Speaking to Include: Transgender Elders

In 2007, FORGE’s Transgender Aging Network (TAN) asked 100 transgender and SOFFA (Significant Others, Friends, Family, and Allies) individuals age 50 and older what gender identity term they used, and gave them a write-in space. 

 We received 51 different answers.

 The diversity of gender identity terms trans people use presents a challenge to aging professionals.  How do you convey inclusion and acceptance when the language is so incredibly diverse? 

The truth is that the general “LGBT” community – to say nothing of the mainstream community – is still at step one in transgender cultural competency.  We need to have far more transgender elders openly participating in our services before we can begin to determine such nuances as the differences in language use between trans elders and their younger peers, or trans elders versus lesbian and gay elders.  Therefore, the following language recommendations are not just for aging professionals, but should work for any professionals working with transpeople of any age.

Be aware of the terms paradox: it is crucial to echo the terms transpeople use to refer to themselves (pronouns, gender identity terms, transgender categories) in order to convey respect for who they are.  At the same time, with so many people using so many terms in different – sometimes unique – ways, any given term will tell you little (if anything) about the person’s surgeries or hormone use, legal status, or needs.

Interestingly, it is the language organizations use – particularly in written materials – that is NOT about transgender that sends the loudest messages to transgender and SOFFA elders.  When we read “LGBT” materials, what we are looking for is whether your “T” is a silent letter.  Do you recognize how the T community differs from the LGB community, and do your language, goals, and programs reflect that understanding? 

Although context is everything, here are terms that sometimes signal to transgender and SOFFA elders that your “T” welcome mat does not extend past the doorway:

=> “Sexual orientation.”  The primary way transgender people differ from lesbian, gay, and bisexual people is that our label is not a sexual orientation.  We may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual, but the “T” – our gender identity – is what’s important in this context.  If a transgender lesbian or a trannyfag identify primarily as lesbian or gay, they may look to that “T” only to double-check their welcome.  For the rest of us, adding “or gender identity” to the phrase “sexual orientation” is critical.  It is what proves to us you really do want all transgender people, not just those who are also LG or B.

=> “Same-sex relationships.” Again, some transgender people are heterosexual, and some of us merely look like we are.  If your group advertises it is for those in “same-sex relationships,” you are sending a message that contradicts any “LGBT” statements you may make.

 => “Homophobia.” It is not at all clear that homophobia is at the root of discrimination against transgender people.  When you talk about prejudice against your constituents, make sure you speak about both homophobia and transphobia.  (If you add “biphobia,” too, you will win instant bisexual converts.)  Alternatively, use the inclusive “discrimination or prejudice against LGBT people.”

 =>“Heterosexism” is the belief that being heterosexual is better than being homosexual.  In truth, many transgender people have experienced anti-heterosexual bias at “LGBT” events.  It may not be politically correct at this point to talk about “homosexism” in tandem with “heterosexism,” but it’s worth being aware of the possible trans-exclusionary message the terms sends when used on its own.

 Wondering what those 51 terms were?  Here they are:  androgynous, bigender, butch, CD [cross-dresser], engaged to a great lady (me being a woman myself), female, female at birth [with] trans partner, female transsexual MTF, feminine and masculine, Femme Tlesbian, FTM, genderqueer transwoman, intergendered, left wing feminist, lesbian (married to another woman), M>F, M2F, M2F post op, male, male to female, man, mostly female, MTF, MTF staying andro or maleish for work, MTF Transsexual, PAN, Post Op Female, post op trans woman, pre-non Op Primary M2F TS, pre-op transsexual, soft butch, T-girl, trans, trans experience, trans woman, transgender, transgendered butch, transman, transsexual, transsexual woman, transwoman, woman, woman born trans, woman born transsexual, woman for five years, woman of intersexed/transsexual background, woman of trans experience, woman with a past, woman with an interesting past, woman with transsexual history, and woman, in transition.

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