• R E J Saunders

Language of transition


To transition, going from one side to another. We talk about gender transition as a grand narrative, a journey undertaken moving out of the discomfort of the assigned into the hopeful ease of the chosen. There is a lyrical quality to this, indeed the English vocabulary built up over decades has moved from the clinical into the personally abstract. What is transgender anyhow if not to set up apart as sojourners of our own personal truth? If the antonym of trans is cis, then why not play and embrace the language we use?

Of course, this is to assume that all language is playful and personally contextual. Indeed, the truth is often blunter and hard edged. Harsh words foul the journey, mixed with brute actions on occasion. Language is replete with slurs and arrows aimed at those who cross the gender Rubicon, the wanderers exploring the gender hinterland as much maligned as they uplifted. We define transition through our own perspectives, be it as explorers or bystanders in the gender city on the hill; ours is the ability to wield language as succour or barb.


Which is why language matters. The lingo we use to define ourselves, our communities, is constantly in flux. Stand still and the next linguistic shift has happened. It has certainly happened over my lifetime. From transsexual to transgender, from shemale to unacceptable. Our English understanding has left many confused, for surely to call someone cis is an insult, surely? Such is the pace of linguistic change that the language of transition is shifting the very way we English speakers conceptualise gender. No longer is the language of exclusion, trans, now it is encompassing the who seek to other, cis.

There is not a dichotomy here, for while cis can be the antonym of trans, not all people who explore the gender hinterland are on the other side of gender. Indeed, it is arguable that in reality there is no true Scotsman standing on the City’s ramparts, for the cis city on the hill is likely a ghost town filled with perfect idealisations of gender. But that is a conversation for another day. Gender exploration is as much cis as it is trans, yet only when you transition away from cisness do you find the rich vocabulary on offer to those wanderers.


I am drawn into exploring the language of gender and cultural understanding because of the societal and cultural nuances we apply to gendered language in English. For all the wonderful mashing together that is English, it is the cultural understanding and use of gendered language that intrigues me. How do we define gender if the very words we use are cultural artefacts? The language we use for transitioning, for transgender, for non-binary are all spun on the fly to move beyond the limitations we find ourselves. If a concept does not fit, then invent or adapt language to suit yourself. Such is the beauty of the English language.


Yet this relies on others catching up in real time with your self-perception. Your personal definitions hold all the power, yet for its potential to be unleashed requires comprehension and willingness on the part of the wider world. All power to the Apache Attack Helicopter, for in the joke holds the kernel of truth: the language of transition is as much about brute forcing English to our wills as it is the rest of society accepting or kicking back. Just because things have been the way they were does not mean that they will be that way two steps down the line.


The counterpoint to all of this is that for language to have impact it must have shared meaning. Meaning imparts understanding, and by having a shared parlance we all can have richer lives. Just because one person identifies as non-binary today does not mean that their identity is invalid, it is just that we as a society need to catch up and understand that they is much fuller and developed than we previously assumed. For all the atomisation of personal language use, and we all do it with hidden personal meaning and shared in jokes, English is so mutable and adaptable that in a short hop and jump we accept yeet as if it was always with us. If you can accept yeet, you can accept cis and trans.


Transition language is always evolving, always finding a better way to translate our inner selves into helping others navigate our personal milestones. Our language is an aid to help others better understand who we are, woman, man, neither. In the evolution of language, we help ourselves gain comfort in innate understanding, and strive to give everyone else access to the immensely personal version of ourselves. When we share our language of transition it is not the first step, or the last, but one many steps into a personal journey we have long been undertaking. So, for us, our language of transition is the lyrical emotions carved deep within, and the compass we use to guide others across our map of the world.

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