, always defined in the context of and in opposition to what is socially and morally acceptable within a given society at a given time, and determined by the range of cultural, moral, social and political factors which have shaped that particular society’s evolution. (20)
So, that’s a lot, but it basically means that pornography has the power to transform what society views as acceptable over time.
Hegemonic: the hegemony refers to the ruling class in society. This means the most “normal” people who control wealth and media. For the US, it’s typically considered cisgender, able, white, wealthy, educated, straight/heterosexual, Christian, male citizens.
Heteronormative: To keep it simple, I’ll say I refer to heteronormativity to indicate how straight people are the standard in our society. Heteronormative sexual relationships include one penis and one vagina. (But see how a FTM and a MTF engaged in a sex act could complicate this?!)
Whiteness: Here, being white means having skin that is perceived as caucasian, or of European descent. It also means to participate in a cultural myth that the white body can be largely invisible in that it is the normative, or the hegemonic standard upon which all other intersections of identity stray from.