Monday, October 7, 2013

There are normal people and then there's you.

I keep on trying to write this post, writing a lot of it, and then starting over.  I can't seem to get it right.

When I was little the two genders I knew about were entirely equal in my eyes, and without even realizing I was doing so I based a lot of things on the idea that they were entirely equal in everyone's eyes.  One of the various things this did was make me completely misinterpret a feature of language.

Things like, "gods and goddesses" "actors and actresses" "[almost any pair in which one of the words has an -ess/-esses suffix]" "gay and lesbian" (then the common term) "mankind and womankind" "firemen and -women" and so forth all, by definition, double count the female members of the group.  Even "he" and "she" the dictionary told me, was a pair of words where the first could include anyone and the second was "no boys allowed."

I thought this was terribly unfair.  Boys and girls were clearly entirely equal so why did girls always seem to get a special world?  If two people are the same and you just randomly give one of them more that's not nice.  To be clear I didn't think boys should be able to be actresses, I just thought that if girls were going to get a special word boys should too.

Now clothes, on the other hand... there the problem was clearly that everyone should be allowed to wear all the clothes and some jerks (all of society) were saying that there were special girls' clothes boys couldn't wear.  Everyone should be allowed to wear all the clothes.  Silly kids, Trix are for everyone.  At least I called that one right.

And my solution for the other problem would have actually worked too, but not for the reason I thought.  I started from the assumption that boys and girls were equal and thought equal and considered equal in all things and fucking equality, and then the unequal treatment seemed like it was mean to the group not getting a special word.

It never occurred to me that people could hear a word like "actor" which means "fucking person -genderless word here you assholes-- who acts" and assume it meant, "male actor" unless told otherwise.  Because actor, without any adjectives, must mean (and does mean) normal actor.  That's how language works.  And what's not normal about a female actor?

What's not normal about a female god?  Hera and Demeter and Persephone and Athena and Artemis and so forth are just as normal as Zeus and Poseidon and Hades and Ares and Apollo.

But if you don't start with the assumption that normal obviously includes the females in the group then there must be something not normal about a female god because the term "gods and goddesses" says, "divinities and female divinities."  Or, if we want to say the same root word, "normal gods and female gods."  That's how language works.  Separating it out that way marks female as abnormal.

It's like saying "people and women", except with another species.  (Ok, technically they can mate with humans to produce viable offspring but that's not important right now.)  Professions are worse because they're talking about the humans all around us.  Take the "who act" out of the words "actors and actresses" and you're very literally left with "people and women."  Because "actors and actresses" means "people who act and women who act."

There's a reason that there's a move away from words like "actress".  The word is bullshit.  It doesn't have to be.  If it were paired with a word that means "male person who acts" then there would be no problem with one that means "female person who acts" but since it's paired with a word that means "any person who acts" it means that there's something strange and different and so-weird-we-had-to-invent-a-word-for-it-when-the-alternative-gets-none about someone who acts being female.

There's one word for normal people, and another word for women.  When I was little I didn't get how insulting this was to women because I thought that women were obviously normal people (because they ARE normal people) and didn't consider that separating them out says that they're not.

The extent of "normal people and women" wasn't driven home until last year.  I knew that there were products marketed to all kids and girls, I might have realized that there were products marketed to people and women, but it took a picture of two books to really drive home that even when we do have two equal words, one for male and one for female, we still don't fucking use them.

The picture, which I saw on this post by Fred Clark but originally comes from this post at the Ms. Blog, is of two books.  One book is subtitled, "Just how big can a little girl dream?"  Next to it is a book that appears to be identical except for one thing: the main character is a boy instead of a girl.  Same author, same illustrator, same company, same style, same title except for the gendered name needing to be a boy's name instead of a girl's name.  Is it subtitled, "Just how big can a little boy dream?"  No.  It's, "Just how big can a little kid dream?"  One for kids, one for girls.

