Gender Stories

Words, words, words!

February 04, 2019 Season 2 Episode 13
Gender Stories
Words, words, words!
Chapters
Gender Stories
Words, words, words!
Feb 04, 2019 Season 2 Episode 13
Alex Iantaffi
Alex Iantaffi takes a look at language through the lens of gender. You can expect some definitions and insights into the gendered and dynamic ways of language.
Show Notes Transcript

This episode is all about language. Alex Iantaffi reflects on the multiple ways in which language and gender are connected and can define one another. They invite us to look at language through the lens of gender and to reflect on what we might open up or close down with our linguistic choices. As well as offering some definitions of words like trans, cis and non-binary, which have already been used on the show, they also invite us to look at gendered words such as madam, lady, gentleman, handsome and pretty from a more intentional perspective. If you would like to deepen this conversation, you can check out Alex's website at www.alexiantaffi.com, their book "How To Understand You Gender" and the upcoming book "Life Isn't Binary", both co-authored with Meg-John Barker. 

Narrator:
0:32
Everyone has a relationship with gender. What's your story? Hello and welcome to gender stories with your host, Dr Alex Iantaffi.
Alex:
0:45
Hello and welcome to another episode of gender stories with your host Alex Iantaffi. As ever. I am excited to talk with you about language. I have been promising an episode about language from the beginning of this podcast. And yes, listeners, it has only taken me a whole year, but what can I say? This whole enterprise of making a podcast has been exhilarating and it also, it has taken me a little bit of time to figure out how it all works. And finally, here we are talking about language. I mean we talked about language before with other amazing guests, um, such as Pat Schmatz in the episode "Writing non-binary", but today is really all about language and gender. And as I was thinking about this episode, I realized that there are so many layers. Where do I even start language and gender have such an intimate relationship on so many levels.
Alex:
1:40
For example, just the part, the different languages have different, um, gendered nouns. My first language is Italian for example. And things like sun and moon and desk and chair all have their own gender and the way the gender works, it's pretty binary. And that's true for other romance languages as well. And some languages have, um, kind of, uh, what is sometimes called the neutral option, like the pronoun "it", for example, in English that it's usually used for, for objects. So there are lots of different ways historically in which kind of gender is actually embedded in language. But today what I really want to talk about, even though it would be fascinating to go the route of kind of how gender, did become so embedded in different languages and now manifest in different languages because my first degree is in linguistics and that's one of my passions.
Alex:
2:39
What I really want to talk about is people and everyday language because after all the podcast is Gender Stories, not Gender Linguistics. So I really want to focus on kind of our everyday relationship with gender. And that was as I was preparing and writing the show notes for this episode, I was really thinking about how when I talk about gender, for example, in trainings or even the book that I've got out and yes I am going to plug "How to Understand Your Gender" by Meg-John Barker and I, often people assume then when I talk about transgender people and/or non-binary people and the language that applies to us. But as I keep saying, uh, as they're preparing at the beginning of every episode and as I keep saying in my everyday life, everybody has a relationship with gender and everyone as a relationship to gender through language.
Alex:
3:34
So yes, I do want to start kind of defining some of the words that I've been using on a pretty regular basis with my guests and also when doing solo episodes as well. Um, although there haven't been that many of those, um, in 2018 but there will be more in 2019 of terms that I've used , of terms that I've used such as kind of cisgender says transgender, trans and non-binary kind of what do they mean because I'm not assuming that everybody has the same level of familiarity with some of the terminology that we've been using on the show. And I do really apologize for not doing this episode sooner, but I got so excited interviewing people in 2018 and I know that excited is my adjective of choice, but there you go. So on the show and even in the description of who am I say that I'm a trans masculine non-binary person, what does that mean?
Alex:
4:32
So trans is the prefix that comes from Latin and it just means "across". So people who are transgender usually fall under this large umbrella where our sex assigned at birth does not line up with our gender identity. And so that might be completely across from one another. It might be somewhere else across the landscape. And cis cis is also a prefix that comes from Latin and it means "on the same side", so somebody who is cisgender or is this person older, that means is that their sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender identity. Now it doesn't mean that just because somebody is a cis person, their gender expression or role or mannerism aligns with their gender identity. So for example, somebody might be assigned female at birth, identify as a girl or a woman depending on how they identify and their age, but then my gender expression that is more masculine or more androgynous or more dynamic kind of changes across time and space.
