History of the Word “Transgenderism”
Yesterday, right-wing talking head Michael Knowles gave a speech at CPAC where he claimed that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” He is by no means the first conservative to say such a thing — such eliminationist rhetoric has become increasingly commonplace in GOP circles these days.
When word of Knowles’ speech hit people’s news feeds today, many outright (and rightly) condemned it. But others instead opted for parsing words. To quote but one of many takes along this line: “he was not calling for transgender folk to be literally killed. He was careful to say transgenderISM, not the people themselves, should be eliminated.”
But the thing is, the word “transgenderism” began as an in-community term to refer to the phenomenon of transgender people (read: our existence and experiences). Therefore, “eradicating transgenderism” literally means eradicating us.
Way back in August 2015, I wrote a blogpost entitled Regarding Trans* and Transgenderism that delves into that history, and how cisgender outsiders subsequently twisted the word to make our existence and experiences seem like a mere ideology. What follows is an excerpt from the “transgenderism” section of that post. I am *not* sharing this in an attempt to resuscitate the word (as I don’t believe that is even possible at this point), but rather to add important historical context to these discussions, and to entreat cisgender people to *not* weigh in about language and issues with which they are not familiar with.
The word transgenderism has been around for as long as I have been aware of transgender activism. It appeared in the titles of explicitly trans activist books such as Patrick Califia’s 1997 book Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism, and the 2003 anthology Bisexuality and Transgenderism: InterSEXions of the Others. It appears in Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, Leslie Feinberg’s Trans Liberation, and countless other trans activist books, including Whipping Girl — most notably in the chapter “Coming to Terms with Transgenderism and Transsexuality.”
In all of these cases, the word “transgenderism” was used in a neutral manner to denote one of two things: the phenomenon of transgender people (our existence and our experiences), or the state of being transgender (e.g., I might talk about my own transgenderism). It is very common in English to use the suffixes “-ity” and “-ism” to create nouns that describe a phenomenon or state of being — for example, I might talk about my curiosity or intellectualism. So transsexuality and transgenderism are linguistically akin to those examples, and to me talking about my bisexuality, or discussing the subject of lesbianism more generally.
Prior to the last two years, I would (on rare occasions) hear complaints that transgenderism sounded like jargon or was too academic. Admittedly, it is not an “everyday conversation” word, but it does sometimes come in handy when one is writing about gender variant people and experiences (e.g., transgenderism throughout history, or people’s differing experiences with transgenderism). I have heard people presume that transgenderism has its origins in psychiatric/sexology discourses, the implication being that this would automatically make the word problematic. While I haven’t been able to confirm its first usage, I have doubts that this is necessarily the case. “Transgender” itself was a community term (not a psychiatric/sexology one), so it seems likely that the first usage of “transgenderism” would come from within the community, or at least from someone who was aware of and respectful toward trans perspectives. But even if it did originate in psychiatric/sexology discourses, this (in and of itself) wouldn’t disqualify its usage, as many other terms that trans people use all the time (e.g., transsexual, FTM/MTF, dysphoria, SRS) had similar origins. Indeed, the first known usage of cis terminology occurred in a 1914 German sexology article — I certainly do not think that we should stop using it for that reason.
So anyway, transgenderism has a long history of being used in a nonjudgmental and neutral manner, often by trans people themselves. But then, in the last couple years, some TERFs (trans-exclusive radical feminists) have purposefully misappropriated it in a way that confuses the state of being transgender with a potentially dangerous political ideology. This tactic is most obvious in Sheila Jeffreys’ 2014 book Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. And it was repeated in last year’s Michelle Goldberg “faux journalism” article “What Is a Woman? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.” Both of these subtitles compare apples to oranges — transgenderism is a naturally occurring phenomenon, not a political ideology — and both subtitles would have been more accurate had they pitted trans-exclusionary radical feminism against transgender activism (which is an actual ongoing political/ideological debate). This incorrect usage seems to purposefully capitalize on the fact that transgenderism is not an everyday word (so it will strike trans-unaware readers as somewhat alien) and seems intended to invoke certain oppressive ideologies (e.g., sexism, racism, fascism, and others) that also just so happen to end with the suffix “-ism.”
Jeffreys’ and Goldberg’s subtitles most certainly should be critiqued for insinuating that the existence of transgender people and the state of being transgender (i.e., transgenderism) is merely an oppressive political ideology. But sadly, it is so much easier to destroy words than to save them. So unsurprisingly I suppose, in the wake of Jeffreys’ book and Goldberg’s article, a word-elimination campaign against transgenderism began to pick up speed.
The most common complaint in this campaign against transgenderism centers on statements like “transgender people are not an ‘ism’.” But as I said earlier, “isms” aren’t always ideologies — many of them (e.g., magnetism, metabolism, hypothyroidism, lesbianism, transgenderism) are simply naturally occurring phenomena. Plus, not all ideological “isms” are bad or dangerous — for instance, I personally think that feminism (as a whole) is a positive and beneficial thing. If the subtitle to Jeffreys’ book was “A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgender Activism” (as would be more appropriate), would we be calling for a ban of the phrase “transgender activism” because it implies that transgender people are associated with an “ism”?
The other meme I’ve heard on multiple occasions in this recent word-elimination campaign is that trans people have never accepted or have always rejected the term transgenderism. Such statements are utterly ahistorical: As I’ve detailed above, the word has been used by trans activists (including myself) in a nonjudgmental and neutral manner for over two decades. What is new is that the term is now being misused by TERFs. And even if you do not personally like the word transgenderism (which is absolutely your right), you can probably recognize that it would be an extremely counterproductive strategy to surrender trans-related words to our enemies (whether they be TERFs, conservative political forces, etc.) as soon as they start misappropriating them. To take another example: Jeffreys and others misuse and abuse the word transgender in all sorts of ways (e.g., “transgendering,” “transgenders”), so does that mean that we should eliminate that word as well? And what would the ramifications of that be?
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