The opening paragraphs of Fred's post are a great summary of the phenomenon:
The Ms. Blog offers a collection of reader-submitted photos of products marketed to people and also to women
Not to men and to women, but to people — normal, legitimate, regular people, and to women — abnormal, subordinate, irregular not-quite people.
And while that is horrible, that's not even what this post is about.

I decided to write this post after learning that "cis" is apparently social justice porn.  That's one of the nicer descriptions of the term I've heard.  It's also hate speech, doncha know?

For anyone who doesn't know, cis and trans are Latin prefixes that between them form a complete set.  Anything that is not trans is by definition cis.  Anything that is not cis is by definition trans.  If you're not transgender you must be cisgender because that's what the word elements "trans" and "cis" mean.  If you're not transsexual you must by definition be cissexual.  If you're a woman who isn't a transwoman you must be a ciswoman.  If you're a man who isn't a transman you must be a cisman.

Like I said, it's a complete set.  If you have all things that are trans and all things that are cis you have ALL THE THINGS.  This doesn't even have to do with gender; it's just what the prefixes mean.  So when they prefixes are applied to gender, everyone has to be one or the other.

Now we don't always use both prefixes because, for example, we're generally not concerned with gressions.  Gressions isn't even a word.  We're only concerned with gressions that cross some boundary: transgressions.  If we cared about gressions that don't cross boundaries they'd be cisgressions.  Sort of like how we use inter- a lot more than intra-.

But if we're talking about people then if we don't use both words we end up with the same problem as "people and women."  We end up with our very language saying we have normal, legitimate, regular people, and abnormal, subordinate, irregular not-quite people.  If we have "women and transwomen" then we're saying that there are normal, legitimate, regular women, and abnormal, subordinate, irregular not-quite women.  Or, as some people would have it, not at all women.

That's why we need the prefix cis to be there.  Most of the time we're going to be talking about women and it won't fucking matter if they're cis or trans and so there will be no prefix.  But when it does matter we can't have the words be "women and transwomen" because then that means we're not talking about transwomen when we're talking about women.  It has to be "ciswomen and transwomen" otherwise our very language makes us assholes.  It hurts people.

But there are people who are fighting to make sure that cis doesn't get used.

And it's not just that.

Genderqueer people exist, whether others like it or not.  Whether others admit it or not.  The alternative term is genderconforming.  But if you use that some people will think you're evil or you've gone too far or you're a bigot against them because "conforming" is a dirty word.  Why, liquid conforms to its container and this house conforms to the building codes and people generally conform to the laws.  See, it's HIDEOUS!  Clearly the alternative to genderqueer is just plain NORMAL and there's no need for any word for it.

Or so the argument goes.

Genderfluid people exist.  The alternative would be genderstable/genderstatic or something like that I suppose.  I've not heard it used.

We have people and people of color.

And at this point I want to stop for a moment and point something out.  Sometimes a word is created or popularized by the out-group because people in the in-group are seen as so strange they need some special to distinguish them from normal.  I'm betting "actress" was an example of this.  Some guy wanted a way to be clear he wasn't talking about a normal actor but a female one.

Sometimes it's created or popularized by the in-group because it's needed.

The reason for the adjective pair "gay and lesbian" (now largely replaced by the nouns "lesbians and gay men" which makes clear that gay women are not being excluded from gay people) was that the Sapphic term needed to be used because otherwise gay women got left the fuck out.  They're included by definition in "gay" unless there's some male only modifier, but being included by definition doesn't translate into being included in reality.  It's perfectly possible to have an event for gay people and then to say, when lesbians show up, "Well I didn't mean womenfolk, stay out."

Plenty of people would prefer never to think of people of color, or genderfluid people, or genderqueer people, or transpeople, or any people but those like themselves who they consider normal and default and whatnot.  So they're not popularizing the idea that there's one word for normal people and another for the abnormal, subordinate, irregular not-quite people.

What they often are trying to do is make sure there isn't a word for them.  And if there isn't a word for them then that means that they're the normal people.  They don't need any special word, they're just folks.  Which means that either there is no specialized term at all in which case it's impossible to talk about, say, genderqueer people in particular Or that there's a division of normal people and then those other people.

