Why terminology is hard...

2014-06-07 23:06

One of the joys of the Internet era is having teenagers explain things to me. Teenagers explain to me what gender is, and what sexual orientation is, and why it matters whether or not gay people are discriminated against. And this is, by and large, mostly just sort of charming.

The thing that fascinates me, though, is that occasionally the dogmas they latch onto are a little surprising. For instance, people are occasionally referred to as “trans”. This might be short for any of a number of words, but two in particular stand out: “transgendered” and “transgender”.

Many of the teenagers find “transgendered” extremely offensive. Why? Well, the reason they usually give is that the “-ed” suffix indicates the past tense of a verb, as though this were a thing done to someone. And that’s not at all how English works, in two ways. First, English just plain isn’t stable or consistent enough to propose any simple rules like that. Secondly, this ignores the entire family of similar constructs used with nouns, rather than verbs: “red-haired” or “long-legged”.

The history is rather more complicated. Both words were seen at least occasionally in the 1970s. The earliest citation I’ve yet found was a 1970 TV Guide reference to a character as “transgendered”, but the words are both pretty widely-used by the late ’70s.

Here’s the most comprehensive overview of the terminology I’ve yet found.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that the majority of the trans people I know have a noticeable preference for “transgendered”, and find “transgender” at least a little upsetting because that’s only part of the word. Of course, that could be a survivable state; we could just let people use the word they prefer, and eventually one of them would win.

Unfortunately, some organizations, like GLAAD, jumped in with the assertion that since someone somewhere said this was offensive, they were going to back that interpretation, and have pushed for its inclusion in style guides. This means that a lot of people now have formal rules that they will edit text to use their preferred nomenclature, and a vague perception that the other nomenclature is “bad”… Which means that the people who spent years or decades identifying as “transgendered” are now suddenly subject to random harassment from enthusiastic kids who have read the sound bites and aren’t aware that this was an actually disputed point in the recent past.

Of course, either answer would be upsetting to at least some people, and it’s probably even the case that the situation where both were in use was leading to confusion or upset. I just resent that so far as I can tell, the decision about which word will be in widespread use was made based on claims that are pure invention without any basis in fact or history. Even an arbitrary “both transgender and transgendered are in use, but the community seems to have gravitated towards transgender” would be less distasteful than the present state of advancing the claim that there was a meaningful linguistic basis here.

Peter Seebach



  1. When I saw the “ed” – done to you explanation, I immediately thought of adopted. People might say, “I’m adopted”/I was adopted”.

    — Adelaide Dupont · 2014-06-25 21:00 · #