GLAAD is wrong on ‘transgender’ vs. ‘transgendered’
Consider this item from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Reference Guide:
The word transgender never needs the extraneous “ed” at the end of the word. In fact, such a construction is grammatically incorrect. Only verbs can be transformed into participles by adding “-ed” to the end of the word, and transgender is an adjective, not a verb…
I hesitate to criticize what is in general a very useful guide, but on this issue, the guide is simply incorrect: ‘transgendered’ is clearly grammatically correct and ‘transgender’ is the term whose grammatical status is in question. It is certainly true that some transgendered people use ‘transgender’ as an adjective to describe themselves or others, but a review of the above will show that this is, strictly speaking, grammatically incorrect.
There are adjectives that we use to describe people that do not end in ‘ed,’ including ‘Norwegian’ or ‘Chinese,’ ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine,’ and ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian,’ not to mention ‘bisexual.’ But to point this out is simply to point out the diversity of adjectival constructions in the English language; in itself, it does not constitute an objection to the use of ‘transgendered’ as an adjective.
I’m right-handed, not ‘right-hand.’ I can say that I am ‘fatigued’ — not to mention ‘exhausted’ by this whoe debate; I would never say, “I am fatigue” or “I am exhaust” (though of course one can refer to ‘fatigue’ and ‘exhaust’ as nouns as well as use them as verbs, depending on the context). I have been referred to as an ‘accomplished woman’ and an ‘accomplished activist,’ but I have never been described as ‘accomplish’ or as an ‘accomplish person.’ My elderly next-door neighbor is ‘aged,’ not ‘age.’ I would call someone who reads the poetry of Joseph von Eichendorff ‘cultured,’ not ‘culture,’ just as I would call Korean celadon — and those who appreciate it — ‘refined,’ not ‘refine.’ One says that a person is ‘educated,’ but I’ve never heard anyone describing someone as an ‘educate’ person. I have been honored to accept numerous invitations to speaking engagements, but on none of those occasions have I ever said, “I am honor to accept your invitation to speak here,” and if I had, my audience would almost certainly question my command of English grammar.
Adding an ‘ed’ to a verb to create an adjective is in fact a very common construction in English, and the fact that an adjective is created from a verb doesn’t mean that it isn’t an adjective. Similarly with ‘transgendered.’ When we talk about people, we ordinarily say that they are ‘gendered,’ using an adjective created by adding ‘ed’ to ‘gender.’ It would be both grammatically incorrect as well as bizarre to say that a child is ‘gender,’ while it makes perfect sense to say that a child is ‘gendered.’
Now, I do use ‘transgender’ as an adjective to describe certain entities that are abstract, such as ‘transgender law,’ ‘transgender studies,’ and ‘transgender community,’ because it is the people — not the law, the studies, or the community — that are transgendered. So it is not at all inconsistent when I refer to myself as a ‘transgendered woman’ and also as a ‘transgender activist,’ because in the latter case, it is I who am transgendered, not my activism. Similarly, NYAGRA is a transgender organization, not a ‘transgendered’ organization, because an organization itself cannot be transgendered, only its members.
When the question of ‘transgender’ vs. ‘transgendered’ comes up within community, the most frequent objection I hear to the latter is that it seems to imply that something has been ‘done to’ the ‘transgendered’ person. Well, we are all gendered at birth, entirely without our consent; in that sense, we are all gendered; gender is in fact ‘done to’ us — by our parents, our peers, and our society. But when we come out as transgendered, we do in fact engage in an act of re-gendering, as it were. Far from implying that something has been ‘done to’ someone, when an individual uses ‘transgendered’ as a self-descriptor, it represents a conscious act of self-naming and affirmation.
There is a sublter and more sophisticated argument in favor of ‘transgender,’ which is that linguistic usages are social constructions and that ultimately, whatever usage society adopts is correct. An example of this would be ‘e-mail’ used as a term not merely to designate electronic mail as a whole, but an individual message. I feel rather old-fashioned and even vaguely curmudgeonly when I say ‘e-mail message’ to refer to an individual message rather than the shorter and all-too-common ‘e-mail’ (as in, “Did you get the last e-mail I sent you…?”). But it is also true that the mere fact that adoption of a usage as conventional does not make grammatically what is demonstrably grammatically incorrect according to the rules of grammar that are still standard for that language; adoption of a grammatically incorrect usage as conventional simply complicates the status of the grammatical structure of the language and makes the language more inconsistent in that regard. In any case, we have not reached the point where ‘transgender’ as an adjective to describe people has become standard, much less universally accepted both within the transgender community and outside it, and so even this most sophisticated argument in favor of ‘transgender’ is not persuasive.
So as a transgender activist, but even more as a transgendered woman, I would encourage GLAAD to correct this reference on-line and in its publications. For me, it is ultimately the conceptual and political implications of this debate over usage that weigh most heavily. When I say, “I’m transgendered,” I am saying, in effect, “I have transgendered myself.” I have re-envisioned myself as an openly transgendered woman in the face of a society that is generally hostile to the very idea. I have embraced the usage ‘transgendered’ because it represents a conscious act of self-naming and affirmation, an act that is central to the process of empowerment that is at the heart of the transgender movement.
This blog post originally appeared as “‘Transgender’ vs. ‘transgendered’ — the great nomenclature debate engaged” on BigQueer.com on 8 April 2007.