And I swear there are five thousand more examples, which I wanted to come back to after that asside, but I'm pretty much out of time so I have to cut to the conclusion.

But the point is: it's not just one group.  Whatever you are, if you aren't at the intersection of all forms of privileged approved socially supported things, there's normal people... and then there's you.

If the language supports the idea that maybe you are normal after all, then there's someone fighting against it saying that while it may be ok to label you* it's totally not ok for there to be a label that applies to people not like you because that would apply to them and that's fucking hate speech or turning actual social justice into social justice porn or whatever it takes to make sure that instead of there being a pair of words for "people like you" and "people not like you" the only two words are the ones for "normal people" and "people like you" thus demonstrating at a linguistic level that they're normal and you're a freak.


* And only may be ok.  There will be people who think that it should be physically impossible to talk about people like you because why should there be a word for something as wrong as you.


  1. I hope you wrote this...not this morning. Because school. Also if that was in that social justice porn thing, I am possibly sorry I showed it to you if it pissed you off or upset you...

    I do think that "cisgendered" and "genderstatic" and, um, stuff, can't think of other terms right now, are hot, and not in the mostly derogatory/tongue-in-cheek-at-best sense of the "social justice porn" post. I mean that if if I feel like reading a story where boy meets girl or girl meets girl and everyone involved is cisgendered and genderstatic...and neurotypical...and monogamous...etc., I want that story to be taking place in a world where those are just some of the options of ways to be interesting and attractive and heroic and in love.

    Also this post is the sort of post that could be a good Slacktiverse post.

    Also also, this part made me giggle: "Now we don't always use both prefixes because, for example, we're generally not concerned with gressions. Gressions isn't even a word."

    It seems like it should be a word. And we do care about "a-gressions..." and "pro-gressions" but I don't know how that fits in.

    Like many geeks, I first heard the terms "cis" and "trans" in organic chemistry. Compounds that require those modifiers are always one or the other, with no in between. People, not necessarily so much? Which I guess is partially one of the points of "trans*" as a term?

    1. I am possibly sorry I showed it to you if it pissed you off or upset you...

      Don't worry, I wasn't pissed off or upset; it just set me to thinking about it. Other people have said much worse things about the terms than the post in question did.

    2. Oh, and aggressions are gressions against while progressions are gressions forward. Regressions are gressions back. Digressions are gressions away, apart from, or in a different direction.

      I guess we do care about gressions more than I was thinking. The root word is step. Transgress: Step across.
      Aggress: Step against.
      Progress: Step forward.
      Regress: Step back.
      Digress: Step in a different direction.

  2. "Why, liquid conforms to its container and this house conforms to the building codes and people generally conform to the laws. See, it's HIDEOUS!"

    Bwah! And we're all unique, just like everyone else...

  3. Wait, I'm confused. In one paragraph you write "Anything that is not trans is by definition cis. Anything that is not cis is by definition trans", but in the next you affirm that genderqueer and genderfluid people do exist. I feel like I'm in some kind of Schrodinger's box.

    Are there chicken nuggets For Girls and chicken nuggets For Boys in USA now, or is it Russia-specific ridiculousness? (No, really. Girls' version is in pink boxes, even.)


    1. I feel like I'm in some kind of Schrodinger's box.

      First off I'm sorry. Second:

      The intersection of terminology and identity is ... tricky. The terminology is clear, but the people who use it make it less so, often times because the terminology gets associated with the most privileged of the people who use it. Which both means that people who are by definition covered by a term may be excluded by those with more power, and that people might not want to be included even if the definition does include them. The second part is what makes it tricky.

      Because it's one thing to tell people who refuse to use words properly because they're being jerks to use the words properly. It's another thing to tell people who don't want to use the words that way because people have been jerks to them to use the words that way. The first is a necessary thing to do against people who use their privilege to warp the language to keep others down. The second can be just plain hurtful.

