You never truly appreciate your native language until you make a phone call in a new country for the first time. I probably sweat out a pound of body weight the first time I spoke on the phone with a Spanish person after I moved to my new home over here (and I use the term “spoke” VEEEERY loosely, because usually, awkward non-word noises and mumbling isn’t considered talking).
Learning Spanish has been, and still is, an incredible journey; at times it feels like a process entirely separate from and just as immense as the basic act of living in a new country. Every time I learn a new colloquial phrase, or I make a Spaniard laugh with a broken-Spanish joke, I feel like I’m actually tending to my soul and my place in this world as a human being. I feel connected to all the people that I meet who respectfully listen while I speak at a sub-sloth pace and encourage me endlessly: “No pasa nada, tío, tranquilo!” However, there is one negative point that I have encountered on a personal level: Spanish, like all Romance Languages, is gendered.
Y’all can see where I’m going with this one, can’t you?
For those of us in English-speaking countries, we think it’s pretty crazy that a car has a gender when we talk about it in another language. Now, imagine what it is like to be someone who identifies as genderqueer, agender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, etc. A person who is GNC (gender non-conforming) must introduce and explain their gender to someone whose language demands that they be labeled completely in one of two categories, even though they are a person, not a car.
**As a quick note, for the purpose of simply making my own life easier while writing this post, I’m going to use GNC to blanket all identities that are not strictly male/female by typical historical understandings.**
It is interesting to note that, until the 1200’s, English was actually a gendered language! “Instead of using the articles ‘the’ or ‘a’, Old English had a masculine article ‘se’ and a feminine article ‘seo’. The sun, for instance, was feminine, so it would be written ‘sēo sunne’. If you referred to the sun, you would even say ‘she’ ”.  This can be found in modern times when seafarers refer to ships and vessels as “she”. There is the belief that the cultural and linguistic mixing that began around the 1100’s caused gendered language to be dropped from English.
Gendering in English is a hot-button topic today, with many people of all identities pushing to create more appropriate pronouns for those who do not identify with she/her, he/him, or even they/them (which has been used as a singular, neutral pronoun for the last thousand years, and was only discouraged come the late 18th century after grammarians decided it was “not proper grammatical form” ). Nonbinary.org has a great wiki-linked site that explains the origins and uses of the MANY gender-neutral pronouns used in languages such as English, French, Hindi, Spanish, and many more. Check it out. Educate yo’self.
As for Spanish specifically, I was pleasantly surprised at how many GNC options have surfaced over the years. There are various systems of letter substitution, such as saying “chic@s” – where the @ symbol visually represents a combination of the feminine “a” and masculine “o” endings. Some pronounce this form as “chicaos” where the ao creates an “ow” sound. There is also a political side to this, where the Anarchy symbol Ⓐ not only represents the “ao”, but also the general feelings of rebellion against the strict gender roles in Spanish culture. But that’s a whole other post, isn’t it?
The piece of this GNC puzzle that is closest to my heart is the way in which various languages discuss the Trans* community – specifically in relation to the distinction between The Three T’s: Transgender, Transsexual, Transvestite.
A quick T’s 101: unfortunately, many ill-informed people use these terms interchangeably; they are NOT substitutes for one another. The term “transgender” can be an umbrella term used to refer to anyone whose personal idea of what gender and gender expression they SHOULD be is different from how they were born and from the roles that their society typically expects of them in that gender. This can involve physical transition with hormones and/or surgery, or not. “Transsexual” tends to be more about the physical body and genitalia, and usually includes surgical transitions in order to align a person’s body to their mind. “Transvestites” are people who dress in the fashion usually suited to the opposite gender for personal or professional pleasure. It has nothing to do with their own identity. Drag Kings/Queens cross-dress for entertainment purposes, regardless of what their own identity is. Transvestites can also be people who just enjoy wearing the clothes of the opposite gender, whether it is just fun or sexually arousing. I and many others like to summarize The Three T’s into “Trans*”.
Video courtesy of Autumn Asphodel via youtube.com
Now, let’s take a U-turn and head back to our discussion about languages, seeing as how you’re all caught up on what I’m talking about here. When it comes to Spanish, both from my personal experience and from a little bit of digging around the All-Knowing Internet, it seems that there may be a ton of ways to speak in a gender neutral way….but not a lots of understanding of Trans* language. When I arrived and began making friends, they would always stare at me in confusion when I repeated the word “transgénero” (direct translation of transgender), and then would exclaim, “Ahhhh, sí! Intentas para decir ‘transsexual’!” – Oh, yes! You are trying to say transsexual! – Well. No. Not really.
The labels you give yourself are COMPLETELY UP TO YOU. Sure, there are accepted definitions that provide a great guideline, and there are definitely some terms that used interchangeably are “more wrong” or “more right”.
Yes, I fall under both the terms transgender and transsexual, but personally I prefer the term transgender. Or better yet: transman. I completely acknowledge that I prefer this term possibly in part due to an internalized stigma associated with the word transsexual, but I also prefer it because I’m
not interested in bottom surgery. I guess I think of myself as a Schrodinger’s Cat of Transgenderism…When you remove my pants, maybe I’m a boy, maybe I’m not! Tada, it’s magic! You can’t put me in a box, Schrodinger, but good try.
Since the 1980’s, there have only been three Spanish terms to refer to people who fall under this Trans* umbrella (much like in English). However, the care with which most people use them – even academics – has been lacking. It is much more common to use them as substitutes for each other with little regard for their actual meaning. Remember, the word transgénero basically doesn’t exist, even now…but I’m trying to change that.
In her book, Queer Transitions in Contemporary Spanish Culture: From Franco to LA MOVIDA, Gema Perez-Sanchez examines the
way that the Trans* and queer movement in Spanish culture influenced and was influenced by it’s violent shift in politics. One tidbit of which she constantly reminds the reader, is that the authors and academics that she references and includes in her examination came from a place of good intent..but laden with homo- and transphobic language. She cites one of her sources, Patrick Paul Garlinger, explaining that the terms travestí and transformista  correspond to the English transvestite. So that means that, in Spanish, Trans* people get to choose from transsexual or transvestite and that’s about it.
This post is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discussing the role that language plays in not just our cultural, but also our personal, perceptions of who we are and how we identify. The words that come out of your mouth about yourself should feel precious to you, and the words that are sent your way should make you feel validated and respected. This is something that EVERYONE at all times should be mindful of. If someone presents themself to you in a particular way, what possibly reason could you have to justify disrespecting that piece of their life? Does saying “zer” when referring to someone else cause you pain? Make your face swell to the size of a basketball? Kill your first born child? No, it doesn’t. That’s like feeding a tiger only bananas; you can’t expect it to go against its nature, and you shouldn’t expect that of a human being either.
So, whatever language you speak, do some research! Find out the amazing and interesting ways that your language has evolved over time and how it has been shaped by the people who live with it every day. I was never aware of my English before, but now, I take pride in the beautiful and ever-changing words that I can use to describe the world I live in.
- Dictionary.com. “English used to have gendered nouns?! Yes!” May 16, 2012. Dictionary.com (blog) http://blog.dictionary.com/oldenglishgender/
- Henry Churchyard, “Singular ‘Their’ in Jane Austen and Elsewhere.” http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/austheir.html#X1a
- Garlinger, Patrick P. “Dragging Spain into the ‘Post-Franco’ Era: Transvestism and National Identity in Una Mala Noche La Tiene Cualquiera.” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos 24.2 (2000): 363-82.