About “Transgendered”: Some History & Grammar

I wrote this short piece about the term “transgendered” and because Jenny Boylan and I had discussed it in the past, asked her to add her own thoughts. So my piece, then her postscript, and it’s crossposted on JFB’s blog.

by Helen Boyd:

I’m well aware that the term “transgendered” is objected to by some for a variety of reasons. Most of us who did use it once upon a time have dropped it; Jenny Boylan, for instance, changed all of the instances of “transgendered” in her 10th anniversary edition of She’s Not There to “transgender” instead. I haven’t used it on my blog or in my writing for years.

But here’s the thing: interpreting any use of it as some kind of bad faith politics is also a mistake, because it was an acceptable form for many years. The reason some of us chose it – and again, I’ll cite Boylan and me, along with theorists like McKenna and Kessler – was for grammatical reasons.

Adding an “ed” to a verb is a common way to come up with a past participle in English, and past participles then function as adjectives. If you ice your tea, for instance, afterwards you’ve iced your tea, and so wound up with “iced tea”. It’s not complicated. You can do it with a lot of verbs – different verbs become adjectives/past participles in different ways – when you break a toy, it becomes a broken toy, because broke is, for whatever reasons, the past tense of “break”.

Some of these uses have become problematic, but the one I see cited most is “colored” of course, which was used to talk about African Americans and others marginalized by the color of their skin. It’s no longer acceptable because it implied that white people, for instance, have no color – but of course we do. That said, there are neutral ways you can use colored: you could, of course, color a picture in a coloring book, and so wind up with a colored picture.

It was the same idea. Gender is a verb. You can gender an infant (“It’s a girl!”) or degender a pronoun (“My pronoun is “they” because I identify as genderqueer.”) The logic then was that you could transgender something; you can find it used as a verb (“transgendering”) in the work of McKenna & Kessler, who did some of the first, best work on degendering and on trans issues – work that influences the likes of Kate Bornstein, for instance. And while it strikes an odd note now, for the people who were first writing about these issues, no one knew what the grammar was; we were making it up as we went along. So, if “gender” could be a verb, and made into a past participle (“Most children are gendered by others when they’re born”) and so into an adjective: transgendered.

That’s all. It was a grammatical choice. It was neutral. That it’s now seen as implying more than that – the same way colored came to – is how this community has chosen to interpret it. As I said before, most of us who did use it don’t anymore because of the way its interpretation changed. “Transgendering” in McKenna & Kessler struck me as odd, too, when I first read them, but there is no doubt their work is trans affirming and trans inclusive.

So, if you would, don’t automatically judge the author of a work that uses this term. It has fallen out of fashion but it’s still in an awful lot of literature by people who were (1) trans themselves, and (2) trans positive. When people use it now it’s often because they’ve seen it elsewhere; it takes time for bad usages to work their way out of the lexicon, just as it takes a long time for some words to work their way in.

Postscript by Jennifer Finney Boylan:

I agreed to write a few words on this topic for my old friend Helen Boyd, whom I would also like to say, has been doing work to support the loved ones of trans people longer than anyone else I know about. Our books— her “My Husband Betty,” and my “She’s Not There” were published within a few months of each other in 2003, and since then as authors we have kind of been like a pair of babies born in the same hospital. It has been an honor to me to share a bookshelf with her for these many years.

Neither of us, I think, could have predicted how much progress would have been made on behalf of trans people (and their loved ones) when we first started writing our books. It has been amazing and heartening, and I am sure that, while downplaying our own individual roles in this movement, we would both still agree that one of the galvanizing forces in this progress has been the courage of individuals who stepped forward and told their stories, at a time when there was no public language for talking about trans issues.

I used “transgendered” back in the day because because—as Helen notes, “gender” is a verb, unlike “gay” for instance. (A bicycle, for instance, is gendered; but a bicycle cannot be “gayed,” at least not unless you start singing it show tunes.) Plus, it’s the word my own therapist used; I did not know when I began that I could challenge the discourse. I was very polite back then.

I did begin to hear about trans peoples’ restlessness with the term within a few years after my own book (which I abbreviate as SNoT) was published. I pushed back for a while against the criticism (being a professor of English), but finally came to accept that “transgender” or “trans” really had become the acceptable parlance by the middle of the last decade. I did indeed change the words in the 10th anniversary edition of SNoT, even when many other things about that book that I wish I’d said differently remained unaltered.