Alex:
5:45
Or somebody might be assigned male at birth, identify as a man, but have a gender role in his life that is usually considered more traditionally or typically feminine or might have more feminine kind of Mannerisms, ways of moving and talking in the world. And of course we can argue that all of those are kind of stereotypes, right? And shouldn't we all be completely free of those stereotypes and while, I agree. I've told you in the first step so that I'm all about gender liberation. The reality is that we do have gender expectations in our world and the way we kind of show up and behave and we do read things like clothing and makeup, the way we do our hair, even the length of our hair, the way we move and the way we speak and the way we dance. Even as you've heard, hopefully in the last episode that was all about dance and bodies and movement and expanding movement, vocabulary, all those things are deeply gendered.
Alex:
6:48
So just because somebody is cis or trans, we cannot really assume anything much about their gender expressions, experiences or roles in the world. And then we've also used terms like non-binary, which is another umbrella term that kind of includes, um, people will identify either outside of the traditional gender binary of male, female, traditional. I don't know if that's even the right word to use, but the dominant, I would say gender binary of male or female. So either outside of it or beyond or somewhere in between. And of course, under the non-binary umbrella, there might be people who identify as trans or cis and there might be people who identify as agender or third gender or gender fluid or bigender and so on language is so rich and so broad. And as people are finding one another, more and more terms are coming out all the time.
Alex:
7:49
And also some of the terms that have been created have been created out of necessity, um, because of other terms being lost. So for example, when I think of the term two spirit in English language that is a kind of an English based term created by Indigenous people, mostly from North America to as an umbrella to indicate, um, specific, um, and identity that is specific to Indigenous people because of settler colonialism. Many people, many tribes and uh, and not just lost language and culture, but also words that were beyond the kind of two dominant gender understanding that we have in kind of a settler colonial. I'm dominant knowledge. And so to spirit is another umbrella term that Indigenous folks use and all of those umbrella terms, whether it's transgender or non-binary to spirit. Um, and so on, they're just terms. So for example, the umbrella term of trans comes from, um, a very specific perspective.
Alex:
9:02
So it doesn't mean that within those umbrellas that are in people who use other words and also it doesn't mean that they are the only umbrellas. So going back, for example, to the umbrella of transgender, um, that is very English based and the, the landscape of gender is so much more vast on a global level and that there are so many more words to indicate variations of gender identities, gender experiences, gender roles, gender expressions that we can imagine. And if you're interested in this, I really do encourage you to do your research and kind of look around and I'm sure that we will also keep talking about this on the show as well. And of course, you know, the book is a resource and that also Meg-John Barker has got a new book upcoming called "Gender: A Graphic History" with Ikon Publishers. So that might also be a useful resource, but it's important to remember the gender is a vast global landscape.
Alex:
10:10
And often when we talk about things like transgender people, we're really thinking about a specific kind of umbrella trauma specific cultural and linguistic lens. And I think it's really important to remember that and to remember that the landscape itself is much, much vaster. And, um, I also really want to talk about the fact that just because we have those kind of umbrella terms, it doesn't mean that there is no overlap in the territories on the landscape between those umbrella terms. So for example, I identify as both transgender and non-binary. Somebody might identify as cisgender and non-binary they might even identify as transgender or as two spirit and cisgender and many more intersections, um, then I can think of in this moment. But also that all of those intersections are broader than just gender, right? All of these intersections are also part of culture. They're part of our relationship to place our relationship to time.
Alex:
11:30
For example, a lot of those terms have changed over time. Even within the transgender community, there is a lot of debate between water, the best terms to use. Um, some older trans people, for example, at times feel embarrassed or ashamed, or they or they have been shamed by younger activists for using terms such as transsexual, for example. And I'm not saying it's not always the case, the younger activists have been rude to elders who might identify or older who might identify as transsexual folks. But, um, and there are younger people who also identify as transsexual, but sometimes there can be this intergenerational conflict around language which is not exclusive to gender. I am sure that all of us can think of examples of words or language that we use that is different from words and language that our parents use, our grandparents use or our great-grandparents or our great-great-grandparents might have used, right?
Alex:
12:35
Um, and if we are immigrants such as myself, not only have those words changed across time, but literally those words have changed as we have migrated continents. For example, in my case, I'm the first person in my family to speak this, this much English in my everyday life. And I am not immersed in my first language, uh, that is Italian all the time. And my child is bilingual, but again, she has a different experience of language than I've had because she has been brought up in, um, English dominant speaking countries, whereas I was brought up in an Italian speaking dominant country, so, so complex, right? So many factors to think about when we think about language and also sometimes we have really emotional reactions to words, right? Language is part of who we are. So language defines not just our gender identity and expression and roles, but also like our cultural lens, who we are, our relationship to place, our relationship to our ancestors.
