A Cliché Trapped in a Metaphor’s Body

When one reaches a certain point in transition and begins to delve into this riotously diverse, loose aggregate we call the “trans community” and its close cousins to whom we are the red-headed step sister (yes, quite the odd family, no?), one inevitably hits the wall of language.

What do you call yourself? To what group do you belong? How should you be addressed? How does this relate to how you address others? What language is hurtful and undermines you? On and on the questions and contemporaneous realisations go. Words, wonderful words, surround, bind, and penetrate you. At the end of the day again and again we are learning, re-learning, and un-learning language. Trans people are, along with certain other loose confederations of humanity, perhaps more deeply attuned to the vicissitudes of linguistic power and how language does power than your average bear.

And why is that? Because there is one realisation along with all the other usual ones (i.e. why it hurts when, as a trans man, someone calls you ‘she’ or a ‘woman’) that demonstrates language’s power.

The words we have often obviate any meaningful way of discussing our experiences.

Estimates on how many words exist in the English language vary widely, from 250,000, to 500,000, to nearly one million, depending on how one counts, and what one counts. Whatever the figure, it’s a staggering amount of verbiage, enough to say anything worth saying, surely.

Yet we had to invent the word “cis” and its derivatives, keep in mind. This was necessary in order to talk about us and our comparative experiences of differently-gendered people in such a way as to not undermine or degrade ourselves in the process. To avoid a dichotomy of trans/normal that brings with it a tonne of cultural baggage.

For those who do not speak English circumstances may differ slightly; different cultural traditions allow the importation or repurposing of language that existed from before the wave of European colonisation that may bear on some kind of gender-nonconforming experience, language that provides a conceptual home for a way of life and a state of being many may scorn.

Yet in a part of the world dominated by English, where Anglophone media plays a leading role in shaping thoughts, the inescapable reality for many western trans people is that our experience is defined by often imprecise, cis-centric, medicalised language that suits the purposes of almost anyone but us, in truth. This Anglophone sneeze has given a cold to several other languages, Western and non, that now take the metaphors and terms as loan words.

Perhaps the most famous metaphor of this sort is one so many of us use, one that is a media favourite, and that many “allies” use to conceptualise our existence.

I am a [true gender] trapped in a [coercively assigned gender’s] body[1].

I used this phrasing myself when I was first coming out. Coming out is, of course, a process of self-discovery and one that takes you down some very unforgiving pathways, and one of them is a crash course in the power of language. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the phrasing of this (in)famous line lays all of the conceptual groundwork needed for news outlets like the New York Post to gleefully call Amanda Simpson an “ex-man” and for those same news organisations to think, again and again, that it is quite fine to ungender our murdered sisters and brothers- and that it is pertinent information to give both the coercively assigned name, and old photographs. The public’s right to know- the public’s right to your most personal and private existence. All because this metaphor has vastly outgrown its original intent.

Let’s take a step back here and examine the power of such metaphors. We more than likely all know the one about “God the Father” yes? Metaphor par excellence. A friend of mine, a priest in the United Church of Canada, and a woman who thinks a lot about these things, revealed to me how over the course of Christianity’s existence this metaphor evolved in conjunction with the ascent of other patriarchal forces in society. God the Father became God is a Father became Father is God. All too many of us know where that left us.

Much the same process has befallen the trans community with regard to “Trapped in a Body.” Many people, some trans folk included, have forgotten that it was a poorly conceived metaphor that made the most of broken language to struggle to explain our genders and our lives to people who would not understand. We were forced to put it in terms that our parents, our friends, our bosses and colleagues, our clergy and teachers would comprehend on some level. To the highly conditional extent this works, it only works for those who identify as a binary sex/gender to boot. For those who do not, this loaded phrase is completely useless and does not describe them at all.

Yet it poorly describes me too, as a binary identified trans woman who is femme. I never felt trapped in my body. There is a lot I love about it; it’s mine, damnit. We’ve been through quite a lot together, after all.

The prison was not my body, the prison was what society was doing with it.

This is one of those paradigm shift moments where anything suddenly becomes possible and where you can go in any number of directions. It’s a bit like the “my god, it’s full of stars” moment one has when disability is conceptualised as a truth of society’s treatment of individuals rather than something wrong with a particular person.[2] Feminists call such things (at least in regards to realisations about patriarchy) “click” moments. One can debate the nature of such things and it is certainly more complicated than something that evokes the mere flipping of a switch (metaphors running away again…), but it’s a useful way of looking at this. I realised my body was not wrong, society was wrong.

