Shortly before lockdown, there was a rash of transphobic stickers appearing in the downstairs toilets of the SOAS library. I made a point of visiting every time I was in the library to remove them, and was delighted to find that someone was leaving some trans-positive ones in there too. Similar sticker combat has been happening in Oxford, resulting in the Trans Happiness Is Real campaign.
Something encountered in London and Oxford is the “woman: adult human female” sticker, a slogan also used on memes, t-shirts, and a billboard in Liverpool that prompted Liverpool city council to take action to support the trans community. I find this slogan morbidly interesting, because it weaponises an inadequacy in the words that most English speakers have to use to talk about gender and sex.
Almost all transphobia is based on the idea that someone’s physical sexual characteristics should determine their gender role in society. “Gender critical” transphobia even tries to deny that cultures have gender roles or, at the very least, reduces the complexity of genders into pink dolls and blue cars. The very existence of transgender and non-binary folk across times and cultures proves that physical bodies and social genders can be independent of each other.
In standard British and American English, we don’t actually have any words that talk about sex without also implying gender, because colonial Western culture has shoved the spectrum of physical sexes and social genders into two boxes, with the pink dolls and the blue cars. “Female” and “woman”, and “male” and “man” are indeed treated as synonyms. Products advertised for female pets have the same colours and motifs as products advertised towards human women and girls, and we even give gender to inanimate objects like ships. Many trans and non-binary people answering the 2021 census felt that asking for both sex and gender was not an improvement when we were expected to define our current sex as what’s on a birth or gender recognition certificate.
This language ambiguity allows transphobes a lot more chances for hateful speech than they should have. They can say that it’s unsafe for female and male athletes to compete against each other when what they’re actually demanding is for trans and non-binary people to be banned from sport. They can use the concept of “biological sex” to continue to misgender people, and claim that using inclusive language to talk about things like periods and pregnancy “erases” cis women.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution without radical changes in the English language, but we can be more conscious of how we use it and call out exclusionary language when we see it. The best thing is to say exactly what you mean – if you mean “people who have periods” or “sex assigned at birth”, say that. Use the words that trans and non-binary communities use to define ourselves. And maybe make a few trans-positive stickers.
Victor Smith is a Trans and Gender Identity Officer at SOAS Students’ Union.