The Reason Why Some Words Make Us So Angry
A story I wrote a year ago about people who take issue with the word ‘cisgender’ has recently resurfaced; the new crop of impassioned comments alerted me. This was one of those stories that just seemed to hit a nerve with some folks, and it elicited a fair amount of heated dialogue. As a White person who often writes in hopes of educating my fellow race cohort on the concepts we didn’t learn in school, like white privilege and systemic racism in America, and, as the Mom of a trans teen who also writes about trans stuff, I’m no stranger to “polarizing” content (and the comments that come with the territory).
I mean, when you like to challenge notions, or maybe even hope to shift paradigms, you welcome the angry responses because it means you’ve achieved your writing purpose: to make your readers feel something, even if that thing is anger.
Some of the most irate comments I’ve witnessed (on my writing and plenty of others) are in response to the words ‘transgender’ (especially when coupled with ‘kids’ or ‘youth’), ‘racism,’ and ‘white privilege.’ And I get it. Words are loaded. They have baggage. They mean different things to different people. I know. It’s why I try to get to the meat of the subject, the core issue of what certain words actually, literally mean — rather than what they imply.
Especially when those words are more often than not… well, simply misunderstood. Plagued with wrong assumptions.
Language is complicated but important. I believe it’s important to at least try to get our words right. Fortunately we’re living in the age of information, but living here also comes with a level of social responsibility. Meaning, willful ignorance should no longer be given a free pass.
Now, I don’t know why, but when I wrote that piece last year, I guess I wasn’t expecting the word ‘cisgender’ to bring the type of angry attention as words like ‘trans kids’ or ‘white privilege.’ (Spoiler alert: it does!)
In the comments of that story, I was told the word cisgender was “invented by trans activists” (it wasn’t); “made up by a small, highly politicized echo chamber” (it wasn’t); that ‘cis’ was “only coined to stop a small minority from getting upset” (again, wrong, on a couple of issues here); and a myriad of other myths I found buried in responses-to-responses that led me down a three hour rabbit hole.
After following up with a satisfying amount of my own retorts and responses (which was totally not how I should’ve spent my time that night), I closed my laptop and marched right up to bed. I was done for the day. This time, it was me who was left feeling angry. The tables were turned.
I stopped myself and remembered, this is what I do — in fact, what I earn money doing — and what I enjoy doing: writing to elicit a feeling (or at least make people think). Always writing in the hopes that I might help shift paradigms. And maybe, if I’m lucky, help change a fixed mindset into a growth mindset.
So why was I suddenly feeling angry over the words of other people — people who I fundamentally disagreed with? People who were attempting to speak with authority on a topic they knew nothing about, like the well-being of trans kids? I knew better than to let these inane, overused comments get to me. I knew my anger wasn’t because they were making fair points, either. I certainly knew that what many of them were spouting was willful ignorance. But I’m used to dealing with that, so why did it anger me this time?
Well, because I’m human, I guess. First and foremost. Sometimes things get to you. Or the fatigue of advocacy kicks in. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to last forever. You get back up and you get back in the arena.
But the more I thought about it the more I realized, “I’m not mad over the actual words these people chose to use” (even though I could argue all day that the phrase “liberal echo chamber” is a passive-aggressive attempt at asserting one’s presumed dominance in the social hierarchy).
Still, it really had nothing to do with the words at all. I was mad because my tolerance threshold for people who peddle debunked conspiracy theories and who cite junk science as “material fact” is exponentially lower than it was four years ago. I don’t have much tolerance left for that mindset at all, the same mindset that considers being LGBTQ “a lifestyle.” As if a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation are on the same plane as actual lifestyles — like clothes-free communal living, or being an extreme sports enthusiast. Identities should never be conflated with what we do by choice in our lives or our leisure.
But you know what else I realized? The people writing in angry response to my words were feeling much the same way as me. Their tolerance threshold for what they see as “the liberal left” (or what have you) constantly “looking for things to get offended over,” always looking for “a cause” or some “bandwagon” to join, is exponentially lower than it was four years ago. Or ten years ago. Or twenty. (Although, I gotta say that even repeating these words in writing feels like perpetuating a faulty myth. Most of us found ourselves on an advocacy “bandwagon” not by choice, but by necessity. But we know y’all don’t know that.)
The thing is, none of us are mad over words so much as mindsets. And in 2020 America, with (what I see as) a wannabe authoritarian dictator as president, there’s no room for middle ground. Where you stand on political issues is generally synonymous with where you stand on basic human rights. It’s pretty impossible to be pro-Trump and pro-LGBTQ; the two cancel each other out.
