“Transgender” As A Noun – A Step Towards Gender Equality?


I wasn’t planning on writing anything else on the subject, so quickly, until I received a few comments, pointing out that I had made a terrible mistake, making me (for some) unworthy to write anything on the subject of transgender people.

On a “Feministing Community” website, I also came across the following devastating statement which firmly puts me in my place,

Using transgender as a noun is occasionally an ignorant, symptomatic mistake made by a careless writer. But more often, it’s an indicator of more issues: transgender or cross-dressing male to describe trans women, a she where a he is needed. It is indicative of a pattern of dehumanization, of degendering. How can a writer too lazy to check the AP style manual or question their own use of nouns and pronouns be trusted to write about trans issues? (The answer is systematic cissupremacy.)

In my last post, I “carelessly” referred to “transgenders” , without the use of a noun, such as “people” – unforgivable mistake, it seems.

Firstly, I would sincerely like to apologize to anyone who has been offended by my mistake. That was certainly not my intention and, I was only following my naive logic. Knowing that the word “gender” is a noun, describing someone who is male or female, I naturally assumed that “transgender” was also a noun, describing a person who didn’t belong to one of the aforementioned genders. Since, in my mind, “transgender” already describes a human being (how can you have a human gender, that isn’t human?), adding the word “person” seemed superfluous. Silly, wasn’t it…and illogical. And there I was, thinking that the world is uncomplicated.

One of the arguments, was that “ transgender” must be used as an adjective – there are no transgenders, only transgender people – and that using the word as a noun, is just as bad as referring to somebody as “a gay”. Furthermore, it is seen as highly offensive, to transgender people. The word “transgender”, used in this way, seems (i) denigrating and, (ii) to depict the transgender community as not comprising people, but purely defined by a gender denomination.

But is this argument as solid and as logical as it seems, especially when taking into account the wishes of the transgender community to be recognised, and its quest for gender equality?

What immediately springs to mind, is that describing someone as “a gay”, is not referring to gender, but to sexual preference, a trait that is not at all physically obvious. Used in these circumstances, “gay” has, most probably, insulting connotations. If the term “transgender” also described a sexual orientation, it too, would be insulting, when used as a noun. The fact is, though, that “transgender” denotes a gender, and not a sexual preference. Indeed, within the transgender community, individuals may be gay or lesbian.

On the Glaad Media Resource website, the term “transgender” is defined as follows,

Transgender (adj.) An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. People under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms – including transgender. Some of those terms are defined below. Use the descriptive term preferred by the person. Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures.

Whilst I understand that transgender people find themselves having to defend their status and rights, and are, more often than not, marginalised, I do feel that allowing transgender individuals to describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms” , does not help the cause, nor does it help others, to understand and accept transgender people.

The already complex situation is further complicated by the notion that, a transgender identity is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures.This only underscores my belief that the use of “transgender”, as a noun, is justified. An adjective can only bring further information to the word it describes, if the latter has been properly defined which, for many, is not yet the case (think of those, “in transition”, and those who just don’t know). Once someone has “decided” that the assigned gender at birth, does not correspond to reality, there is no reason why the individual cannot be referred to as “a transgender”, without this being insulting or disrespectful. If the transgender person feels the need to change the use of the word “transgender”, from a noun to an adjective, adding a further description to status, it does not mean that the use of “transgender” as a noun, is inappropriate or insulting.

The argument that “transgender”, as a noun, does not encompass the notion of being a person, and merely denotes a gender, is fallacious. There is absolutely no difference between the terms “transgender”, “cisgender”, “male/female”, and even “man/woman”, in terms of implying that the individual is a person. I would certainly have no problem in being designated as a cisgender, if that would solve the current existential crisis, concerning genders. In any case, other adjectives that describe a person’s status, can also be used as nouns. In this way, I can describe myself as “a European”, or as being “European”.

The word “transgender”, has been used to assign a status to people who do not identify with the gender assigned to them, at birth. There lies the sole potential problem that could arise. It’s a term that can be considered as not defining one’s gender, but questioning gender, rather than affirming it. Transgender people may feel that, somewhere in their psyche, they do not reflect the reality of human emotions and behaviour, or even what it is to be human, by not having a defined gender. The transgender individual may think that he reflects a non-entity, rather that an entity, unless specified as being a person.  A study published in the The Lancet provides evidence that the “distress and impairment, considered essential characteristics of mental disorders” among transgender individuals arises primarily in response to long-term, continuous, discrimination, lack of acceptance, and abuse, that transgender people are forced to face up to.

Trying to characterise and define transgender people, will always be prone to controversy and debate. We are all one gender or another – it is part of what defines us, as being human.

But what is in a name?

Transgender is not a noun. It is an adjective, and reducing people to just one of their qualities is necessarily reductive and denies their gender and their humanity.

And this is where my solution lies, be it naive. I may be a careless writer, but I was top of the class in grammar. It is the adjective that modifies the noun, and not the other way around. Let us all qualify our gender by using a noun, and not an adjective. From now on, I will describe myself as a male cisgender, where male is the adjective, and cisgender, the noun. By also using the word “transgender” as a noun, transgender people would acquire a universally accepted description of one of the human genders.

Trans – a prefix occurring in loanwords from Latin (transcend; transfix); on this model, used with the meanings “across,” “beyond,” “through,” “changing thoroughly,” “transverse,” in combination with elements of any origin

Despite all the stigma, transgender persons should be proud of their status, not be so sensitive about a name, and not so obsessed about being attacked by every word in the English language. They have no reason to fear words, per se, because bigots will discriminate and abuse, no matter how adjectives and nouns are used. Language evolves, and transgender people – like the rest of us – must also evolve beyond the uncertainties and controversies surrounding gender identity.

We must all consider gender status as a gift. Although gender alone does not make a person what he or she is, it is certainly the cornerstone on which personalities are built. It is the first characteristic that parents enquire about, when a human being is conceived. But we must not forget that it is the context in which transgender people live their lives, that is important – not the use of a word. “Transgender”, even used as a noun, must be able to reflect the unique experience of what it is like to be both female and male. The use of the prefix “trans”, should serve to describe human beings, who have the unique opportunity to go beyond the rigid limits of human gender assignation, and may have transcended the very limits that define who we are, as human beings.