In thinking about language, and the way it morphs, I sometimes think about the new landscaping that was put in at the school where I used to teach. They put the new lawn in after a period of construction, but didn’t put the paths in until the following year. The reason? The architects wanted to see where people would walk, before they made the sidewalks. And so, after a year of seeing the natural paths formed by the shoes of people using the space, the paths were put in along those lines. I think language is like this too— it can take a while to figure out where the paths go, especially when we are finding a new route across uncharted territory.

I’d also note that no one is harder on the trans community than the trans community itself. We are relentless in our desire to tell others that They Are Doing It Wrong; that being trans is not That but This; that living in our world demands constant vigilance and apology and fury. As someone involved in this work for fifteen years now, I understand the urgency of being seen (and spoken of) in the terms which we define. But I also feel that we would all benefit from a little more love, starting with the love we might show each other. There is no one right way of being trans, and there is no one right path to tread. This is true not only in our language, but in our hearts as well— the place where that language finds its source.

In the new prologue to SNoT, I also recalled the story of the author James Thurber, who was told at a party in Paris how much funnier his stories were in French than English. “Yes, I know,” said Thurber. “They do tend to lose something in the original.”

Help Holly Woodlawn

Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A.

Plucked her eyebrows on the way.

Shaved her legs and then he was a she.

She says, ‘Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.’

– Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side”


She’s fighting for her life in a hospital in LA and none other than Penny Arcade started a crowdfunding effort to allow Woodlawn to return home to die.

It achieved its goal of $50k already, but in case you want to be able to tell this trans elder she’s loved, this is your chance.

John Oliver Explains Trans

SCOTUS Rules for Marriage Equality

SCOTUS SAME SEX marriage ruling 2015


They managed to arrest that racist, violent motherfucker without killing him but a dude who sold loose cigarettes & a child who was playing with a toy gun had to be killed.

Nine people were killed while in a church and while praying. A five year old knew to play dead in order to save her own life.

But yeah, it’s not racism.

Take the fucking confederate flag down already. It’s not a symbol of history or pride or Southern culture; it’s a banner of hate and violence.

Love to the families and friends and lovers of those who were killed in Charleston and to the black communities of Charleston.

White people, we must do better.

Ramadan’s American History

Today is the start of Ramadan.One fourth of the world observes this Muslim fast, and I miss being in a culture where I could regularly witness the very happy fast-breaking at sundown; having grown up in a faith that fasts, I always felt especially sympathetic to the guys who worked in restaurants and delis and the like.

Social scientists estimate that 15 to 30 percent, or, “[a]s many as 600,000 to 1.2 million slaves” in antebellum America were Muslims. 46 percent of the slaves in the antebellum South were kidnapped from Africa’s western regions, which boasted “significant numbers of Muslims”. 

So of course significant numbers of slaves were Muslim, and they were practicing, too:

In addition to abstaining from food and drink, enslaved Muslims held holy month prayers in slave quarters, and put together iftars – meals at sundown to break the fast – that brought observing Muslims together. These prayers and iftars violated slave codes restricting assembly of any kind.

For instance, the Virginia Slave Code of 1723 considered the assembly of five slaves as an “unlawful and tumultuous meeting”, convened to plot rebellion attempts. Every state in the south codified similar laws barring slave assemblages, which disparately impacted enslaved African Muslims observing the Holy Month.

Therefore, practicing Islam and observing Ramadan and its fundamental rituals, for enslaved Muslims in antebellum America, necessitated the violation of slave codes. This exposed them to barbaric punishment, injury, and oftentimes, even death. However, the courage to observe the holy month while bonded, and in the face of grave risk, highlights the supreme piety of many enslaved Muslims.

And while this all makes perfect sense, it had never occurred to me, certainly. Do go read the rest of the piece by Khaled O Beydoun. American cultural and religious diversity continues to amaze me; so many things we consider “imported” in recent history – Islam and Socialism, for starters – have really been part of the American fabric for more than a hundred years. It does make you think about who has framed the narrative of America, and why.

Done Now.

Melissa Harris Perry asked and it turns out Dolezal does self-identify as black. I’m done and can’t take this seriously anymore.

Here’s a great book about passing and African American experience: better to learn a thing than to continue wondering what is up with this woman.

