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.