Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Language of Adjectives

Mike is an 18 year female to male transman. He is currently studying psychology at The Evergreen State College between making quilts. He someday aspires to be a social worker, and in the mean time, he wants to fix the fact that not everyone is born with an inherent right to be themselves. 

In theory, every person is created equal and deserves the same rights and privileges of every other individual. Being a part of a minority makes that trickier. Instead of being seen as a person, first and foremost, you are seen as the adjective that comes before your name. Your personhood comes with an asterisk. Certain conditions need to be met in order for personhood to apply, and those conditions are usually conforming to look and act like the person who doles out the adjective. Even then, if it is convenient for you to be treated as a non-person, those conditions will be seen as not having been met.

I am a trans* man. I have one adjective in front of my name that brings my gender into question. Because I choose to be open about both who I am now and before I chose to come out as trans*, it means that I wear my asterisk on my sleeve. It means that I field dumb questions about my genitals and I get asked personal questions about my sex life from people who I have known for all of five minutes. It means that I fear using the bathrooms and that my driver’s license doesn’t accurately reflect who I am. It means that in the state I call my home, I can legally be fired simply because I am trans*. It means that in some states I can legally be evicted from my home because I am trans*.

I have another asterisk in the form of fibromyalgia. If I am having a good day, no one notices and the asterisk to my personhood need not apply. If I am having a bad day and use either my chair or my cane, I suddenly become the object of questions or pity. I am suddenly no longer seen as attractive or a potential mate (although the same can be said of the trans* thing much of the time). This adjective of disabled takes something away from me. I get reduced to my chair, a really rather small characteristic of who I am as a whole. Instead of a person, I become a disease, fibromyalgia that wheels around, someone that will no doubt always need help, whether or not I actually do. I will be seen as infringing on the rights of the able bodied to simply appear as I am in a chair. It is unsettling for them to see me in a chair, so I should push through the pain. After all, their feelings matter and my pain is inconsequential compared to that.

So what is the solution to being degraded for being who you are? For the GLBT movement, the efforts have been mainly to give people adjective in return. The opposite of transgender is cisgender, and cisgender people have a gender identity too. They get an adjective, something to describe and label who they are. Giving everyone an adjective starts to level the playing field. Because there are so many more cisgender people than transgender people, their label does not come with an asterisk, the might of numbers deciding what is normal and right.

The concept of having an adjective seems to unsettle a great number of people, as they start to lose some of their rights as individual. For those who are asterisk free and who have never needed to check their privilege it is a terrifying experience. It makes them uncomfortable to be lumped in with a group, to lose a part of their individuality to a label. After all, who wants to be judged based on the actions of people they will probably never even meet?  This is, of course, is the reality that any member of a minority group will face on a daily basis. It is not new to them to be treated as an ambassador to a group of people or to have their actions reflect on the group as a whole.

As a parting thought, I would encourage you to think about the ways that you label people. Beyond just the labels, think about what the labels mean and what sort of condition to personhood these labels would present. After all, there are so many words in the English language that describe who we are as human beings. These labels don’t mean much until they are held up to our culture’s ideals. Fat or skinny, tall or short, straight or gay, cisgender or transgender, simple descriptors until culture weighs in.

So what are your adjectives?