How I Hate the Word “Trans”

For a chemist, I sure seem to get confused easily

Amethysta Herrick
Amethysta Herrick
Image by the author

Today I read a news article discussing the ongoing debate about “trans” people. The word “trans” has become common parlance in the media to indicate a particular group of people. If I trust the media, that group of people tends to wear a lot of pink and showers themselves frequently in glitter. That group also appears to be very vocal as well as socially intrusive — from public rest rooms to Kindergartens.

In my head, I rebel fiercely against the word “trans.” The word has acquired meaning that is not what I consider part of the transgender experience — mine, anyway. To be clear, the last thing I want is to set up another form of gatekeeping. My interaction with some in the transgender community indicates how quickly they will dismiss somebody as not “trans enough.”

That said, the word “trans” has become a caricature, not a definition. And that is why I hate it.

A quick etymology lesson

The prefix “trans” in “transgender” comes from Latin, meaning “across from.” This is to be distinguished from “cis,” meaning “on the same side as.” “Cis” and “trans” — grammatically and etymologically — are adverbs that imply a line of demarcation. They distinguish whether two entities exist on one side of the line or across the line from each other.

My original experience with “cis” and “trans” is from organic chemistry, which uses the words to describe the location of two molecular groups relative to each other when bonded to carbons atoms in a carbon-carbon double bond. There is no middle ground in organic chemistry — either the groups are on the same side of the double bond or they are across from each other.

The molecular groups cannot be in-between, which is accurate in terms of the etymology, and I don’t rebel against organic chemistry other than to comment on how boring I felt the classes were when I took them.

A trans example

Do we observe the use of “trans” in situations other than “transgender?” Absolutely.

There is a “trans” in “Trans Am” — the car of choice for stereotypical white wanker jocks in the Los Angeles suburbs in the 1980s. Think Emilio Estevez’s “Athlete” in “The Breakfast Club” or Bill Paxton’s “Chet” in “Weird Science.”

These guys could be heard in the locker room bragging about how they “boned a cheerleader” in their Trans Am immediately before pantsing people like me. In a particularly foul mood, these people might instead “trash can” people like me.

Clearly, I’m not a big fan of the stereotypical white wanker jock, and using a word they might use to pump themselves up is distasteful. It conjures an image of people in pink T-shirts emblazoned with spread-wing eagles — the Trans Am hood ornament — on a train to “glitter prison camp” to be held for suspicious behavior such as appreciating a shade of lipstick. The word holds bad connotations in my head.

But the car brings up a point. It was “Trans Am,” implying in the 1980s — when oil was clearly never going to run out — the ability to drive really fast from one side of North America to the other side. A Trans-American trip: from one side to the other, presumably to bone a cheerleader after pantsing a local and guffawing with other enthusiasts of 12 MPG cars. America? Fuck, yeah!

The point, then, is that “trans” requires two obvious sides with — as mentioned above — a clear line of demarcation.

Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale are across the United States. Trans-American.

Los Angeles and Seattle are on the same side of the United States. Cis-American.

But wait…Los Angeles and Seattle are Trans-Latitudinal. Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale are Cis-Latitudinal.

“Cis” and “trans” need a standard by which to judge — they are relative terms, not absolute terms. In fact, two entities can be both “cis” and “trans” to each other depending on how one draws the line of demarcation. “Cis” and “trans” demand an answer to the question “cis or trans to what?”

Demarcation of gender

Consider the word “transgender.” If “cis” and “trans” demand a line of demarcation…what is that line with regard to gender?

There is — as biologists have so merrily cataloged in other boring textbooks I read — a clear binary of sex at the species level. The cells used in sexual reproduction (named gametes) are almost universally different in size by two to three orders of magnitude. Of the two gametes, one is observably smaller than the other, and they are called sperm and ovum, respectively.

Determining sex for an organism, then, should be easy enough. All we need to do is find enough members of a species — say, human. We ask them to gather a sample after an act of reproduction — say, boning a cheerleader in a Trans Am after driving really fast from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale. We do a quick comparison with a microscope…and done.

But gender is not so simple. There are no universal standards of gender — no absolute, definitive characteristics of masculinity and femininity. Ask a transgender person — say, me — whether Harry Styles is also transgender, and the answer will be that although clothes are an aspect of gender expression, they are by no means definitive of gender. We need more data to answer the question.

If gender has no clear line of demarcation — no way to answer “cis or trans to what?” — the adverbs cannot apply to it. I wrote about this mislabeling elsewhere: that the very words “cisgender” and “transgender” lack clear meaning. We should speak only of “gender” — how one organism expresses its sex characteristics within the context of one act of reproduction. The rest is personal expression, not metaphysical absolute.

My preferred adjective

The word “transgender” is vague and misleading enough that its use should be discontinued in academic — or at least intelligent — debate about gender (which means its use on Fox News will, no doubt, continue).

But “trans” — as an abbreviation of “transgender” — ratchets up the vagueness another order of magnitude, further obscuring a complicated issue behind a relative adverb. As a result, I recommend we begin exploring words and concepts as they relate to human experience.

Words only exist in language to express a human experience — yes, even words such as “frabjous.” So from now on, I intend to refer to myself with a frabjous word I found.

I admit, the word does require social context as it expresses one human’s experience: mine. Because gender is personal expression as opposed to biological characteristic or metaphysical absolute, using this slightly contextual word carries with it some danger, but assuredly less so than “trans.”

The word is “feminine.”


Amethysta Herrick

Ami is a transgender woman dedicated to exploring identity and gender. She is Editor-in-Chief of Purplepaw Publications, LLC.

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