John Boyne flying flag for trans people even if he is holding it upside down
Author should be judged on his work, not attacked for his language
Author John Boyne said that he would not call himself ‘cis male’ but just ‘male’, a stance some took issue with. Photograph: Dave Meehan
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice – TS Eliot
This week there was a war of words between author John Boyne and some in the transgender community and their supporters. In writing an article about his new book on a transgender child, My Brother’s Name is Jessica, Boyne used the wrong pronouns to describe a transgender friend. The novelist also said that he would not call himself ‘cis male’ but just ‘male’ a stance some took issue with. Boyne this week deleted his Twitter account after there was considerable backlash online to his comments.
It is difficult to keep up with the myriad of words surrounding the topic of gender and sex. Today we have non-binary, cisgender, transgender, intersex, pangender along with many more. Facebook users now have dozens gender options to choose from.
When I was younger there were no alternatives to heterosexual male or female other than gay or lesbian. The homosexual was viewed as the radical end of the scale and I didn’t even know what label I was as a teenager. The language for my personal journey didn’t even exist in the quiet suburbs of south Dublin. In fact, I could only have told you what I wasn’t rather than what I was because we didn’t have a word for it back then. That word is non-binary.
Non-binary is an all encompassing term for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. I don’t see myself as either my female body or my male mind that lies hidden inside. I am neither of these but a complex combination of both.
Thankfully, these days there are many ways to exist as a human being. This means that in the rapidly changing world of gender and sexuality, it can be difficult for people not to use “last year’s words which belong to last year’s language”.
So, where does that leave someone who is behind on their learning of the most up-to-date words on sexuality and gender? If they write a book or an article, showing an obvious wish to support and acknowledge the transgender community, they can be attacked or pilloried for not using the correct terminology.
This is worrying. Should the focus have been on how wonderful it is to have yet another writer open up this world to younger readers, especially in the case of such a gifted one as John Boyne? Is the sentiment of his work not more important than the language he misuses in an article about the book? Can he not be forgiven for mixing up his pronouns or misusing a term? And can he not choose which label he wants to use to refer to himself?
We should not be caught up in the words that people use but the sentiment and emotion behind them
Being given a label that doesn’t adequately express one’s existence has been a major issue for the transgender community for many years.
When I was younger, I was confused about my gender. Now the gender confusion is more with the countless labels that exist out there for the subdivision of human beings. It is not out of ignorance or lack of support that I might make mistakes with my words. I am non-binary but even I have difficulty keeping up with the terminology that is applicable, especially as I am of an older age group.
Once in a meeting, in front of many others, I was verbally accosted for calling myself gender-disorientated by a younger member of the transgender community. I felt humiliated and ostracised from the rest of the group. Yet this was the terminology used to describe my medical “condition” by the doctors I attended at the time. The term had changed but I was not aware of that.
If someone like me can fall foul of the policing of these terms then how is a person from outside of this existence meant to negotiate the language pitfalls?
My mother, for one example, still refers to me sometimes as a “woman” in open conversation, even though she has read both my books and cried over their emotional content in support of my suffering.
Do I call her out on this? It would be easy to find fault and see her as an enemy. However, I know the emotional support that she gives me as a human being is unwavering and I forgive her the language that is a part of her generation. She does not belong to the modern world of cisgender or transgender and she is doing her best to learn the new vocabulary and use it in her conversations.
Aggressively policing those who mess up while using this ever-morphing language can only lead to the alienation of many who would support the transgender community. We should not be caught up in the words that people use but the sentiment and emotion behind them. We should be finding a commonality of existence as human beings not searching for the correct labels to divide us. These days I don’t care what pronoun people use to call me, as long as they treat my life with respect and acceptance. But if they cross that line then I will educate them on the alienation of their words.
That is not to say that I don’t understand the other side of the argument. The word “cisgender”, often shortened to cis, was seemingly first used by the German sexologist, Volkmar Sigusch, in his 1998 essay The Neosexual Revolution. The dictionary definition is “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex”.
The importance of the word cis, as Dr Eli R Green outlined, was as an alternative word to be used instead of gender normative. The use of the terminology gender normative left the transgender existence as the opposite to gender normative, and open to the connection with an abnormal existence. The word cis created an equalising effect which is important for the inclusion of the transgender into society. Cis is an affirmation of the status of transgender people as equals in the variations of existence. Boyne including comments about not defining himself as cis was always going to be problematic. These comments were unnecessary and unfortunately distracted from his support of the trans community.
But it is also Boyne’s and everybody else’s choice as to which label they want to use to describe themselves. If Boyne prefers calling himself “man” rather than “cis man” then it is his right to do so. This does not mean that he is transphobic. It means he is more familiar with that language and chooses to continue to use it when describing himself. I still talk about pounds and ounces while my children refer to weights as kilos and kilograms. We all need to give each other time to learn the new words, and even then making the change can be difficult as the words are so embedded.
The issue is the pain that certain words bring. The transgender community and those of us who are non-binary are looking for inclusivity, acceptance and equality in society which the binary terms male and female have not given us. We desire a term which does not preclude our acceptance as a normal variation. The use of cis gender allows that transgender or non-binary is not an abnormality.
Jeffrey Eugenides sums it up in his powerful book Middlesex: “I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.” People who are marginalised need our words more than ever. However, we should educate people in the language of the future, rather than scold them for using the language of the past, especially when this language changes daily.
By all means, police the errors of Boyne’s language and explain its misuse, even express why it is unacceptable. But don’t accuse him of being transphobic. The man is clearly standing behind trans barricades and flying the flag for the trans community, even if he is holding that flag upside down.