Monday, December 22, 2008
"Used to be a man"
One of the more despicable phrases ever coined by the modern media is “used to be a man.” It is more often than not used to describe a trans woman who has recently caught media attention and commonly occurs with at least to me, its equally offensive variations such as “born a man”, “born male”, “born a he”, or “female (supply profession/occupation here) used to be a he/used to be a man”.
This phrase has taken center stage anew with the winning of the RE/MAX Long Drive Championship in the US by Lana Lawless, a 55 year old, openly trans woman. One would think that with trans golfer Mianne Bagger’s success in the sport, the golfing world would be used to trans people by now. But no, Lana’s story is being sold as a golfing “scandal” of sorts and the media is once again having a field day throwing around all the above-mentioned phrases to describe her.
Lana seems to be taking it well though and in interviews she seems to be rolling with the punches and handling the situation with a sense of humor. So I really shouldn’t be reacting this way. Sometimes I just wish she’d confront the use of this phrase to describe her because it sensationalizes her.
Additionally, I can’t help but feel that our own community somehow is at fault here. The phrase “used to be a man” speaks of the kind of language we ourselves use in talking about our transgender experience. I would like to particularly problematize the concept of transition here.
In trans parlance, transition is the moment one starts changing one’s body and gender expression to that of the opposite gender (whatever that is to you). It is also the basis of the idea of the gender vector. The gender vector demonstrates the direction of gender change for people who transition, for example, from male to female, thus the abbreviation MTF for trans women and from female to male or FTM for trans men.
When I go to speaking engagements talking about Trans 101, I hardly use these terms in spite of their currency in our community in the same way that I don’t use the terms pre-op, post-op or non-op. I simply don’t feel that they should carry as much significance as others bestow on them. The problem with the terms pre-op, post-op and non-op is that they privilege the op or operation when we know that having the op is not the end-all, be-all of our trans experience. In the same vein, I view transition as an optional process. Many trans people will not transition or will not feel the need to do so. Or they may do so but not feel that it is a process of transitioning from one gender to another.
And I guess this is my point all along. I’ve always felt that we trans people have always been born the gender we now identify as. And no matter how that is explained—whether our transness is genetic or neurological—we were never the sex we were assigned at birth. In my case, I was never male. I was not born a he. I was not born a man. I was always female.
This is why the phrase “used to be a man” makes me cringe every time I hear or read it used to describe a trans woman because it is a clear case of ignorance of the trans experience. That or it’s an intentional sensationalizing of it. After all, as Monica Roberts has been pointing out in her blog, The Transgriot, the Associated Press has already outlined in its Stylebook what the press should do in talking about trans people. According to the Stylebook, when it comes to:
Transgender - Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
But this is just pronoun usage which is the tip of the iceberg in dealing with trans people. In fact, many articles about Lana Lawless do refer to her as she but only after revealing that she used to be a he. And this to me is the missing link. What Stylebooks don’t teach is how to genuinely treat people of trans experience with RESPECT when talking and reporting about them. That should be done in journalism school not after.
And for that to be fully realized, we trans people ourselves need to rethink and perhaps transform the language we use in talking about our experience. We are more than our surgeries. We are more than the direction of gender change we take. We must accept that above all and more than anything, we are simply, people first.