In an earlier post, I complained that “trans-” anything doesn’t really get at the complexity of sex, gender, or clothing, and depends entirely on a binary view of these things to work, at least metaphorically.

I’d like to continue with my thoughts on “trans” in this post, not looking at metaphor, but rather at naming. How do we name a phenomenon this complex and rich and so tightly intertwined with other cultural intrigues? Is it fair to lump all this richness into a word like “transgender?” “Transsexual?” A particle of a word like “trans?”

What shall we say about this phenomenon and these people that doesn’t erase all that rich difference but that also conveys some common sense of our lives and interests to others? After all, the name we use is probably more important in this second mission (informing, teaching others) than what word we use among ourselves. A transvestite knows the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual and a gender-queer and a drag queen, and we can play with those terms among ourselves and enjoy the rich complexity and humor of it all. But when it comes to talking to employers, family, friends, civic leaders, law-makers, law-enforcers, religious leaders; when it comes to working with other kinds of “diverse” people like gays and lesbians and all variants of ethnic and racial and cultural minorities; when it comes to conveying our experiences to others for the purposes of helping them to understand and to build connections, at least in early stages of mutual understanding, I think it’s important to use a term that is grasped and understood and retained.

A lot of people call us all “transgendered,” but that term has problems I’ve already identified elsewhere. “Gender variant” is probably a better general term, but it hardly rolls off the tongue. I have noticed that the question of naming is tricky enough that some writers, myself included, sometimes just truncate everything as “trans” or “trans*,” and hope it suffices.

And an even further distilling takes place when “trans” is turned into the letter T. The problem with being T is that everyone uses it and says it as “trans” — not trans-gendered or transsexual, but simply “trans,” like trans-fat or trans-national, our linguistic siblings, except that “trans” isn’t the part of the word that really matters. It’s not the trans, but the fat you’re worried about. It’s not the trans, but the Atlantic, that makes trans-atlantic meaningful. And calling me “trans” or “T” doesn’t get at the meaty issue of sex and gender. It’s simply a smoothing over of embarrassing things so that a “rainbow” group leader can say something like this shorthand: “We have done a good job recruiting G and L, and an OK job at Q, but we have virtually no B membership, but we are hoping to increase both B and T in the coming year.” Like algebraic equations, these variables represent values, but as long as they remain as single letters, the complexity of those values, people, and actions remains hidden, bureaucratized and acronymized and anonymized.

As annoying as this truncation is, however, and as frustrating as it sometimes is for trans* people to have been lumped into an unwieldy acronym community with lesbians, gays, bisexuals, queers, and others to make LGBTQ, I believe it is far better to have an acronym that some people (administrators, law-makers, and support groups) know and recognize than to be invisible and unnamed. In other words, I’d rather be a mere letter T in this sentence uttered by a mayor or governor or president–“We need to ensure that the LBGTQ community is protected from discrimination in employment” — than to be in this sentence, fully and linguistically accurate — “Come on, boys, let’s string up the tranny.”

See also “Trans-it”