Third-Gendering

Posted on Behalf of Robin from SWOP-NYC

To my fellow cis sex workers rights activists:

Men, women, and transgendered people.  Male, female, and trans.  I’m sure most of you recognize these phrases as they are used widely across the sex workers rights movement.  I was at the December 17th march in D.C., and I heard them used there.  I’ve also seen them in press releases and blogs, and even dear friends of mine have used them.  This is a call for it to stop, or at least an attempt at such a call.  Many people call this sort of thing “third-gendering”; it implies that trans women and trans men are not “real” women and men, but are instead a third gender.  People who identify as genderqueer or outside the gender binary certainly do exist, and those identifications should be respected too, but there are also many, many trans men and trans women who identify as men and women, full stop.  To symbolically shunt all of them off to a third gender can come across as marginalizing, and tokenizing, and really faux-inclusive at best.  I understand that many people in this movement do want to be truly respectful in their language and their work of everyone within our community, and so I am writing this to encourage people to move more fully in that direction.

What should you say if you wish to explicitly include trans people in your statements?  It is true that in our society, many people will assume that the phrase “men and women” means “cis men and cis women” unless trans people are explicitly included.  That is unfortunate, but there are ways to work around it without third-gendering people who do not identify as a third gender.  Let’s say you are talking about women, and want to be absolutely clear that you are including trans women in your statement.  You can say, “women, cis and trans.” Or “cis women and trans women.”  Or, “women, including trans women.”  Or even “female-identified people.”  What you should not say, is “women and trans” or “women and trans women,” as though trans women are never included in the category “women.”  Because “women” should always include women who happen to be trans.

Language is fundamental to giving trans people the same respect that cis people take for granted.  It signals how the speaker sees trans people, and can shape the views of both speaker and audience.  The sex workers rights movement needs to respect people’s gender identities–whether cis or trans–and this means that everyone who identifies as a woman is a woman, and everyone who identifies as a man is a man.

I write as a trans ally whose long-term trans partner is bothered by this language, and as someone with trans loved ones and friends for whom I care very much.

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider this message.