This, of course, did not preclude my taking hormones, or keeping my hair long, or any number of other odds and ends I have planned. To change one’s body is not to assert a wrongness of its prior form(s) but simply part of an evolution of self. My body was never “wrong” in any cosmic sense. To say that it was is to reify a gender binary that could never accommodate me in the first place, save through a very troublesome metaphor that represents a gasping attempt to make the ignorant understand.

In that lies the origins of perhaps every dollop of problematic language that surrounds us. It was never about us, it’s about getting cis people to understand us on terms they can ‘get.’ If I tell my father I’m “trapped in the wrong body” that’s something he can put handles on and begin to gain some understanding of where it is I’m coming from. But it is not a truth of my condition as a human being. As I grew into womanhood I quickly learned things were a hell of a lot more complicated. What biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling calls “the body as dynamic history” better fit my story, conceptually. My body wasn’t wrong, it was in my control and evolving.

It wasn’t a trap, it was misread.

If anything traps us, it is that cliché of being trapped in the “wrong” body. In the end, the phrase is not ours, it was developed by a few well meaning cis people to render our experience patriarchally intelligible.

What has been of endless consternation to me is the fact that among those who fancy themselves radical we have been held accountable for the cliché’s implications. The term is not truly ours. When we use it, it is an act of survival. An attempt to keep our heads above water in a cis world. For some of us, it does reflect a deeply held belief, yes (see: the HBS set). But for many others, it is an imprecise favour to those in our lives who cannot simply believe us when we say “I’m a woman” or “I’m a man”- and does nothing for those who know themselves to be neither.

It is a lesson in how we cannot rely exclusively on old language to adequately describe our experiences. It’s why clunky neologisms like “conditional cissexual privilege” are a better fit than “passing” with all of its implications. We have no brief and simple words in English, and precious few in any other languages either, that speak to a transsexual or transgender life experience, only poorly fitting terms and metaphors that speak in terms of a cis-centric experience.

Keep this in mind the next time you may feel cowed by someone bludgeoning you over the head with accusations about making up “fake words” or “PC terms” and what not. Because the truth is, it is their language that is fake when it comes to describing who we are.


[1] “Coercively assigned” is another vital neologism. It’s not just more syllables to the word ‘assigned’- which itself made headway against the reified naturalism of one’s birth and its meaning for gender- it is a term with political power that we had to bring into the conversation to illustrate something. Not only is the M or F on our birth certificates an assignment, but it is coerced. Parents cannot say no, (just as many parents could not say no to doctors who wanted to mutilate intersex infants and reconstruct their bodies), and you cannot say no, can you? The term “coercive” adds needed meaning that reveals the truth behind natal nomenclature and assignment: the truth of its constructed nature and its oppressive effects. This is why language is important. To use the cis-centric language of “well I was born male…” as a trans woman or non-binary person is to paint one’s self into a corner before one even begins to speak at length. It immediately sets you at a disadvantage and imports the “truth” of cis power.

[2] In short, that what makes a person “disabled” is not something about their bodies but how we design society. Being deaf is a disability when aural communication is an assumed societal default, for example. In this way of looking at things, disability becomes less about the person with disabilities being intrinsically ‘wrong’ and more about how their society and culture responds to them or conceptualises their bodily and/or neural configuration. Some disabilities do mean, irrespective of this, that things will be harder for you. But in this schema, they ‘disable’ far less and are not considered a stigmatising other that is only to be pitied, and about which nothing is to be done. It is a mode of thought that empowers by removing the stigma and thus the barriers to accommodation and justice; the parallels to trans-ness are clear. The language used to squeeze us into the existing order pathologises us and erases quite a few of us. Getting away from it makes accommodation that much easier.

Comments

  1. Right on! This is something I’ve struggled to explain to cissexual people as well. Recently I participated in an LGBT panel for my school where I answered questions about transgender individuals. When I informed the class I was born a transsexual woman they responded with, “So you were born a boy?” Luckily, this is not the first time I’ve answered such questions. So I responded with, “No, I was born a girl. But most people perceived me as a boy during my childhood.” They only looked more confused when I answered, “So you were born with a penis?” with “I prefer to think of it as an inside-out vagina. Or maybe an enlarged clitoris.”

