CN: transmisogyny, misgendering, gender essentialism
I wrote this Facebook post a few hours after the event in question, with little deeper consideration and not really any idea of what I was trying to get at. I am very fortunate in that I haven’t had to experience many instances of transmisogyny in my life so far—but of course I shouldn’t actually have “had to” experience any. Because of her ignorance, this wasn’t exactly an “intentionally” transphobic act, but someone going out of their way to interrogate me on my use of name felt very wrong and upsetting. There are much worse things that can (and do) happen to trans women that I probably don’t need to remind you of, but this incident did make me think about how deeply transphobic expectations and thinking are tied to language, a rabbit hole much deeper than 1000 words could ever explore. An edited and clarified of the ‘post’ is presented below.
I had a very bizarre interaction with a lady today who was in disbelief when I told her my name was Florence. I use a “woman’s name” and make no attempt to “pass”, and so I have been kind of prepared for this eventuality for a long time, but I still found it very odd and unnerving that she simply would not believe me.
Writing and idioms about the importance of names are common because it is true that names are important. It is true because a name is a shared way of referring to something, which then receives attached associations, and often the signifier will also become part of the signified, and it will seem impossible and ridiculous to separate a person from their name.
Transgender people are not the only people who change their first names, but it is a very common thing among us. One of the things that is perhaps consistent between all trans people is that, even if you haven’t changed anything about how you “present” yourself, physically or through language, if you identify yourself as “transgender”, you are owning your Self and your identity, and you are committing to a social explanation of (at least part of) yourself. A “new name” is a very common first step. You get to feel how you think you should. You get the cliché of the societal “external” catching up with your known “internal”. You get to experience a more “appropriate” or “fitting” presentation of yourself than you currently do.
The problem with what this “appropriate” thing is, versus how it is you defining yourself, is that it is necessarily based on other people. The social nature of all definition is not strictly a bad thing, as it’s how language is able to function, but when we are not able to share something with someone via language we can realise how fundamental that sharing is to who we are. When someone doubts you, it is not sad or frustrating that you can’t communicate with them, it can be scary and even violent. It is not just a disagreement or a joke, it is someone taking issue with how you exist based on perception.
Pronouns are another thing that are often “changed” early on, and it is probably telling that a change will be “tried” in language before it is tried on the body. In the eyes of people who still think in a “pre-op”/“post-op” mind frame, that is where I currently am—my body is how it was given to me, minus a few hairs and plus a few scars and several stretchmarks. Personally, my mind feels like a very different place, and to better allow a shared understanding of my Self, I have made changes to my social existence to reflect and be that Self.
The problem with pronouns as one of these changes, is that although they are a shorthand that makes communication possible, when we use them as fillers for information we don’t know about people, we make assumptions. As much as you shouldn’t presume how a person would like to be referred to—how they would like you to fill in for them when you’ve said their name a couple times too many—is something people guess at, and guessing about social situations gives you information about a person’s view of those situations.
In my case, this fairly innocent woman, in her persistent confusion, was making assumptions. You don’t make any sense: why do you look like a boy, yet have a girl’s name? Ironically, and unfortunately for me, Florence is actually a name that is also used by men, although it is primarily used by women. What this incident made me realise is that I am not solely a balance between my known “internal” Self and my societal “external” presentation. When a person doubts information I am giving about myself (that from my name, I am a woman) the break that that causes in the possibility for sharing meaning at even the base level of a name stops us from sharing anything apart from social courtesy, a routine that involves any two people, not specifically this “Me” and that “Her”.
If there is anything that can be learned from this, or if there is anything that I am trying to say with this strange long-winded thing, it is that when a person tells you something about their Self, you should believe that to be the case.
Our names are our names are our names.
Our pronouns are our pronouns are our pronouns.
Our bodies are our bodies are our bodies.
Yes, you probably haven’t seen someone who “looks like a boy” and is called Florence before, but all of the meaning you possess is based on sharing, and consensus, and things that have in some way existed. All knowledge is made of malleable experience and it can be changed, and if you think you are too old for that to happen, then you are simply no longer young enough to come up with good excuses.
Of course, not all things should be adopted and not all things should be eradicated, and not all meanings are equal, and not all social things are a flurry of altering elements, and culture and history are incredibly important, and so is ownership, and so is belonging. But it is up to you as a participant of a society and its meanings to consider where these boundaries lie. There are lots of important and clever things that have been said about how mutable culture should be that I don’t currently have words for, but what I am saying is this: when someone tells you their name, or their pronouns, no matter how you think about how it fits them
Your doubt is never going to overrule our realities and our Selves, and they are not yours to deny.
Florence Oulds, GR. contributor