Monday, June 1, 2020

I'm with Slur

There are bigger, more important issues facing us today, but I want to take on something bite-sized.  It has ramifications that are a bit bigger than that, though.

Lately I've been baffled by a social-media trope that isn't new, but is turning up in circles that surprise me: the denial that slurs are slurs.  A few samples, which I began collecting only after I'd noticed this pattern:

I regret not having grabbed a tweet I saw a couple of weeks earlier which listed several terms that, according to the poster, were totally not slurs, but which I thought clearly were.  "TERF" (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) and "Nazi" were among them, along with the now-viral "Karen."  I think "cis" was also on the list, and possibly "cishet."  (Someone recently opposed "cishet" to "queer", which is a miscategorization, because one can be both queer and cisgender; probably most queers are, but as we'll see that is being forgotten by some of us.)

Whether a word is a slur or not can be tricky: few slurs are innately, always slurs.  Take "gay," which homosexuals adopted as a neutral, self-chosen term for ourselves.  Within a decade it had become a playground epithet, and those kids carried the slur with them into adulthood.  A decade or so after that, a surprising number of gay people rejected "gay" because they thought it had always been a slur.  So whether "gay" is a slur depends on who's using it and how they're using it.

TERF is less innocent.  It was coined in 2008 to refer to feminists who deny that transgender women are really women.  Since those feminists didn't coin the term themselves -- they tend to prefer terms like "gender critical" - and since the intention of those who apply it to them is hostile, I think it's fair to call TERF a slur.  On the other hand, its component parts are pretty neutral terms, and I see no reason why a "gender-critical" feminist shouldn't answer to it, even reclaim it.  That they get defensive about the term indicates that they're not as sure of themselves as they want to be seen, like white racists who reject the term "racist" in favor of "racial loyalist," "racial nationalist," and the like.

As for "cis," at first I liked the term, along with the long-form "cisgender," as a useful contrast to "transgender" and "trans."  (An analogous case would be "monosexual," referring to those people who aren't bisexual; I like it and find it useful, but some gay people have complained that it's a slur; it could be, but I haven't seen it.)  Then I noticed that it had drifted from its original meaning, as a gender identity, to refer to what had been called "gender presentation," the gendered ways people present and are seen by others.  So, for example, the trans academics Ginny Beemyn and Susan Rankin wrote that, "To be inclusive of all gender-nonconforming people, we defined 'transgender' broadly as “anyone who transgresses or blurs traditional gender categories." *

But then it appeared to me that some people, not all of them trans, were using it to imply that people who aren't trans, whose gender identity is the one they were assigned at birth, or whose gender presentation goes along with their cisgender identity, were at best uncool - conformists, sheep, instead of bold, free trans people who aren't slaves to the gender binary.  This amused me more than it bothered me; we queers, including moi, had often used "straight" in the same way.

But I don't think I would have denied that using "straight" to connote narrow conformism was a slur.  It's a relatively mild one, since heterosexuals aren't harmed by it; I think those who were bothered didn't like discovering that as free-thinking as they thought they were, they had their own kinds of conformism.  Which is as true of "cis," and that's why I'm not bothered by it: conformism is never total, nor is nonconformism.  I find that many trans people are fiercely conformist in their gender ideology, their ideas of what their gender identity entails -- how they dress, how they speak, how they carry themselves.  Take someone like Laverne Cox, who fits conventional gender norms for women extremely well: you might say it's her brand.  Trans people are as variable in this respect as cis people, however.  So far the use of "cis" to imply something negative or inadequate about cis people has been on the level of innuendo rather than anything overt; so far.  When and if it becomes more overt, it won't hurt me.  But it will definitely be a slur.

Similarly, "cracker" first caught on more as a class slur than a racial one.  (Bear in mind, though, that the dividing line between "class" and "race" isn't a sharp one.)  But it's hard for me to see how anybody could deny that it is a slur.  And that's what is weird to me about the argument the tweets I quoted were referring to.  A slur is an insult, and TERF, "cracker," and small-n "nazi" are certainly insults which put people into devalued and despised categories.  The people denying that a slur is a slur remind me of racists who deny that they're racists, who define troublesome terms so as to exclude themselves from being covered by them.  It's at least a failure of nerve, a refusal to take responsibility for one's language, and I think it also reveals a refusal to examine one's own attitudes that the Left should never indulge.  Nor should anyone else, but the Left, broadly and amorphously conceived, is where I stand.  I expect and demand more from myself and from those I stand with.
*The Lives of Trangender People (Columbia UP, 2011), p. 22.  By this definition, I and most human beings are transgender.