    I too am guilty of using the “born in the wrong body” explanation when I first came out. I was ignorant of more appropriate language to express my experience, so I grasped onto what cissexuals had heard before and presumably understood. However, I already hated the phrase because the body I inhabited was not a man’s body because I was not a man. It was a woman’s body that other people gendered against my wishes. As I gained confidence and new language I began to express this truth to cissexuals and was accused of “being politically correct” and “making waves”.

    “Passing” is a word I refuse to use because of the implications of deceit. We do not say a cissexual woman “passes” when she’s perceived as her gender, so why do we do this to her transsexual sister? I understand the need to express the ability to receive cissexual assumption and privilege because life can be very difficult if you can’t. For lack of a better term, I say “presenting” but this can still be misconceived. After all, one can present as female but still not receive cissexual assumption and privilege. It’s important for us to be aware of such language conflicts and find solutions. But the final step has to be replacing the old cissexist language. Words are powerful. And power in the wrong hands can hurt lives. In this case, transgender lives.

    • Thank you muchly for your thoughtful commentary, as always, Gebo!

      You’re absolutely right, up and down. Take heart that people like me are cheering you on behind the scenes when you confront uncouth individuals attacking you for being “PC.” Make tsunamis, sister.

      Secondly, I wouldn’t use the term ‘guilty’ as I think that’s unfair to you and other trans folk like me who held onto these ideas as we came out. None of us are taught this, none of us grow up taking classes on the ins and outs of trans ness. We held on dearly to what we had, and only later would we learn better, would we read certain books, certain blogs, talk to certain people who helped you take your experience and see it in a new light. It’s part of the evolution of coming out.

      So you were guilty of nothing, dear. When you saw the strings by which you had been moved, you pulled down on them *hard*- and that’s something to be proud of. ;)

      Thanks for reading as always, GeboGirl! ::hug::

      • GallingGalla says:

        We held on dearly to what we had, and only later would we learn better, would we read certain books, certain blogs, talk to certain people who helped you take your experience and see it in a new light.

        Yeah, exactly. I feel like I used “[x] trapped in a [y's] body” like I would driftwood in a flood – desperately grabbing onto *something* to survive, until I had a chance to catch a breath, and get more knowledgeable about our experiences being trans and how cis society colonizes our bodies. Now I feel like I have a steadier platform to ride on, but if it weren’t for my grabbing at that busted metaphor, I would have never got to this point.

        I agree with Quinnae; we’re not guilty of doing what we have to survive. Cis society is guilty for creating this flood in the first place.

    • I’ve resolved pretty much all my beef with “passing” by using it as it as “passing for cis” rather than the problematic “passing for [gender]“. If you think about it, the idea that trans women “pass for female” is (to my knowledge) unique in the usage of “passing”. POC might pass for white, lesbians might pass for hetero, and trans people might pass for cis. It would be misleading and rather offensive to use some other category: if someone said “that black person passed for human”, alarm bells would go right the fuck off, because we all know that that black person is human, just like all trans women are women.

      So for my part, i’m curious to know why, as terminology, “having ‘conditional cissexual privilege’” would be preferred to “‘passing’ (for cis)”. Conditional privilege follows as a matter of course from any kind of passing. i get that we would want to distance ourselves from the “passing for female” idea, but i hear “passing” used to describe pretty much every other axis of oppression, and it’s useful to have around. To my mind, the word itself doesn’t have any issues, but if “conditional ____ privelege” is getting popular in places other than the trans/cis axis i’d like to know if there’s a good reason for it, because i’m drawing a blank. (also, i’ve never heard the phrase before today)

  2. “Being deaf is a disability when non-aural communication is an assumed societal default”
    eh? shouldn’t it be a disability when *aural* communication is the assumed default?

  3. EmilyEmilyEmily says:

    I wanted to say thank you for this. (Well, I wanted to comment on it; but I’ll get to that in a moment :P) I have frequently been extremely frustrated at terms and metaphors used to make transgenderism parsable by patriarchy (which is to say, this or talking about “(a) sex change”) and had people (both trans and cis) be confused and insist I’m being oversensitive.

    Anyway, I, in what seems to be a bit of a minority, never liked the phrase or identified myself as a “woman trapped in a mans body” because of much the same reasons I don’t like it now–It feels like it presents me as kind of a fake because it’s saying my body is a man’s which it clearly isn’t because I’m not one; I’m not in any way trapped in my body, I can move about in it fine and could fix it if everyone else would just let me; and the problem isn’t my body, its, well, my gender; and the term calls to mind gross transphobic media portrayals and transphobic jokes and conflation with drag queens or gay men–plus a couple more reasons that I think I don’t actually believe anymore (at the time it felt like the problem was in fact that I wasn’t a woman; since nobody else saw me as one) and a tiny bit of me not being completely sure I was a girl and not something less binary.

