Thinking Allowed on Transgender issues…


A comment I sent in to the BBC’s “Thinking Allowed” last week on Transgender issues has been read out on air. I’ll publicise this here mostly because I just love the inflection the presenter has given my words. I don’t think I could have done better myself! Start from 13:45, it’s about 30 seconds long.


Also on BBC’s Thinking Allowed Podcast site

The programme I’m commenting on is the one from 2nd May and Zowie Davy’s piece is towards the end. Here is the full text of my comment – the second paragraph was read out on air.


I was somewhat surprised on today’s show to hear basic linguistic errors being made by both the presenter and the academic author, Zowie Davy.

As someone who has apparently spent some time working with trans people, I would have expected Zowie to understand that “Transsexual” is an adjective, not a noun. You would not say “John is a black” or “Sue is a disabled” as that is very othering. Similarly, you should talk about someone being “a transsexual person”, lest one cause serious offence.

I hope that Zowie’s overall research is better informed than her use of language would suggest!

  1. #1 by Keith Edkins on 10 May 2012 - 11:04

    Who gets to be the authority on this? The OED citations for noun and adjective are from the same 1957 journal article, and the adjectival use there is in the sense “transsexual tendencies”. The first adjectival application to a person cited (“transsexual children”) isn’t until 1969. As regards your parallels, “John is a black” is a perfectly good form (citations back to 1614), you just don’t hear it nowadays as “it is now felt to carry disrespectful overtones”. More comparably, “homosexual” as a noun is cited from 1912.

    • #2 by Zoe O'Connell on 22 May 2012 - 08:40

      What Sylvia said. Just because it was acceptable usage in the 1600s doesn’t make it acceptable now :-) That particularly applies to Trans issues as it’s still am emerging and fast developing topic, akin to the gay movements of the 1960s through 1980s. Many terms that were acceptable when I transitioned 7 years ago are now regarded as ill-advised at best.

  2. #3 by Sylvia on 10 May 2012 - 11:40

    I don’t think dictionaries are good authorities on how to express yourself without causing offence – they are descriptive not prescriptive, and the OED in particular is concerned with historical use whereas language relating to disadvantaged groups changes rapidly – consider “spastic”.

    Ideally the BBC would have this kind of stuff in their internal style manual, which is where groups like TransMediaWatch can be effective by ensuring that decisions made about how to describe trans people are not made without consultation with actual trans people.

    Once the journalists get it right, the correct way of speech will filter down naturally. Consider how many cis people ask a trans person for their former name and don’t realise how upsetting this is. They think it is OK because nearly every newspaper article about a trans person starts off with their old name.

  3. #4 by Keith Edkins on 10 May 2012 - 13:06

    Zoe seemed to be saying that “Transsexual” is not a noun in the same way that “Disabled” isn’t a noun. If she wants to assert that the noun is offensive in a way the adjective isn’t, let her say so – I don’t see the distinction myself but it’s not for me to judge ‘cos I’m not on receiving end. “Spastic” I think has passed out of favour in both uses together – indeed despite it being etymologically an adjective I don’t recall ever hearing “spastic person”, only qualified limitations like the OED’s “spastic child”.

  4. #5 by Sarah Lambert on 13 May 2012 - 22:11

    Zoe may not have said it directly but I will.

    Using transsexual as a noun (as in “A transsexual lives in my street.”) is objectionable to me as a transsexual woman.

    Dictionaries, or people personally unaffected by the use of the term do not get to decide whether or not it is offensive. Transsexual people do.

  5. #6 by Zowie Davy on 19 November 2012 - 12:48

    Well I have just seen this thread and wished to comment on my language use on thinking aloud. Whilst I did use the term as a noun so that people could understand that people do in fact recognise themselves as a transsexual and additionally the political framework and medicegal policy do too, i am critical of what this characterises in each of the domains within my research. To use the word as an adjective is not grammatically correct either whereas to be recognised as a transsexual, which was the crux of my argument was the correct way of using the language. The rather patronising attitude of the first commentor to say that they hope that my research is not full of these ‘mistakes’ thus is misplaced and would hope that they would read a book review (free on amazon) by someone who I do not and have never known may relieve their anxiety that I am meant to have caused her.

    • #7 by Sarah on 20 November 2012 - 10:09

      Since you seem to be something of an authority on sentence structure, perhaps you can help me with one that I’m struggling with? So far I have this:

      “You can take your colonisation and othering of my body and …insert grammatically correct missing bit here… Sun doesn’t shine”

      Many thanks in advance,

(will not be published)


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