Gender Isn’t Race, Either (Dolezal Pt. 2)

An old and dear friend wrote to me about the Rachel Dolezal issue; she was the partner of a trans person at one point, is allied to the trans community, and is also one of the most awesome feminists I know. The way she broke down the arguments for why Dolezal can’t be black go like this:

(1) she didn’t forge her identity through being raised in a minority group,

(2) she can switch back to the privileged group whenever she likes, and

(3) Finally, she is relying on stereotypes when appropriating “blackness”

Her question to me was: how is this not what some trans women do? And in some ways, my answer is to focus on the “some”. Because if something is going to be true for transness, then it should hold up – even, in this case, for all trans women (who are going from a high status identity to a lower status identity, such as someone would be doing in going from white to black).

(1) Trans women aren’t raised and socialized girls and women EXCEPT that plenty are. There are lots of trans girls who come out young enough that plenty are, AND once trans women live as women they are re-socialized as women, AND, as I’ve often argued, trans women may live in the world as people identified as men by others, but they’re not really men, either. They sometimes manage good lives as men, even, but it doesn’t mean they are. What do I mean by that? It means that I don’t know cis men who struggle every day whose genders feel horribly wrong to them and who crave femininity sometimes precisely because they’ve had to repress any expression of it and who have to work out their own complicated love of women. That is, a trans woman is still a woman even if she hasn’t transitioned; she’s just living in the world as a man and there is often a world of suffering tied up in that.

(2) Well, not really. Some trans women can; some do; some detransition for various reasons. But the whole point of things like the Standards of Care were to keep people from transitioning who shouldn’t, and some people realize that in fact transition isn’t the answer to their issue at all, that there is some other issue that gender has gotten mixed up in. Of course, too, many trans women can’t just become men again; too many years on hormones, surgical choices, etc., would cause them to have to transition again, not back, really. It’s not like trans women take off a pair of earrings and become men again. Transitioning is a complicated process and isn’t easily undone; most people who I’ve known have detransitioned do so because they needed to – out of financial need, needs of dependents, unemployability, to keep a marriage together.

(3) Lots of cis women rely on stereotypes to be women (cough Kardashians cough). So if stereotypes of femininity are acceptable for cis women, why aren’t they okay for trans women? One of the reasons feminists keep trying to push the images of women to include more and more types is so that there is no wrong way to be a woman. There isn’t. It doesn’t mean that some of the types degrade and stereotype and pigeonhole women; Disney can stuff it with their damn princesses already. But I don’t get to judge how any woman “does” womanness and I don’t want other women judging the way I do mine.

So that’s, in a sense, Part 2 of my other answer: these are all specific issues and doing a comparison based on general ideas/theories of identity just don’t hold up. There are too many exceptions. In saying any of this, I’m not insisting on any basic truth of transness, or any basic truth of race; I think these are lovely and complicated ideas that can’t easily be “boiled down” to any easy equations. That’s what I love most about what I do: sometimes there is no right answer, and you have to hold, and let be, contradictory conclusions. That’s okay. I think we all often have a tendency to want to nail down the correct, succinct answer, but for anyone who is interested in race and gender and class what is eternally fascinating is how exactly complex and mysterious these interactions between facets of our identities can be.

One thing that has become clear with the news that Dolezal once sued Howard University for discriminating against her as a white person: Dolezal is unlikely to be a good bet as a standard bearer for anyone wanting to win an argument about much of anything; as more of her story comes out, the more apparent it is that there are some seriously dysfunctional family dynamics going on, too. Personally, I’m most upset at the way she trampled all over what is an allies’ first and best rule: you use your privilege to figure out a way to help end oppression, and you don’t do so by ‘becoming’ the oppressed but by recognizing and checking your privilege. I don’t know what Dolezal’s intentions are, but that’s not really a difficult rule to understand.

Otherwise, here’s a good article on Slate as to why it isn’t crazy to compare the two but that breaks down why it doesn’t work, and another that covers a lot of good stuff on identity, belonging, “passing”, and binaries, amongst other things, by the awesome Kai Green.

Complicate that conversation. Think past binaries. Trouble categories. Hold contradiction. People who know what to think all the time are often the dumbest among us.

Race is Not Gender: About Rachel Dolezal

As much as I joked yesterday that America just found out, via Spokane, that race is a social construction, I meant it to be only that: a joke. It has lead to a lot of people actually talking about what race IS and specifically what blackness is, and to me, that’s a long overdue conversation where maybe some white people will learn a little more about paper bag tests and colorism, “passing” as a means to survival, marrying up to have lighter children than their parents, etc. There are amazing histories and books full of information and deep knowledge about what it means to be black.