    This became a problem–well, besides the part where it was the only metaphor I could find and it had associations that made me feel disgusting, that was also a problem :P–because the therapist I was seeing at the time seemed to believe this was the only possible way you could be trans. And I, being extremely uncomfortable in my transness because of those aforementioned self image problems, didn’t actually explain to him why his conclusion that I was not trans as wrong.

    Also as far as the term “passing” goes, I frequently will refer to cissexual people as passing as a gender, usually their own. Or I’d use it to refer to myself when I was trying to hide my transness or for when I hadn’t started transitioning by saying I was passing as male. Or even now I’ll talk about my ability to pass as male (rather low, my breasts are a bit too obvious :P) So I guess what I’m trying to do here is rather than create new terms that have five times as many syllables–though other than being a mouthful I do like the term “conditional cissexual privilege”–I’m trying to redefine passing from the problematic “appearing to be a member of a category you aren’t” to something more like “appearing to be unambiguously a member of a category you are presenting as”.

    • You’re welcome, Emily, and thank *you* for such a great comment. :) On the matter of “passing” I think that that was a weakness of this article; I really should’ve explained the distinctions you and djacu raised in much greater detail. “Passing for cis” is a perfectly valid, and very politically useful expression that I encourage. I was critiquing the more generic meaning of “passing” which often is used to mean passing as one’s own gender, which is problematic for various reasons.

      I am also sorry that you had to deal with an oppressive therapist, but happy that you’re shot of him. It’s always tragic that this is still going on in this day and age.

      Suffice it to say, however, that in your self-analysis of your relation to the “trapped in a body” trope I feel exactly the same way about myself. :) The transphobia expressed by your erstwhile therapist is a perfect illustration of who such metaphors are often designed to serve.

      Thanks muchly for reading and I hope to see you around here again!

  4. EmilyEmilyEmily linked me here, and i’d love to give this a signal boost on my tumblr page. is that ok?

  5. Seeing this at the top of your new comments list reminded me that I want to thank you for writing it. This came out probably a week or two after I seriously started questioning my gender, and helped me be a lot more confident in how I could be myself as a woman.

    Thank you.

  6. I’m commenting from my cumbersome iPhone which precludes me from scripting an otherwise my detailed response. But then again all I really want say is that I am in awe of your insight and the language you use to convey it. I was one of the guilty trans women who used that enslaving cliche to explain my condition on some levels to my friends and family. Like you I feel that it’s perpetuation does a lot more harm than good. I actually identify with the analogy in the cliche yet it sickens me to have my own words thrown back in my face to justify a perception that I am mentally deranged because of them. It made a lot of people happy when I transitioned because without merit they were granted an intellectual promotion above me by society. Such is my life as a transsexual. Anyway, you absolutely rock and keep up the great work and advocacy for our community – we need more leaders like yourself. I am actually heading off for my long awaited srs and ba on march 5. I’m on cloud 9 and your writing has been a wonderful companion. Abbi abbigrrl@gmail.com

    • Thank you so very kindly for your words, I always get blushy and misty eyed when someone tells me that my writing moves them somehow. It’s greatly, greatly appreciated.

      Congrats on your upcoming surgery, by the by!

      I wanted to tell you that you shouldn’t feel guilty about anything, hun; you’re not ‘guilty of’ anything in any direct sense except doing what humans do, which is pick up on social patterns and make use of them as you try to assert yourself. I feel that while this piece has been very well received I could have worked on the tenor a bit to make clear that I’m not blaming trans people who use this construction of their experience, I’m blaming cis people who have profited mightily from the ideology it imports and all but forcing trans people to adopt that narrative rather than helping us recite our unique experiences on *our* terms.

      Long and short of that is, don’t feel guilty, don’t feel bad, and soldier on, Abbi. We all live and learn. Don’t forget that you rock too. *hugs*

      ~Quinnae

Trackbacks

  1. [...] by claiming that we are objectively born either male or female, just in an inappropriate vessel. It has already been discussed at length here why this is a problematic idea, and it represents how theories created by cis people are projected back onto us as a truth of our [...]

  2. [...] A Cliche Trapped in a Metaphor’s Body on why the conventional (ciscentric and cissexist) descriptions of “the” trans experience are near-worthless to trans people. [...]

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