Comment: On Words and Assignment

Words are political, there’s no way around this. Unless you’re inventing language on the spot, every time you open your mouth you have to accept that that with the noises your making comes centuries of meaning, use, and history. Try as you may, it’s inescapable even if your intention is not to offend or harken back to historical use.

Because of this, writing articles about trans identity can be difficult. It’s hard to talk about ourselves when so many of the words we use have been used against us by cis people. Language can be a tool of oppression and, for our community, this was often the case. The slurs that have been used against us are obviously terrible, but even cis individuals in the medical community, masquerading as allies or friends, have been equally as shitty and oppressive. Understandably, the majority of the trans community has been pushing hard to move away from these terms, whether slurs or “science”.

While writing about masturbation, the word choices became the hardest part of writing the article. I had conversations with individuals from a very specific subset of the trans community, all with similar genitals, but with different gender identities. To lump them all in the same category would be doing a violent disservice to them, however, to not be able to specify that only certain people were willing to talk to me would also let down the strength of the article. Because of this I made a compromise and used two acronyms that are not without controversy in the trans community: assigned male at birth (amab), and assigned female at birth (afab).

The problem with these terms will be immediately apparent to a large number of trans people but in essence they combine three things I hate: shitty science, assumptions of sex based on genitals, and terms cis people appropriate for us. It is, in essence, the most politically correct way to say “birth sex”, while still being used to justify cis oppression, bigotry, and ignorance. It may be a softer way to say something incredibly shitty, but it’s still saying something incredibly shitty with all the garbage history that terms like “birth sex” and “x-to-x” bring.

That’s not the whole story though, there is a second meaning to unpack. When I first heard amab and afab a few years ago, I heard it as a term trans people were using to describe themselves. In this context it was often used in a more self-deprecating manner. Assignment is dehumanizing, to tell someone they’re something they don’t identify as, against their will, is violent. Assignment is patronizing, unnecessary, is used as a gate-keeping tool, and is a huge hassle to change. When applied to ourselves, it serves as a little tongue in cheek reminder that the our doctors made a mistake we’ll spend the majority of our adult lives correcting, that cisnormativity is pervasive, and that the social construction of sex is a reality.

Obviously, these terms are now more centred around the former than the latter, but it is still something descriptive of a subset of the trans community that had a similar starting point while not explicitly connecting genitals to gender and assuming a similar experience. I reluctantly used these terms however, but with an addition. When my editor suggested using “Coercively” in front of amab or afab, I immediately relished the thought. It was just icing on an already implied “fuck you” cake. Cis people could never re-appropriate the term without having to deal with the baggage calling themselves “coercive,” and implying that they too are continuing the violence.

Hence, I felt justified using those variations of assignment terms in my first article about masturbation. I just wanted to clear up any misgivings I had with the language used in the article and explain why I used the terms I used. As a writer I’m always keenly aware of the use of language and it’s implications, but I’m also aware that this explanation would have been ungainly or irrelevant in the article itself. There’s always the nagging through, every time I publish something, that would I have to mount a defence to justify my word choice. Nobody has actually called me on my shit yet, but I wanted to do good by my sources to pre-emptively publish an explanation as to why I used those particular terms to refer to them, while unpacking and discussing the particular language. My trepidation is always that my words will lead to eventually being ostracised, so I’d rather have a pre-emptive discussion than face a backlash.

To see the article this comment was following up, check out “Deviations in Masturbation in the Transgender Community”