Alex:
13:46
And we can have a lot of feelings about words that are used. An example of this is when the word cisgender started to come up. And even now some people feel upset at being told you're a cisgender person because your sex assigned at birth aligns with your gender identity. And one of the things that people may not be aware of is that the term cisgender was born out of, um, out of the systemic issues. So an issue that was larger than just individual, um, previous to the rise of the word cisgender, let's just say often transgender people were defined in contrast with people with normal in air quotes, gender, right? So people would talk about biological gender, people would talk about, um, kind of dominant gender as if it was automatically cisgender, and then they would only talk about transgender people because they were, other than the gender that everybody else had, right?
Alex:
14:54
So using the term cisgender is really an attempt to come to deconstruct the old implicit superiority of cisgenderism, which is the idea that, um, people who identify with the same gender identity with the gender identity that aligns with their sex assigned at birth, um, are implicitly, kind of superior in some way or that that is the dominant lens there needs to be applied to knowledge and the world. I know this is really complicated and we're going a little bit beyond language, but I think it's important to talk about all of this because I'm, I online, I've witnessed many times cisgender folks say things like please don't call me a cis person or that's offensive why are you trying to define my gender and when, when we use those terms, we're really not trying to define that or people, individual gender. We are trying to redefine gender to really kind of look at the foundations and kind of pull the cover back and go, what are the foundations here?
Alex:
16:00
What is this idea that there are people that have an automatic gender and then there are trans people. Let's kind of really look at those foundation and we all have a gender and what's our relationship with that gender? And of course, like I said before, just because somebody is cis, so their sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender identity, it doesn't mean that they cannot have a beautiful vast landscape of gender expressions, roles, um, experiences, you know, that that is not precluded to them. We kind of all meander in this beautiful vast landscape. So language can be really loaded and language is not just loaded in terms of kind of trans or cis or non-binary kind of languages loaded when it comes to gender generally, for example, growing up I had a really difficult relationship with words such as kind of lady ma'am, being a gentleman, being a lady, and of course I had a difficult relationship with all those words in Italian.
Alex:
17:03
You know, signorina, signora and how those words, um, had some values kind of implied in them. So for example, I wasn't supposed to sit with my knees kind of apart because that's not what young ladies do. Um, so there was a value about the fact that because I was assigned female at birth, being a young lady meant that I couldn't sit with my feet planted on the floor and my knees apart because that wasn't seen as moral, as acceptable, as legitimate, legitimate because of my sex assigned at birth. And so when we're thinking about language and gender, I want to kind of go beyond just transgender cisgender, non-binary or even pronouns, which we haven't even touched on. And probably we should have all separate episode about pronouns. Um, because otherwise is, that is the episode.
Alex:
18:03
It's going to be really long. But I'm also thinking about all those other words like lady, ma'am, gentlemen and how they're also embedded in culture and often when people are using those words they're trying to be, and they're often trying to be affirming, they're often trying to see the other person and it might be instilled in them in, in us that it's good manners to say to somebody, Ma'am or gentleman and so on. But those words are not very inclusive. Um, and because we cannot automatically know what somebody's gender identity is from their presentation, it can be really helpful to think about words that maybe are not as gendered. So for example, I was at the state fair in Minnesota. It's a big thing where I live. I'm a few years ago and one of the baristas who was making my coffee said "Ma'am" to me and I said, you know, not so much ma'am for me.
Alex:
19:03
And they were very excited that we're like, that's great. I've been thinking about using a more inclusive term, what do you think I should use? And we had a really wonderful conversation about like, how about using like friend or, um, you know, customer or some other kind of less kind of gendered word and not just because I'm a visibly transgender and/or non-binary person, but because all of us might have reactions, you do our own histories to words such as kind of lady or ma'am. Um, for, for other reasons, for example, might be in relationship to age and might be in relationship to gender, the expectations. So we might've experienced as oppressive. And then there was all other, um, there's a whole other kettle of fish. Is that the expression in English? I think so, um, about the implied relationship to gender in certain words.
Alex:
20:03
So things like Ma'am and gentlemen are kind of automatically explicitly gendered. But what about adjectives such as handsome and pretty. We usually don't say, um, I mean we might say what a pretty boy, but if we say what a pretty boy, that there is usually an implication that there are some feminine traits in this person that we are address assuming are boy or we know are a boy. And usually we say handsome. Um, for masculine folks and pretty or beautiful for feminine folks in, of course, sometimes people want to mix it up and say what a handsome woman and what a pretty men and we can do that. Although even when people are mixing it up, we're still thinking, hang on a minute, are they seeing some gender traits in this person that are different from other people or the challenging societal norms and we cannot know for sure.
