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27th September 2016

Can language eliminate discrimination?

With the word ‘cisgender’ established in the dictionary, does the term help or hinder the cause for transgender and other LGBT+ people?

In a multicultural, urban place like Manchester, people of different ethnicities, religions, and cultures come into close contact on a daily basis. Whether it is on neutral, friendly or slightly sceptical terms, different people interact with each other. Urban spaces, therefore, welcome the inherent need for humans to identify and characterise themselves, belonging to either one of these groups. People have always had an urge to fit in a certain group. And this sense of belonging is partly achieved by assigning a certain label to the group you belong to. In other words, an in-group feeling is reinforced and consolidated with a label. People from Manchester, for instance, call themselves “Mancunians” to distinguish themselves from people from a wider Northern identity.

Furthermore, the need to categorise people who do not belong to your group has always been present. It is a way to make sense of people who are different from you. But at the same time, it is a means to strengthen in-group bonds. Assigning labels and categorising people helps to better grasp certain character traits and actions of people different from you. This does not only happen only a religious or ethnical level. Labels are used to characterise individual character traits with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity.

When you look at different areas of Manchester, you discover The Curry Mile–which stands for a street where a particular high amount of curries is served. But one also comes across Gay Village–an area where you’re likely to find places and people open towards gay people. A visitor coming to Manchester might be startled by the fact that an area of the city is commonly called the Gay Village. This might not be conceivable in their home country. For them, it might indicate that Manchester, generally, is very open-minded towards gay people—which is true to an extent.

Nevertheless, the very manifestation of the Gay Pride event, an event that is held annually to celebrate LGBT+ rights, indicates that a need to project a voice for public representation still exists. Pride is not merely a celebration but, in fact, an important means for LGBT+ people to gain attention, which non-LGBT+ do not need to because they have already got it; non-LGBT+ people know about their rights, and they do not need to stand up for them.

The same phenomenon is evident in language use. LGBT+ people are always referred to being gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender. With heterosexual people, however, in common interactions between two people who have just met, a certain tacit understanding of the other person being sexually interested in the opposite sex exists. Similarly, people who identify with the sex to which they were biologically assigned at birth are never acknowledged for that fact because it is still widely assumed as ‘normal’.

To counteract the latter, the term ‘cisgender’ has been coined. ‘Cisgender’ is an adjective that describes someone who identifies with the biological sex to which they were assigned by birth. It was adopted to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2015. Concerns have been raised that this coinage does not obliterate any problems of discrimination towards transgender people. Rather, more emphasis is put on the distinction between purportedly “normal”, cisgender people and the less privileged, transgender people. It further invigorates a dichotomy that scholars have tried to refuse in the past. Cisgender and transgender are designed as antonyms, and therefore mutually exclusive; one is either this or that. Binary is therefore unavoidable when using these terms.

However, the coinage of cisgender is, nonetheless, regarded as highly beneficial. Firstly, the tendency to only name what is different is defeated by using cisgender. No matter what your gender identity is, one is obliged to name it. And this is further entrenched a ‘cisgender’ spreads in usage beyond academic writing.

Supporters of ‘cisgender’ also claim that, in gender discussions, the use of both cis- and transgender draws attention to a privilege that cisgender people might have in society. So again, the need to manifest a certain phenomenon, in this case the privilege of cisgender people, is helped by language.

Studies have shown that the use of generalising terms or slurs around people of a young age can entrench biases towards a certain group. This shows that language certainly plays a role in one’s conception of another group. In a similar way, the use of both cisgender and transgender could help to embed an understanding of other people’s gender identity in peoples’ minds. One would not be cisgender by default, one would have to claim to be it. It would not be socially presumed that one is cisgender when not claiming otherwise because naming one’s gender identity would come naturally to people. And most importantly, transgender people would not be regarded as being divergent, different, or inferior.


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