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Transgender language reform : some challenges and strategies for promoting trans-affirming, gender-inclusive language

Issue: Vol 1 No. 1 (2017)

Journal: Journal of Language and Discrimination

Subject Areas:

DOI: 10.1558/jld.33139


Transgender people’s recent increase in visibility in the contemporary United States has presented new linguistic challenges. This article investigates those challenges and presents strategies developed by trans speakers and promoted by trans activists concerned with language reform. The first of these is the selection of gendered lexical items, including both gender identity terms (woman, man, etc.) and more implicitly gendered words (e.g. beautiful, handsome). The second is the assignment of third person pronouns like she/her/hers and he/ him/his as well as non-binary pronouns like singular they/them/theirs or ze/ hir/hirs. Both of these challenges tap into the importance trans people place on individual self-identification, and they come with new interactional practices such as asking people directly what pronouns they would like others to use when referring to them. The third challenge addressed here is avoiding gendering people when the referent’s gender isn’t relevant or known, which can be addressed through the selection of gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language. The final challenge is how to discuss gender when it is relevant – e.g. in discussions of gender identity, socialisation or sexual physiology – without delegitimising trans identities. Several strategies are presented to address this issue, such as hedging all generalisations based on gender, even when doing so seems unnecessary in the normative sex/gender framework or using more precise language regarding what aspect(s) of gender are relevant. Taken as a whole, trans language reform reflects the importance of language, not just as an auxiliary to identity, but as the primary grounds on which identity construction takes place.

Author: Lal Zimman

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