But that this whole idea that she is “transracial” is just upsetting to me. First, I always discourage comparisons between race and gender because they never, ever hold up. Gender is constructed by very different discourses of being, through different bodies and histories. Race – especially race in america – is constructed through specific historical contexts (slavery, for starters). Even the movements toward liberation are different. Look at how differently the term “passing” is used, for instance — which is one of the main reasons I hate using the term when it comes to gender.

Here are a few reasons this bothers me: (1) we’re having a conversation about race, finally, at long last. It seems at best disrespectful to make it about anything else when we are so, so overdue in talking about race in the US.

(2) It’s pretty clear that Dolezal doesn’t identify as black.

Ezra believes the only reason his sister would change her identity was due to the racism she claimed to have encountered at Howard University, where she graduated with her master’s degree in fine art in 2002.

Rachel, he added, would often complain that she was treated poorly as one of only a few white students on a mostly black campus.

“She used to tell us that teachers treated her differently than other people and a lot of them acted like they didn’t want her there,” Ezra said. “Because of her work in African-American art, they thought she was a black student during her application, but they ended up with a white person.”

(3) Why are white people so quick to defend what she’s done when they don’t know her? White privilege, again. When those in your own gang are behaving badly, it shouldn’t take someone from some other group to point that out. When I work with men on issues of violence against women, my most frequent refrain is that the good guys have GOT to stop defending the bad guy in their midst. Their best work is to call out the bad guys, to use their own male privilege to confront the people whose actions are oppressing others. White people have to call this woman out for exploiting and mocking the experiences and identities of black people. Continue Reading

Magnum Umbrella


Cover of “Umbrella” by Mechanical Bride.

My Books – Out of Print?

A friend who owns a queer- and feminist-friendly shop just told me he’s been having a hard time getting copies of My Husband Betty, so I checked the Amazon listings for them, where “collectible” and new copies are selling from $27-77.50. Yes. $77.50 for a new copy of My Husband Betty. Don’t you suddenly feel lucky for owning one already?!

I have no idea why they aren’t in stock and in talking to my publishers/distributors found out there is a plan to bring them back into print but there is no date for them to do so just now.

So, folks, do me a favor: buy the electronic editions, Kindle or what-have-you. Any other copies bought or sold (used, “collectible”, and “new”) don’t make me a single thin dime right now, & believe me, they don’t pay me a ton even when they do.

Gah, publishing.

#yesallwomen #safeenough

This short video was inspired by the #yesallwomen hashtag in that so many women prepare for violence even without a visible or obvious threat. It is the kind of fear that foreshortens women’s public lives and is, at least partially, the result of years of victim-blaming, of attempts to keep women safe by putting the responsibility for the violence committed against them on women themselves. We train young women to believe that they are somehow at fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Men are often unaware of how constant & present this fear of violence is in women’s lives, so we hope these short interviews, with women of a variety of identities and experiences, will make that clear.

My wife and I made this for a local group called Voices of Men — a feminist men’s group whose intent is to raise awareness about sexual assault and domestic violence.

Kathleen Dunn Show – Done!

Our radio interview on WPR’s The Kathleen Dunn Show is now up & available for listening or downloading. It’s a call-in show and we got a lot of good questions. Ms. Dunn was, and is, a great interviewer.

Topics included: Caitlyn Jenner (of course), including that misguided NYT piece from yesterday (I won’t link to it), trans youth, why we don’t answer questions about genitals, family, but mostly it was about trans partners and what it’s like to go through transitioned while married.

So, yeah.

Us, Kathleen Dunn, Monday: WPR

Betty & I will be on The Kathleen Dunn Show on WPR this coming Monday at 2PM CST.

Breakfast of Champions – Still

jenner wheaties updated

Created by my good and super talented friend Alex Colby, whose photography & other creative work hangs out here. Photo by Annie Liebovitz, of course, and Wheaties box by – well, Wheaties. (Yes, that’s Jenner’s original Wheaties box.)

Caitlyn Jenner is Free

Congrats, Caitlin. The first time I saw the cover – via Janet Mock, natch – I didn’t realize who it was. (Context is everything.)

