Ungendering and the fine art of inflicting papercuts

November 25, 2009

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pointed out how trans women are ungendered as a way of Othering us and denying our identities. I’ve talked about how it happens as a very common form of street harassment (link here) and it feels like I’ve talked about it just about every time I’ve quoted the mass media in their reporting of trans issues.

So it’s interesting to read on the Reuters blog (link here) some readers’ reactions to the organisation’s ungendering of Brenda, the trans woman recently murdered as part of an attempted cover-up of a political scandal in Italy (links here and here).

The wrong pronoun?

Transsexual in Italian political scandal murdered

ROME (Reuters) – A Brazilian transsexual caught up in a scandal which prompted the resignation of a senior Italian politician — the center-left governor of Lazio region, which includes Rome — was found burned to death in his home Friday.

As well as the deliberate misuse of a male pronoun in the original post quoted above, I’m uncomfortable with the use of the word transsexual as a noun – but I realise also that opinion on this is divided. So I simply point it out without further comment.

And the quoted responses? Hmm. Well, at least they’re speaking out on behalf of trans women – and yes, I am grateful for that – although I’m sorry to say that I have issues with the terminology used by the first of the three commenters, Nicole:

I find it shocking that in this day and age, you still refer to a male-to-female transsexual as a “he”. I find this both old fashioned and disrespectful to the person you are reporting about.

Whether she was a prostitute or not, she was presenting herself as a female – likely because that’s what she felt she was. Most publications in the US honor this nowadays. You should, too!

“Male-to-female” is a problematic term as it assumes transsexual women like me once were male and that – presumably by transitioning – we somehow became female. I understand the constructivist argument at the back of it, but on a personal level? I don’t think I ever considered myself male. Cis society may have (else why was I male assigned at birth?) – but as far as I’m concerned, it’s simply the case that my brain was expecting a differently-configured body.

I’ve mentioned above my discomfort with the use of the word transsexual as a noun, not an adjective, but for clarity: I think it’s cissexist. The subtext is that our self-identification as women is unacceptable because our genders don’t correlate with the sex we were assigned at birth; therefore the speaker feels entitled not to use the noun woman about us. The fact is that I am a woman, I am transsexual, and I am a transsexual woman.

The second and third comments by Chancellor and Liz respectively really hit the nail on the head:

I honestly expected better from Reuters as a major news organization.

I’m astonished that Reuters of all organizations could do this.

An editor responded with this:

A number of readers objected to our choice of pronouns. In the past we have used “she” to describe her, and we will do so in future stories

Apart from being left wondering who decided to switch to incorrect pronoun use (and why) it remains the case that despite the reputation of any news organisation, despite its size, despite its market share or its demographic, its reports are only as trustworthy as the journalists who produce them. And as long as those journalists choose to ignore even their employer’s own style guide (which is, admittedly, a long way from perfect), then these cissexist slurs will continue to be repeated, with no regard to the effect they have on those of us who don’t have the advantage of cis privilege to shield us. On their own, these may seem like minor points to some, I know that; but the cumulative effect is another matter. As a friend of mine says, “Every day brings a thousand papercuts” – and from where I sit, that pretty much sums it up.

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