Trans women are women. Trans men are men.
We’re a different type of woman or man than cis ones, to be sure, but we’re still men and women. The fight for our recognition as such continues, but to anybody reading this article, or any other article on this website, this should not be a controversial statement.
However, there are subtle ways that even our fellow trans folks and allies undermine this idea, and it has nothing to do with our beliefs. Rather, it has to do with the language we use. By using “transwomen” or “transmen” as opposed to “trans women” or “trans men,” you’re subtly communicating the idea that we’re not, in fact, men and women, but something else altogether.
Does that sound absurd? Am I just too much of a language nerd who’s reading way too much into the difference a simple space makes in a in a word? Are there much greater issues we’re facing as a community I should be focusing my attention on?
But because it’s such a simple change to make, and because there are about a thousand different fronts we’re fighting on to simply be recognized as who we are, this one could be a very simple victory – and all it takes is a simple strike of the space bar.
How could this possibly make a difference, you ask?
Brace yourselves. It’s time for a grammar lesson.
Nouns And Adjectives
To anyone having vicious flashbacks to sixth grade English lessons, don’t worry. We’ll get through this together, and it won’t take more than a minute.
So, there are different types of words that have different functions in a sentence. Verbs, adverbs, prepositions, and so on—but for our purposes today we only need to understand nouns and adjectives.
A noun is a person, place, or thing.
“Table” is a noun.
“Purse” is a noun.
“Toronto” is a noun.
“Sophie” is a noun, and so is whatever your name is.
Look around you—every single thing you can point to is a noun. But nouns can also be intangible things, like emotions or concepts. “Fear” is a noun, and so is “astronomy.” You might be able to point at the things astronomy studies, or that someone is afraid of, but you can’t point to the concept of fear itself. Nonetheless, you can still describe fear as doing something. For example, in the sentence “he was gripped by fear,” fear is a noun, because fear is what’s doing the gripping (metaphorically speaking, of course).
The simplest way of saying it is, if it either does stuff, or it has stuff done to it, it’s a noun.
Still with me?
Okay, now an adjective is something that tells us what kind of noun we’re dealing with. Take “French toast” for example – toast is a noun, and French is an adjective that tells us what kind of toast. It’s a different kind of toast than burnt toast or buttered toast or mouldy toast, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re dealing with toast.
You can add multiple adjectives to a noun as well. It’s not inconceivable, for example, to imagine burnt buttered sweet sourdough vegetarian French toast. Burnt, buttered, sweet, sourdough, vegetarian, French – all of these are adjectives. They give us a picture of a very specific type of toast, but it’s still toast. Add a hundred more adjectives, as many as you can think of. Add every single adjective in the English language. It’s still toast.
However, if you combine the adjective with the noun, it becomes a noun.
That happens sometimes in language. Take the word “rainbow,” for example. It’s a combination of two words, rain, and bow. The word “bow” was a noun, and “rain” was the adjective that told us what kind of bow we were dealing with. Combining the two, we have the noun “rainbow.”
It’s no longer a type of bow, linguistically speaking. It’s something different altogether. The same goes for words like Gameboy,crosswalk, and blackjack.
So, here are the important takeaways:
A noun is an object
An adjective modifies a noun
An adjective does not change the nature of an object
Combining an adjective with a noun creates a new noun
Why Should You Care?
As someone who makes my living with the written word, perhaps I’m more sensitive to this than most. Perhaps I’m one of the only people who care about this, while the rest of the world focuses on much greater issues.
But this is how my brain works.
“Trans woman” is an adjective and a noun. We know we’re talking about a woman, and we’re given more specifics with the adjective trans. It’s the same way you’d describe a tall woman, a short woman, a Sicilian woman, a Japanese woman, a smart woman, a smelly woman, or any number of other adjectives.
But combining trans and woman, you get something different.
A “transwoman” is not a woman, grammatically speaking, just like a “rainbow” is not a bow and a “Gameboy” is not a boy. It puts the “transwoman” in a different category. And in a world where there are ten thousand different ways our rights are being assailed, this is a small but meaningful distinction.
I think this might come from people seeing the word transgender. That is correct, because it’s used like a noun. Gender is a noun on its own, but if we used trans as an adjective, we’d have a situation where the word trans is modifying the word gender, as though a “trans gender” were a type of gender, which it is not. It’s related to gender, obviously, but it isn’t a type of gender in the same way you might say “male gender” or “nonbinary gender.”
But a trans man is a man. He’s a different type of man than a Spanish man or any one of hundreds of other types of men, but he’s still a man.
Consider this the next time you’re writing about trans folks. If you believe trans men are men, and trans women are women, let the language you use reflect this.
Don’t Worry, You’re Not Bad
Am I saying you’re directly oppressing trans people by saying transpeople? Of course not.
I recognize how oppressive, racist, and classist language can be. Not everyone has a strong grasp of it. Not everyone has had the educational opportunities that I, a trans woman, yes, but also a middle class white trans woman, have had. Not everyone’s mind is predisposed to make sense of the intricacies of grammar. Not everyone speaks my particular dialect of English as their first language or at all. And not everyone is as hopelessly nerdy about language as I am. That’s okay.
But as professional writers and communicators, it makes a difference. Trans people are not new – go back as far as you like in history, and you’ll find people who don’t conform to the gender roles of their societies – but the discourse around us in the public sphere, at least here in the West, is. As the people about whom these narratives are being written, it’s up to us to influence public perception of us, and referring to trans people properly is a small and subtle way to do so, which can make a difference.
You might not care, and you might not have noticed.
But some do.
It can and does make a difference, subtly, in how the world perceives us. And all it takes is a single space.