A Sign Post ~ Contemplate Vernacular


Zander Keig is a prolific contributor to dialogue among transgender communities. His co-edited book Letters for my Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect in 2011, is one of many notable accomplishments.

Zander's Tao of Transition blog from 2007 has been set aside for the time being, but even incomplete, it offers many insights. This blog entry is reprinted with permission.


Our lives are structured through the use of vernacular, the language of our locality, which has been crafted to describe, define and determine our experience on the planet. With transition, vernacular often serves to clarify and confuse the path we are embarking upon.

For instance, common transition vernacular includes terms (labels) and phrases such as "sex change", "female to male", "male to female", sex reassignment surgery", "crossdresser", "transsexual", "trans man" and "trans woman". Where did these terms and phrases originate? For what purpose were they crafted? To describe, define and determine our experience for examination purposes perhaps?

One only needs to look more closely at the first (verb) phrase above, sex change, to see how cleverly deceptive vernacular can be. First, what is sex? Biologically defined, sex is male (xy) or female (xx) and, rarely mentioned, intersex (30+ "conditions"). So what defines who is male and female? One often offered answer is that females produce large gametes (eggs) and males produce small gametes (sperm), which are important to the reproduction of our species. What does this mean for people who are unable/incapable of producing these gametes? Is a female who does not produce large gametes any less a female? So, to change sex means that we cease to produce gametes which make us incapable of reproduction or that we begin to produce the gametes of the "opposite sex"? NO! The whole idea of having a sex, being assigned a sex at birth, is riddled with problems. To learn more, I recommend reading Making Sex by Thomas Laqueur. In the book, Prof. Laqueur (UC Berkeley) outlines, historically, "the making and unmaking of sex over the centuries". It is a fascinating read!

Changing my sex was a legal and social process, not a physiological one (although hormones cause physiological occurrences). It is true that I now look, sound and live as a man, but I am not a reproductive male. I am no longer a reproductive female either. The weekly injections of testosterone into my body caused my menses to cease immediately. My legal sex change, so to speak, came as a result of petitioning the California Superior Court of San Francisco County ($300). My petition was granted, because I had been declared male by a licensed CA physician and certified (via notary public) as having undergone an "irreversible" surgical procedure which rendered me no longer female.

My social sex change came as a direct result of the weekly testosterone injections. The results of injecting 125mg of depotestosterone into my body every Sunday night are a much lower and deeper voice, the redistribution of fat cells from typical female locations on the body (thighs, buttocks, hips) to more typical male locations (waist), the slow but building presence of facial hair (beard, mustache, soul patch), prominent muscle development despite not joining a gym, a more angular looking face, broader shoulders
and so on.

One example of language used in transition, "sex change", begins to get at the point of this sign post, contemplate vernacular. I could expand upon the others that I mentioned previously, like FTM or MTF, but I won't. My point is not to dismantle language, but to draw attention to the usage, perhaps imposition, of words and phrases as they pertain to transsexuals and transsexuality.

In an effort to remain grounded in my gender through the beginning stages of my transition, the first and second years (I am in year 3), I needed to develop practices which allowed me to reflect upon what was happening to me; inside my body and my appearance as a direct result of the hormones and around me as my family members and friends adjusted to my new life.

Again, the intention of this sign post is to take into consideration the potentiality that words have to describe, define and determine our experience and how often these words go unchallenged, which may effect us in ways that we do not understand. For example, I refused to use the word/term transsexual to describe myself for the first 2 years of my transition. Why? Because, I had inherited the notion that to be a transsexual was to be mentally ill. I also inherited the notion that a transsexual had to suffer from mild to severe forms of Gender Identity Disorder. I did not speak these notions and biases out loud, I didn't even know that they were what was hindering me in this process. It wasn't until I was about to embark upon my third year of transition (what does that word really imply anyway?) that I hit upon this blockage and made an effort to clear it.

It isn't without problems though. I encounter people who tell me that using the word transsexual to describe myself is problematic, because it has been deemed a "medical" term, a term used against "us" by "them". And that may very well be true. Just as queer is a word that has been used to assault LGBT people with and has been reclaimed as a term of empowerment by some. I have chosen to reclaim the term transsexual as an empowerment term to describe myself, because that is what I have done, I have (from the Latin) legally and socially crossed over from female to male and/or in some ways gone beyond the designations of what it means to be female or male.

To contemplate vernacular means to question and reflect upon the words and phrases used/applied to the experiences, identities, connections and feelings that make up this thing we call "life", which for me has been a most awe inspiring journey in consciousness.