You are unlikely to be able to spend much time in the trans community without running into some form of unholy firestorm about which terminology we should use to describe the act of clinically rearranging one’s genitalia to conform to a social norm most typically associated with our gender. Anyone who has ever been on a Facebook group and declared themselves delighted to be undergoing surgery has probably had someone fire back with something along the lines of “I am happy for you but I prefer to call it Choppy McSlicetime”, or more likely something a little more aggressive.
Whether we like it or not, most people who choose to undergo it consider lower surgery a major life event, and given the extensive amount of time we spend thinking and talking about it, it is only natural that we get very exercised about what terms people use to refer to it. Humans are distressingly different and it makes it very difficult to be right sometimes, but we must persist. It is particularly important that we help the individuals and organisations that deal with us to use the appropriate terms, so as not to upset or confuse anyone.
Let’s first examine some of the terms that are frequently used, before we start to analyse their relative merits and the factors which should influence us. I’ll first go through the guidance offered by some of the more prominent LGBT+ or trans specific organisations:
- GIRES warn against ‘sex change’ and recommend using an umbrella term of “Gender Confirmation Treatment”, or more specifically “gender (or sex) reassignment surgery”
- Stonewall recommends an umbrella term of “Gender reassignment”for the process, but nothing specific on surgery
- All About Trans also warn against ‘sex change/swap’ and recommends “Gender reassignment” for the process, but again nothing specific for surgery
- Trans Media Watch recommends “Gender Affirmation Surgery” or “Gender Confirmation Surgery”
- GLAAD recommends “Sex Reassignment Surgery” or “Gender Confirmation Surgery”
Researching this left me very surprised that so many organisations are recommending use of the word ‘reassignment’, and also ‘Gender Confirmation/Affirmation’, as these terms have been controversial in the trans community for some time now. This said, it’s good to see ‘sex swap/change’ being roundly condemned, although of course it doesn’t stop the tabloid press chucking the term about like trickle down economics in a Young Conservatives meeting. I was also surprised to see no mention at all for the more literal terms like ‘Genital Reconstruction Surgery’, and its more specific cousins ‘vaginoplasty’, ‘phalloplasty’ and ‘clitoroplasty’.
The main issues we see with terminology is that it simply doesn’t describe what the surgery is. Also, many terms are wrapped up in cisnormative ideas of what it is to be a given gender. We must consider that many people don’t want to have surgery, and that doesn’t make them any less valid in their gender. This is why I have problems with many of the terms recommended by these organisations. The idea of ‘Gender Confirmation’ is predicated on the idea that it is necessary to have a body that looks a certain way in order to be valid. This is not the case. You can’t describe a surgery as ‘Gender Affirming’ without creating the idea of a two tier system where those who can’t or don’t wish to have lower surgery are seen as ‘less than’. Now, I’m all for people being able to choose the terms they feel best reflect their own experience. If someone wants to call their own surgery a ‘sex change’ then go right ahead, but this mish-mash of terminology is confusing for those writing literature for the community at large, and for those documenting us and our experiences – even those who are trans themselves. Along a similar vein, we usually dismiss the idea of ‘Sex/Gender Reassignment Surgery’, as it gives the impression that you can ‘change’ gender by simply having a single surgery, and again adds to the perception that’s it’s necessary for recognition.
Of course, we are usually very good at saying why terms are bad, but it’s a lot harder to convey good reasons for using certain terms. A lot of people like the gender confirmation idea because they feel it is something which helps them feel more at home with themselves, and that shouldn’t be ignored. So what about those literal terms I referred to earlier – things like ‘Genital Reconstruction Surgery’? These are, by far, my personal preference. In fact I really believe these solve the problems I’ve talked about above by simply being so literal. When a surgeon carries out these surgeries, they are literally reconstructing genitalia. ‘Genital Reconstruction Surgery’ is unladen with emotion. It doesn’t carry any preconceptions about gender, and doesn’t judge us for having it or not having it. It can be used for any gender, and doesn’t try to pretend that it’s critical in validating that gender. The only opposing arguments I would give any credence to are that being so literally can be a little brutal for some – but then we are talking about surgery here! Also, the acronym ‘GRS’ has been used to mean ‘Gender Reassignment Surgery’ in the past, which is unfortunate, but easily circumvented by just using the term in full.
Alas, I suspect we’ll never put this argument fully to bed, but we can at least be a little more conscious of who we’re throwing under the bus when we use certain terms.
This was a Party Political Broadcast by the Genital Reconstruction Surgery Party