Transgender/ed: An Exploration of Grammar

My BA is in Linguistics, and so you can probably guess that all the latest slang trends intrigue me and the tiniest of grammatical errors annoy me. While that's not 100% correct (I'm notorious for making typos and subtle lexical errors that drive English majors mad), I do have to say that being a linguist has made the language use of marginalized and minority communities even more fascinating than it would be otherwise.

Most people who spend time in queer and trans communities can agree that our vocabulary is both new and rapidly evolving. "Transsexual" was coined in 1957 (OED), and in 1979 Virginia Prince coined "transgenderist," the first version of "transgender" to appear (OED). It was in 1983 that Kim Stuart wrote in The Uninvited Dilemma:

Gender conditions are quite different from sexual conditions or sexual preferences. The word transsexual is somewhat misleading, because the word sexual is incorporated into the term. Perhaps the word ‘transgender’ would have been a more suitable term.

This was the same reasoning that Virginia Prince used when she coined "transgenderist" to refer to those who don't wish to change their sex, but only their gender role and presentation. Many trans people who are explaining their preferred term will use this reasoning as well, that and the fact that "transgender(ist)" was coined by a trans person, not a medical professional as was the case with "transsexual." These days neither of those early terms are in wide use, "transsexual" having various specific uses, and "transgenderist" already relatively unknown to those who haven't read queer history books.

Though I cannot find information on which came first, another term in use beginning in the 80s was "transgendered." Unlike "transsexual" and "transgenderist" it hasn't fallen out of mainstream use, but it is rapidly on the way out among trans people and in radical or social justice oriented spaces. Why is this? Is it that different than the word "transgender"? According to most people, it is very different. Here are some of the reasons usually heard:

  • "My identity wasn't done to me, I just am."
  • "This isn't a passive state of being."
  • "'Transgender' isn't a verb and you can't 'transgender' someone."
  • "Adjectives don't end in -ed."

These are interesting to me for two reasons: the agency of trans identity, and the grammatical question.

As far as agency goes, I see this reason for not using "transgendered" as a political decision reflective of the broader LGBTQ movement at the moment. A decade ago, sometimes even currently, it was useful to reflect the lack of choice in LGBTQ identity. The sentiment is that being LGBTQ can be "bad enough" so why would someone choose to be that way and go through the social side effects? Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" is a perfect example of this, both in it's message (not being a choice) and in the reaction on the part of many queer folks who identify as more radical than the homonormative LGBT movement. "Queer By Choice, Not By Chance" is an article exploring a critical reaction to "Born This Way" as well as those queer identities that are chosen. I see these waves of thought as reflecting the questioning of priorities: what is the important information to know? How someone identifies or how they got there? By adding in agency, the question is open, and intended to be unanswered, because it doesn't matter if a person had a choice in being LGBTQ or not; what matters is that they are respected and treated with equity. Simply, the political usefulness of specifying a lack of choice in the matter is fading as focus shifts from causes and the why and into discussions of what is truly important when it comes to ensuring safety and respect for all.

But the grammatical argument is a different story. Often, you won't find agency mentioned in reasons to not use "transgendered." Many people don't address the aspect of people not wishing to have their identity sound passive, to have the focus on the cause of their identity rather than the present realities. Instead, the explanations are similar to the following:

The adjective transgender should never have an extraneous "-ed" tacked onto the end. An "-ed" suffix adds unnecessary length to the word and can cause tense confusion and grammatical errors. For example, it is grammatically incorrect to turn transgender into a participle, as it is an adjective, not a verb, and only verbs can be used as participles by adding an "-ed" suffix. (GLAAD's Media Reference Guide)

However, this is not the case (though I do want to point out that at least GLAAD did not say that the -ed only serves to create the past tense as many folks say). "Transgendered" has been in use historically as an adjective, and falls into a category of similar adjectives that look like past participles but are not. These adjectives include but aren't limited to: "learned” “legged” “wicked” and so on. You can tell the difference between adjectives like these and their past participle homographs because of subtle pronunciation differences that occur in many dialects or in the case of emphasizing the semantic difference, e.g. “LEARNed” vs. “learnED”, the former being the past participle and the latter being the adjective. (The Grammar Book p386)

Again, I don't know the exact etymology of "transgender/ed," but I believe given the historical usage that it's accurate to place "transgendered" in the aforementioned category of adjectives. But even if not, one might presume that it is derived in the same manner as the word "gendered," i.e. "He is a masculine-gendered person."

Either way, the important lesson to remember is simple: we should use the words preferred by the people we are describing. Taking a descriptivist approach, I agree that "transgender" is the socially and grammatically correct term. Why? Because that's what people use, and people use it as an adjective. But if someone in particular prefers "transgendered," then that would be the word to use, and now you know that it is indeed grammatically correct.