Don’t believe that? Take a harder look at the evidence: in just under four years, the Trump administration has introduced and/or implemented 76 anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ policies and actions. This is fact; anyone can read the bills and memos (here’s a running list of those anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ measures neatly outlined by the NCTE). Currently, those members of society who are the least diversified are the ones who hold the most power, and truth be told, they’re scared shitless of losing it. And I’ve learned that these (typically) white, cisgender, heterosexual, “Christian” men will take any brazen measures to keep their power, even at the expense of “the least of these” whom Jesus referred to.
These days, time is fleeting. And for anyone who’s paying attention, times are frightening. (Everyone should be paying attention.) Like I said, I don’t have much tolerance left for willful ignorance.
Tucked between the enraged comments, one person pointed out how “it cuts both ways.” As in:
“I think we need to respect that everyone has the right to say who they, what they are, and the words they like to be used to describe them. If you say you’re a woman, you’re a woman, if your pronoun is she, it’s she, period. Accommodating other people is simply good manners. Other people’s opinions are in the noise. So yes, absolutely, you need to go out of your way to accommodate someone else’s pronoun. That cuts both ways though. I don’t care for “cisgender” either. No one should be able impose their own labels on people and ignore what the individual person says.”
That’s what I want to address because I don’t disagree. Also? This is the crux of the matter. The anger isn’t about the word ‘cisgender’ itself, and that’s what I was attempting to say in the original piece — that it’s ironic how non-minority, non-marginalized people (like myself) get angry over basic words. I’m not saying no one has the right to get angry over whatever the f*ck they want, I’m just pointing out the irony.
Most people don’t tend to have an aversion to words that literally and accurately describe them, regardless of whether they use them. Heterosexual people typically aren’t driven to rage by the sight or sound of the word ‘heterosexual.’ Or ‘straight.’ Cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) folks aren’t offended by having to choose a box on medical intake forms indicating whether they’re male or female; it isn’t a triggering event for us the way it might be for a non-binary or intersex person.
But we don’t like the word cisgender because maybe it’s “new” to us and it sounds trendy or whatever. And, moreover, we aren’t accustomed to a life where we have to explain our gender identity. We know that people already presume it, (that is, if we even think about it at all). We never realized what it felt like to have to justify our mere existence, or find a label for it, and now, it makes us feel like we’re being forced to (and boy oh boy, is it uncomfortable!) That’s how “normal” and privileged those of us are — that a word which accurately defines us would offend us.
In other words, my strong hunch is that the word ‘cisgender’ bothers people who aren’t trans primarily because those of us who aren’t trans are not accustomed to living in a world where we’re defined by our gender identity, or have to regularly use a word like ‘cisgender’ to justify our very existence to be understood by other human beings.
As a non-trans woman, I know that my cisgender identity is seen as the “default norm” in American society so I don’t have to say it — which, by the way, is privilege at work. In American society, it’s trans people who are seen as “the other.” By default, that unfortunately stigmatizes them, making them far more likely than you or me to experience willful ignorance in day-to-day life (like being asked the same old, stupid, none-of-your-business questions, questions we’d never ask a cis person). It makes them far more likely to experience unintentional microaggressions (like being deadnamed or accidentally outed). It makes them far more likely than you or me to experience discrimination, or even violence, based solely on their gender identity.
Likewise, I don’t depend on being ‘cisgender’ in order to get the medications I need for my physical and mental health. But for many trans people, if they aren’t clinically diagnosed with some degree of gender dysphoria, then endocrinologists and hormones are unavailable to them. If they don’t tick the box that says “transgender,” they may be denied things the rest of us non-trans folks can get easy access to, typically, without even having to think about it.
The anger here isn’t about words or even labels at all. In this case specifically, it’s about the people who fit into society’s expectations for “normal” gender identity, and this perception that the world is somehow “forcing” all these unwanted labels, words, pronouns, and language upon them. It’s important to note the word ‘perception.’ Because no one is literally forcing anyone to use the correct pronouns for any other human being. The choice to do so (or not) is all on you.
I agree with the person who commented that, regarding labels, “it cuts both ways.” It’s imperative to respect the various identities of all, not just trans people. But please, spare me the “I identify as a cat but that doesn’t make me one” trope. I’ve heard it ad nauseam, and it’s a foolish false equivalence. (See below for why.)
This Transphobic Argument Needs To Go Away Forever
“I can say I identify as a cat, but that doesn’t make me one!”
It seems most reasonable people would all be in agreement that we can’t impose labels on others… at least not when it comes to regarding our internal sense of identity (gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.). We can only determine which is natural for our own bodies and minds. Likewise, we can only ask people to respect our pronouns; we can’t force them to.
And listen, I know some people don’t identify with labels at all. That’s totally cool, too. I can dig that. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to be called “cisgender,” just say the word and I won’t call you that. But please do me a favor and spare a thought for why it bothers you so much.