Alex:
20:59
So there are. So it's again, so many words that deep multilayered relationship between language and gender. Right? And then there's even terms that, you know, people are reclaiming that maybe gender terms that might have been seen as slurs. So for example, the word slut is a very specifically gender term. Usually it's used towards feminine people. It's pretty rare that it's used towards masculine people and many feminine people have kind of reclaimed that word as a word of power, kind of in similar ways in which the word queer, which also used to be used as a slur that's kind of been reclaimed by the many folks both in terms of their gender and slash or sexuality or both. So language is so dynamic and evolving. It's a living thing. That's why I find language super fascinating.
Alex:
22:02
because language does not stay still and I'm like I said, you might kind of want to check out "Gender: A Graphic History" by Meg-John Barker because, um, I've had the opportunity to kind of have a look at the pre publication kind of, what's it called? I should know this advanced reader copy, that's what it's called. Look at that. Knowing the technological terms of technological publishing terms. So I've had a chance to look at an advanced reader copy and it's really great. So language is dynamic, evolving, leaving. Um, it does not stay still and it is dependent on such an intersection, such a confluence of, um,
Alex:
22:50
many aspects of identities and experiences and relationships to place an ancestors. So when we talk about language, I'm wondering kind of as I'm thinking about winding down this episode, are there terms that you use for yourself just because they were kind of given or assigned to you and do those terms still apply? So are there things that people call you or do you call yourself because you've taken it as a given that this is who you are and this is what people call you, right? Um, and what would happen if you looked at those terms and kind of critically thinking about, are those the terms that you want to use for yourself or they're not? And are there terms that you use for other people that maybe you might want to change? And of course, especially when we're thinking about terms that may apply to ourselves and changing those, whether that's to do with identity or expression or experiences.
Alex:
23:56
I know that safety is a real concern for many of us. So I really wanna encourage you to do any exploration in a way that feels congruent and safe and comfortable for you on your own pace. And I also know that if we start to question kind of terminology, both the one that we use for ourselves and the terminology that we might use for others, we might also experienced some anxiety, some worries about other people's judgment, what if the words we want to use for ourselves or even for other people kind of do not fall into the broader umbrella of dominant culture. So I would say don't panic. Breathe, take it slower. Language is this living, dynamic, evolving thing. And you don't need to know all the terms at all times. And I also really encourage you to kind of take this more critical lens towards language and gender.
Alex:
24:54
Once you start kind of listening for gender in our language, it's kind of hard to unlisten, if that's even a word. But once you start tuning into how much gender is deeply embedded in our language, you might want to start thinking about what does, what do those gender terms open up and what do they close down? Um, and can we listen and be mindful to what's important not just for ourselves but to other people. So for example, if somebody is claiming an identity label for themselves, can we see that as legitimate, even though we might not use that same identity label or we might see as outdated or we might see it as not congruent with our own values and beliefs. So for example, when I started using different pronouns, um, some people give me the feedback that was really hard because I appeared so feminine to them and that a really hard time kind of changing pronouns for me.
Alex:
26:02
And I remember kind of having a, those are people I cared about. So I sat down with them and had a conversation about, I really understood what they were saying, but also this was not about their comfort, it was about mine. So could they really see that they were looking at me through their lens. But what I was inviting them into was to look at me through my own lens and, and I want to do the same for other people. I want to look at them through their own lens. So transsexual, for example, it is not a word I would use for myself, but I have no problem using it if somebody else uses it for themselves as a more accurate term to look at kind of their identity and so, or you know, some people use terminology such as I'm a trans person or I'm a man or a woman of trans history for example.
Alex:
26:59
They don't identify as transgender, um, even though they have a history as a trans person, so can we really open up to more possibilities when it comes to language, possibilities that are beyond maybe our own understanding, our own experiences, our own values. And like I said, and as Meg-John Barker and I are fond of saying often both in our writing and talking is what are we opening up and what are we closing down with our linguistic choices and are our choices automatic or are they intentional? So when we use certain terms for ourselves or for others, are just falling into what we've always done, what other people have always done what we think it has always been done, even though we know it does not always been done. Um, but can we do that with kind of intention? Can we do that mindfully or are we just kind of choosing what we think is going to be understood by everybody and it's going to be automatic. And again, what does it open up and what does it close down when we look at gender and language from a more intentional perspective? And the last thing I want to talk about when it comes to language is the language is so important because it can help us find community. Um, the last section of our book, I know I'm referring to the book so much, but one talking about gender and language is so hard not to because so much of those ideas are in the book. The last section of "How to Understand Your Gender: A practical guide for exploring who you are" by myself and Meg-John Barker talks about gender pioneers and warriors. And so language has often supported us in finding community in finding one, uh, one another, um, in finding ourselves, you know, the term non-binary wasn't really much of a term when I first came out as trans for example.