      Trans just means across. It does emphatically not mean all the way across or across only once. If something doesn't stay within the bounds of something then it is trans. (A transnational corporation doesn't stay within the bounds of a nation, but that doesn't mean that it picks up from one nation, crosses the border to another and stays in that other one.)

      So by definition, and only by definition (definitely not by "I shall force all genderqueer and genderfluid people to adopt this term whether they want to or not") genderqueer and genderfluid people fall under the term "transgender" because they're not always completely on the same side of the border as they were assigned at birth.

      Which is what transgender actually means. Not always staying within the socially constructed bounds of the gender that one was assigned at birth. But the most visible, most privileged, most socially powerful people in that group are the ones who are assigned one gender, identify with the other, and stay within the socially accepted bounds of the other continuously. Which has often meant the exclusion, based on a combination of completely innocent ignorance and actual bigotry but not the actual definition of the word, of genderqueer and genderfluid people.

      Transmen and transwomen do not make up the whole of transpeople anymore than men and women make up the whole of people.

      But if you don't want to be included in the term transgender then I'm going to support your right to say, "Fuck the definition, this is what I identify as."

      It's only the people who are, "I don't identify as anything because I'm normal unlike those people," that I will attack with definitions. Claiming exclusive rights to normal for yourself will make me pull out, "Well, by definition you are either A or B," claiming "I prefer C to A and B," makes me go, "That's fine." (Unless C is something obnoxious like "The only normal person in the room.")


      And no, chicken nuggets aren't marketed that way where I live.

    2. Yeah, I kind of didn't get that, also. Trans is trans. Cis is cis. Many people are somewhere in between...but maybe there's more than one axis...well, I mean, of course there are, there's sex and gender and orientation and... so Queer and Genderqueer are more encompassing terms. But they sort of impy a transgressive/subversive meaning, where saying, "I'm a woman. A trans lesbian woman," doesn't necessarily. It's... not gender-nonconforming. Or at least not necessarily so...

      The problem I have with the idea of "conformist"/"nonconformist in this context is that can be so region/culture/subgroup specific. There's not conforming to rules, spoken or otherwise, because screw the rules, and there's not fitting into the categories allowed for by the rules, because you are conforming to a specific identity no one incorporated into those rules. Or course it's often both/somewhere between the extremes...(More Complicated!) But the people in charge of or strongly attached to the rules tend to assume that all nonconformity reflects rebellion.

    3. Okay, thanks for clarifying, Chris.

      (So this chicken nonsence is localy originated, then. I wonder what's next. Bread?)


    4. You already know about the ballpoint pens, right?

      See the reviews.

      In the case of a word like "actor", the situation gets slightly more complicated because for a very long time it was the case that actor did always carry with it an implication of "male person". So when female people started to do that particular thing, there was a feeling that a different word was needed for them -- in much the same way that the clumsier terminology of "male nurse" was developed later.

    5. I don't understand how to make my reply to where I think it should...

      Trans just means across. It does emphatically not mean all the way across or across only once. If something doesn't stay within the bounds of something then it is trans. (A transnational corporation doesn't stay within the bounds of a nation, but that doesn't mean that it picks up from one nation, crosses the border to another and stays in that other one.)

      Oh, right, because "transportation," and stuff. Chemistry led me astray again.

    6. @lonespark

      Chemistry led me astray again.

      I had to look it up, so I'm definitely not an expert, but it looks to me like the definition in organic chemistry is the same definition, but since it's for things that aren't moving it's much more limited in application. So it only led you astray insofar as it limited your view, not in that what it showed you doesn't apply to other things.

      Obviously it totally means some of the same things when talking about gender otherwise you would have said "What the hell? This use of trans is nothing like the trans I know."



      I didn't know about the pens. And it's definitely true that a lot of stuff was male only for a long time, but then we have examples like "poetess" when women could be poets before the English language existed.

  4. (Chris, I've got your email, I'm just still thinking over it. You know that I'm not a very articulate person.)


  5. Don't feel pressured. You are not the only one I sent the email to*, so if you don't have a response that's ok.


    *Though you are the first person to let me know you got it.