Calling names and name-calling: gender terminology

  • Posted on February 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm

It’s a funny thing, but I still remember from 1986, the class roll-call. Every morning and afternoon, the Register. Alty, Anderson, Bird, Burkinshaw, Catton, Cookson – then me. Names stick. And somewhere down that list, O’Donovan will remember the half dozen names before his. They weren’t our real names of course. Budgie, Bugs, Pod were who we were. It didn’t matter what teachers called us, we identified each other differently; we knew each other, and if Bugs got his name for his front teeth, nobody minded.

One year, someone decided that Cookie should become Shirley. Now that was different. Were we all going to get girls’ names, and what did it mean? I felt very uncomfortable with what name I might get. It lasted a week or too, and it was a bad idea, so by consensus we dropped it. It was a boys’ school, you knew what to do to survive with minimal hassle, so for a while he was Copperknob instead (red hair!).

Naming ambiguity has been in the media, blogs and TV a lot in recent times. They always will be I guess. I remember discovering that in Australia Durex was something different, and much later, when doing my MBA, going into the fraught world of international brands. ‘Marathon’ chocolate bars sounded pretty robust, while the renamed ‘Snickers’ still sounds more like knickers to me, or a cheap snigger. Even that last word sounds dodgy these days.

Gender terminology

Despite the global vocabulary brought by the Internet, terms for gender and sexuality remain difficult. In one country or continent, the connotations (like pants) can be quite different. What we define in the UK as cross-dressing, as transgender, as gender-queer (again, ‘queer’ used to mean something else) and as transsexual, might be clearer than ever – but not everyone agrees. And terms almost become names, especially when someone is telling you what they think you are. The grammar is as tedious as school: what is the correct pronoun, when is a term only an adjective, not an adjectival noun? When is an abbreviation reserved (only a tranny can call a tranny a tranny) such that outsiders using it becomes offensive?

Any social group with commonalities will want to define, as we did at school, what the names mean. But the teachers weren’t wrong. We went and changed names mid-term – now that could be confusing! So it is with gender labels. There is a definite role for academia here, an academia that understands from the inside, not that makes it up from observation alone (remember quantum effects: the observer alters the state of the observed? It holds true for some social research too). And I think we should allow it, and if necessary bend to it, simply to achieve a reliable vocabulary that we can share with a bemused world.

The gender vocabulary needs to broad but clear, and allow for respect of many states. This week I have read comments online by lads who think gender-diversity means ‘weirdos’ who should (not could) be made fun of. And I have read as much from ‘lads’ who think banter about rape is OK, presumably because women are not equal as people to them. Worse, I have read hateful comments by trans people about other trans people who don’t fit their idea of sufficient authenticity, where one state of trans life and identity is real and another is mere pretence and deceit. Radical feminists can be truly hateful too about trans people not being ‘real’.

Naming middle genders

We need to describe the middle – the third states of gender – better, and trans people need to find their own place of comfort and true belonging without feeling someone else’s concept of gender authenticity must be their goal. Me? I don’t need to be a woman. I never really can be, and however much I risk my well-being to gain my dream breasts, or a better jaw or remodel my genitals, my bones were sculpted by testosterone, and I lived as a man for half a century. That has left an indelible mark. But before you shout at me because you need or needed maximal reassignment: I respect your choices and needs. I know without shadow of doubt that at one end of the spectrum, physical identity is absolute, and gender positivity places you in a traditionally binary place. Maybe one day it will for me too. But meanwhile for all the two-spirits, dual-gendered, female husbands, gender-queers, androgynes or whatever – there needs to be validation.

If you find you are on an unexpected journey (and unless your ticket is a lot clearer than mine), you really cannot know your destination. Knowing it probably won’t make it any easier, other than having some kind of end in sight. Gender dysphoria has degrees, and you don’t have to place yourself on the Benjamin scale or whatever right now if you don’t want. It might be useful later; maybe it will have changed later.

For now, I call myself transgender; I am crossing boundaries and I don’t know where it will end. At one level I have no choice, and at another I do have choices I can make. Finding my place, though, does mean I need a reliable description of where I am. Apparently, according to some comments I’ve had, I am just a man in a dress, assigned to fetishistic sidelines where frankly, I have never belonged – because their definition of transgender is terribly narrow and they own it!

I agree with Grrl Alex that it is quite legitimate to redefine by asserting individuality: you don’t have to do what anyone else does. You haven’t become another stereotype just because your gender discomfort has caught up with you.

We shall all remember the roll-call of gender terms, and hopefully definitions will become authoritative, but what we call ourselves does need to match (the more informed) academic study, and have clear meanings in the media playground and the world at large. Cookson? Cookie? Copperknob? Shirley? If you read this you’ll appreciate I was a friend, whatever; and Shirley was a bad idea at the time.


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1 Comment on Calling names and name-calling: gender terminology

  1. […] first year of (single sex) grammar school has featured in another blog, but for the first time I was in a place without rescue, where the expectations, academically, […]

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