Alex:
29:09
And yet I love it now and I love the fact that is so much more known even in dominant culture, so much more popular. I think it reflects who I am so much better in terms of my identity. So my identity is non-binary, but my presentation is kind of more on the masculine side of the spectrum, even though I would say an effeminate or more feminine-masculine side of the spectrum. So kind of more of a transmasculine kind of femme-masculine kind of non-binary person. I know it sounds so complicated, but yeah, if you see me are like, oh, I got it. That's you. Um, so language can really help us find one another and um, and can really help us find ourselves. And if you are interested in finding out more about gender, there's also a wonderful opportunity to have a free webinar with Kate Bornstein.
Alex:
30:04
One of my, um, gender pioneer warrior person that I just, I just love their work and they have a Webinar on the 11th of February this year, 2019 called "Gender Just for the Fun of It". If you Google Kate Bornstein, gender just for the fun of it or go to katebornstein.com/gender-just-for-the-fun-of-it, a little dashes in between each word and it's on the 11th of February, 20, 19 at 8:00 PM eastern standard time in what we currently called the u s. and I really invite you to check it out because Kate is really amazing and fun and you can, it's free. You can register, will be recorded. So if you cannot make that time, you can still listen to her wisdom. So yes, language, help us find ourselves each other and community. And um, and one of the reasons why I wanted to do an episode about languages, because language sometimes can also be a matter of controversy.
Alex:
31:03
So for example, in the UK, there's been, and now in the US, um, there's been a lot of debate about feminism and trans exclusionary radical feminist who are folks who identify as feminists, but don't believe trans women are women, um, and language is being used in this context to really divide, um, and oppress. And I really believed that language can be a, I mean, another mean towards the liberation of all of us. You know, ultimately I told you, listeners in the first episode that my agenda is gender liberation for everyone. I don't want everybody to be age, gender or for the gender binary not to exist. I just want all of us to be able to breathe a little bit easier, to feel a little bit freer in our own gender, identity expressions, roles, experiences, whatever they might be and feel a little bit safer in the world no matter what does gender identities, experiences, expressions might be.
Alex:
32:16
Right. Um, and so there is a quote that we use by Laverne Cox who is an amazing actor and activist in what is now currently called the U.S. And Laverne, the quote from the book, "How to Understand Your Gender" that we use by Laverne Cox is this: "Each and every one of us has the capacity to be an oppressor. I want to encourage each and every one of us to interrogate how we might be an oppressor and how we might be able to become liberator's for ourselves and each other." And dear listeners, I am so excited about the possibility of all of us becoming liberators of language, of gender through language and of language, fruit, gender. I just think that there is room for all of us in this beautiful and vast gender landscape and the language is just one way that we can listen in, we can tune in and maybe become a little bit more intentional in our choices for ourselves and for one another.
Alex:
33:25
So that's it for today. I am so looking forward to talking with you for the next episode which will be with Meg-John Barker. We're doing a special episode for our publisher Jessica Kingsley all about non-binary issues for what in the UK is LGBTQ History Month and I also want to acknowledge that in what we now call the U.S. is Black History Month. Until the next episode please keep being wonderful with yourself and wonderful with one another. And um, if you want to support Gender Stories, please subscribe on your favorite listening platform. And finally I do have a Patreon so you can go to the Patreon website, p a t r e o n for those of you who haven't checked out Patreon yet, and look for Gender Stories or just go to Patreon.com/genderstories. And the levels of support go from $2 up to $50 a month.
Alex:
34:29
There are different benefits for folks on different tiers and I would really love if you chose to support the show and of course you don't have to just give money to the show if you want to support it. Although money would help us kind of pay for the hosting platform and the transcripts and my producer time and hopefully my dreams. I would also like to compensate people I interview with a small stipend or small honorarium, so as well as supporting the podcast, it would be supporting me as a content creator and enabling me to keep producing gender stories, but like I said, you don't have to just kind of support me on patreon. Even doing things like subscribing to gender stories on your favorite listening platform or writing a review or letting your friends know is a wonderful way to help the show, so thank you for listening and until next time have fun noticing all the wonderful, complex and multilayered ways in which gender and language are intertwined. Thank you so much.