I really do wish people would stop referring to their own selves – even Caitlyn 1.0, as it were – in the third person. It’s just kind of weird. #bobdole

Otherwise, trans female friends of mine are already starting drinking games based on how many times the new photo appears on their FB feed, which is pretty goddamned hilarious. Others are bemoaning her RWT status, and still others just want her to start doing activism for healthcare for trans people.

Also, why does she appear to be wearing bridal lingerie on the cover? Surely VF had access to some clothes.

And so it goes.

Correction: Not Mark Ruffalo

Mark Ruffalo was quoting someone – he didn’t write that piece himself. It was written by Libby Anne Bruce, and you can see it posted, last year, on her FB page. It’s been pretty heavily shared and as a result she wound up without being properly credited.

Catharine A. MacKinnon on Trans Women

I’ve always been a fan of hers even when I disagree with her. But this? Made me joyful. She was asked how her views have changed over the years:

Certain things that I have had an inkling about have grown over time, for example, concerning transgender people. I always thought I don’t care how someone becomes a woman or a man; it does not matter to me. It is just part of their specificity, their uniqueness, like everyone else’s. Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman. Many transwomen are more feminist than a lot of born women who don’t much want to be women (for understandable reasons), who don’t really identify with women, some of whom are completely anti-feminist. The fact that they’re biologically female does not improve things.

To me, women is a political group. I never had much occasion to say that, or work with it, until the last few years when there has been a lot of discussion about whether transwomen are women. I discovered I more or less have always had a view on it, developed through transwomen I know, and have met, including prostituted ones, who are some of the strongest feminists in opposition to prostitution I’ve ever encountered. They are a big improvement on the born women who defend pimps and johns, I can tell you that. Many transwomen just go around being women, who knew, and suddenly, we are supposed to care that they are using the women’s bathroom. There they are in the next stall with the door shut, and we’re supposed to feel threatened. I don’t. I don’t care. By now, I aggressively don’t care.

Simone de Beauvoir said one is not born, one becomes a woman. Now we’re supposed to care how, as if being a woman suddenly became a turf to be defended. I have become more impassioned and emphatic as I have become more informed, and with the push-back from colleagues who take a very different view. Unfortunately some people have apparently physically defended their transition, also. This kind of change develops your views is a further in response to a sharpening of developments in the world. But the law Andrea Dworkin and I wrote gives “transsexuals” rights explicitly; that was 1983. We were thinking about it; we just didn’t know as much as it is possible to know now.

I have a hard time believing someone who is so language-aware used the term “turf” unintentionally there. And she’s right about the Minnesota Ordinance; I was just teaching it again and was surprised that trans people are mentioned and included specifically. Here’s another interview with MacKinnon with TransAdvocate where she reiterates these points.

By now, I aggressively don’t care. And this from a feminist – nay, maybe *the* feminist – who takes women’s experience of patriarchal violence and women’s fear of violence about as seriously as a person can.

Mark Ruffalo Brings the Feminism

CORRECTION 5/31: This piece wasn’t written by Ruffalo, just quoted by him. The original author is Libby Anne Bruce.

We’ve all seen them – the videos by young women proclaiming they are not feminists. Most of us just roll are eyes, but Mark Ruffalo decided to respond. And wow, does he.

“My response to the “I am not a feminist” internet phenomenon….

First of all, it’s clear you don’t know what feminism is. But I’m not going to explain it to you. You can google it. To quote an old friend, “I’m not the feminist babysitter.”

But here is what I think you should know.

You’re insulting every woman who was forcibly restrained in a jail cell with a feeding tube down her throat for your right to vote, less than 100 years ago.

You’re degrading every woman who has accessed a rape crisis center, which wouldn’t exist without the feminist movement.

You’re undermining every woman who fought to make marital rape a crime (it was legal until 1993).

You’re spitting on the legacy of every woman who fought for women to be allowed to own property (1848). For the abolition of slavery and the rise of the labor union. For the right to divorce. For women to be allowed to have access to birth control (Comstock laws). For middle and upper class women to be allowed to work outside the home (poor women have always worked outside the home). To make domestic violence a crime in the US (It is very much legal in many parts of the world). To make workplace sexual harassment a crime.

In short, you know not what you speak of. You reap the rewards of these women’s sacrifices every day of your life. When you grin with your cutsey sign about how you’re not a feminist, you ignorantly spit on the sacred struggle of the past 200 years. You bite the hand that has fed you freedom, safety, and a voice.

In short, kiss my ass, you ignorant little jerks.”

It’s the cutesy sign bit that really nails it, no?