Language I Hate, Part 1

There are several words and phrases that you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear if you hang out with trans folks (or cis folks who talk about trans people or issues) often enough.  The trans community, like any community, has its own language and ways to discuss certain topics, and much of that language is fantastic and makes it easier to talk about myself, my friends, and the kind of things I think about all day.  However, some of this language is extremely frustrating to me, and I’m going to address a couple of examples over the next few posts.

The first one, which I’ve heard quite a bit recently, is using “bio-” as a prefix for a cisgender person.  My instant impulse, upon hearing that, is to ask what the hell I am, if I am not a bio-me.  Did being trans turn me into a cyborg, or perhaps a Muppet?  Either of those things would be interesting to experience, actually, but I am pretty sure they didn’t happen.  If I wake up one morning with Frank Oz’s arm inside of me, I’ll let y’all know.

I realize that it can be useful to distinguish between the various types people who share the same pronouns, but can’t we use more tactful and accurate methods?  I’d say “bio” ranks above “real” or “normal” as a descriptive word for a person who isn’t in the trans wonderland, but that isn’t saying much.  Personally, I am a fan of the word cisgender or cissexual, depending on context; it’s a way to say “not trans” that’s less othering and alienating, and unlike saying “bio-male” there’s not that nasty side effect of making me feel like Frankenstein’s monster as I lumber about in my constructed, unnatural, chemical-assisted maleness.

I feel awkward when language like this comes up.  If there’s a larger conversation happening, it doesn’t always feel appropriate to interrupt and say “hey, this word you’re using seems kind of disrespectful to all of us here, can you use this other one I like much better instead?”  But at the same time, I think it’s good to be able to voice those thoughts, and I appreciate when other people point out the things I say that they don’t like.  I certainly think this is much more minor than many of the other language problems trans folks have – the other posts I want to write in this series discuss some less minor examples, and then there’s the huge issue of the wider world often disrespecting our names and pronouns and coming up with all sorts of degrading slurs for us – but it’s still frustrating to hear.

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5 Responses to Language I Hate, Part 1

  1. Skuld says:

    I think the term “bio-” just comes from a shortening of the term “biological sex.” I don’t think anybody I’ve met has ever used it to dehumanize any transperson in any way. I also don’t agree that the “bio-” prefix necessarily means “cisgendered.” I’ve encountered it specifically as someone describing their sex chromosomal makeup. Perhaps the meaning is shifting in the transcommunity.

    As someone who is genderqueer—to whom neither the terms “cis-” nor “trans-” apply—I will tell people I’m “bio-female” because it’s the easier way to say that I’m an XX and lack the sry gene. That doesn’t mean I’m cisgendered or cissexual at all.

    Anyways, there’s an argument for why that should matter to anyone at all, but in reality, for some people it does, unfortunately. *shrugs* That’s about all I have to say.

    • I have definitely heard it used to indicate not just difference, but hierarchy. I realize that’s not always the case, but I find that there’s often an undertone of judgment when it’s being used. I do know a decent number of folks who are pretty uncomfortable with it in most contexts regardless of intent. I know we are usually not on the same page with intent of the speaker as it relates to appropriateness of language – I’m not trying to be Language Police here (although I will in a later post because I think it’s that important).

      The focus on biological differences kind of weirds me out. Depending on what differences you’re looking at and an individual person, the amount of variation between a trans person and someone who is biologically the same gender can be pretty small, and there are enough natural variations (ambiguous genitalia, hormone levels, chromosomes that aren’t XX or XY) that while most “normal” comparisons are really different, you can pick some outliers that aren’t that dissimilar. I understand why it can be a useful difference to use as a reference point but I think focusing on biological differences places a lot of emphasis on things that tend to be dragged from the private realm to the public anyway: hormonal levels, surgical procedures, etc. that aren’t really anyone else’s business.

      You are completely right that you need to be able to use whatever works for you, especially if trans/cis don’t!

    • enne says:

      I won’t argue with somebody who wants to identify as a bio-male or a bio-female.

      However, my experience is that it is mostly used as a way to classify others hierarchically rather than a way to identify yourself. I see the bio- prefix very often get used as shorthand for “real” or “normal”, such as “you look just as good as a bio-woman” as a backhanded compliment to a trans woman. So, that language comes off as very problematic to me.

      • violet says:

        it is mostly used as a way to classify others hierarchically rather than a way to identify yourself.

        For this reason, I will generally argue with people who want to use “bio-male” or “bio-female” to describe themselves (depending on the prevailing social circumstances otherwise, of course).

        Whatever they mean by the term, by using it they’re perpetuating the system that naturalizes cis people’s genders at the expense of trans people’s genders.

        Skuld, there are plenty of ways you can describe your situation without the implicit claim (whether or not you intend the claim doesn’t matter, it’s there enough that we can hear it) that your gender is biologicaler than ours. You can talk about how you were assigned (or even how you were coercively assigned, if you want to get rid of any implication that that is how you identify). You can tell people you’re genderqueer. You can tell people how you present your gender in the present.

        But I’m not going to agree with you that your identity should trump trans folks’ feelings about this matter, since it is a language structure that specifically tends to put down trans people in comparison to cis people. Genderqueer people are not outside that dynamic, and should be sensitive to it.

  2. Ben Kern says:

    I agree. Being cisgendered, I would be rather offended by being called a bio-male. The term makes me feel like a collection of organs and ick. While technicly true, it makes me uncomfortable to be reminded.

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