Trans Language Awareness

Increasingly in the field of addiction research, we are seeing a commitment to acknowledging and understanding the “relevant contours” of addiction for people from different social locations. We often seek to understand the cumulative advantage or disadvantage that can occur at distinct intersections of human experience, based on such factors as socioeconomic status, age, geographic location, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and of course gender. Most researchers now acknowledge that gender does not exist within a neat binary (i.e., “women” versus “men”), and is likely to shift over the lifecourse. More and more we are seeing the inclusion of trans people in research, and in some rare cases, people who identify as “gender fluid” – i.e., those who do not readily identify with normative gender categories. While this trend signals a commitment to understanding a rich diversity of experiences, researchers’ interest in gender issues, and trans issues in particular, is not always up to speed with the evolving language and politics of being trans*.

Given the power of language to reduce people to labels and in the process, stigmatize them (as is the case with terms like, “drug addict”, “HIV positive” and “prostitute”), it is important for us to think carefully about how we use it. When it comes to speaking about trans people there are a few issues to consider. First, we often inadvertently use incorrect grammar. People often refer to “transgendered” women or “transgendered” men. This is akin to calling someone a “younged woman” or a “younged man”. As such, the correct language would be “transgender woman” and “transgender man” or more simply, “trans woman” and “trans man”. In many cases, people prefer the term “trans*” as it includes those who identify as transgender and/or transsexual.

Another term sometimes used in popular discourse is “transgenders”. This kind of language constitutes a form of “othering”, which is the process whereby people draw a distinction between themselves and “others” based on perceived differences. These others often become defined by, and reduced to, a fixed set of assumed characteristics. This process inevitably leads to bias and stereotyping. Many trans people experience this kind of language, and the actions that go along with it, as deeply discriminatory in the same way that racist language is experienced.

Similarly, there can be a tendency among researchers to write about trans people’s experiences as if they are homogenous. Because of our desire to better understand how gender shapes addiction in our research we attempt to separate the experiences of men, from women. Sometimes we create a third category of trans people. However, just as there is no universal experience of being a cisgender¹ man or a cisgender woman, there is no singular trans experience. What’s more, some trans people do not want to be seen as a distinct group as they aspire to more general gender categories. For instance, many trans people wish to “pass” and simply be called men or women, or boys or girls as the case may be.

Finally, there is a tendency to conflate trans identity with sexual identity. For instance, researchers will often refer to “gay, lesbian, and trans” populations. While trans identity politics are often intimately tied to gay, lesbian and queer politics, a trans identity is not a sexual identity. Trans people may consider themselves “gay” or “straight”, or they may prefer to identify as “queer” to signal their resistance to heteronormative thinking and categorization.

Admittedly, all these issues can make writing up research results complicated. Even more so given that the language continues to evolve alongside gender politics. As researchers the onus is on us to evolve alongside these kinds of important social and political movements. In part this means acknowledging and including trans people and trans issues in our research. But it also means being attuned to the meaningful distinctions between, and the implications of, the labels and the categorizations we use. There needs to be an explicit recognition of the power of words to both empower and disempower people.

¹ The term cisgender refers to when a person’s biological sex (e.g., being born female) matches their gender experience (e.g., living as a girl or woman).

Leah Shumka

Author: Leah Shumka, sessional instructor,  Gender Studies, University of Victoria; doctoral candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto.

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC