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Stealth: Vocabulary


Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 27 2018

6 min read


Today, I saw something on Twitter that really made me mad. Posted by Erik Weinstein, who works at Thiel Capital, it was part of a string of tweets he made that were designed as a so-called "scientific" pushback against Twitter's new regulations that make it easier to report those who launch attacks against trans people, simply because they are trans.

Weinstein's argument, so far as I can follow it, argues that, in essence, the terms utilized by those who discuss issues of race, gender, and sexuality online from a progressive perspective are useless because they have been recently made up. He "proves" this by searching for various terms on Google between 1800 and 2008, then finding few results before the late 20th century. Weinstein's very rudimentary searches ignore that, like, the term "poc" grows out of a different, more racially loaded term that's been in use for centuries, or that he deliberately skews things by searching for "LGBTQ" instead of any individual part of that acronym.

And there is a part of me that gets this. One of the things about social justice language in the 2010s is that the goalposts seem to move so rapidly if you're not plugged in to that particular scene. The term Weinstein particularly objects to is "dead naming," the idea of calling a trans person by the name they were given at birth -- so like if you knew I preferred Emily but called me by the boy name I used for most of my life to this point.

And this is, to be fair, a pretty new idea in the mainstream discourse! For much of the history of talking about trans issues, we would have introduced Caitlyn Jenner in every news article as "formerly [insert her male name which you assuredly know]," and the story would have been almost exclusively focused on her transition. Now, increasingly, news organizations try not to do that. They'll say stuff like, "Caitlyn Jenner was just in her 20s when she won the gold medal at the Olympics." And if you know Caitlyn Jenner's life story and are cisgender, it might feel a little weird to go along with that definition.

What's more, this shift has really happened in the last five years. The idea that a trans person was always the gender they identify with, no matter how long they tried to gut it out as the gender they were assigned at birth, is a really hard one for me to wrap my head around, and I'm trans. On the one hand, I get it, because I think back on times when I was a teenager, trying to relate to teenage boys, feeling completely adrift, and it just makes so much more sense that I was a teenage girl, stranded in some wrong self. On the other hand, that doesn't negate that at the time, I really did understand myself as a teenage boy.

(Sidebar: Weinstein points to a couple of prominent trans women who have lived prominent lives on both sides of the gender binary, then asks if it's "dead naming" them to refer to their male names. Technically, yes, it is, since there's also a weird air of smugly threatening certainty on his part. But as someone who has had a fairly prominent career as my male self and is going to have to transition in the public eye to some degree, I also get it. I am fully prepared for the rules to be slightly different for me than they are for, say, my friend Kate, who saw all of her success post-transition. When you use my old name in conversation, I have to assume it MIGHT just be a mistake. When you use Kate's name, she has to assume it's a threat. "Dead naming" means any time you use a trans person's birth name, sure, but there are degrees of this, and literally any trans person who has seen success on both sides of the binary will understand.)

But I think the fact that I didn't understand who I was as a teenager speaks to the flaw in Weinstein's logic. I grew up in a repressive religious tradition that all but forbade me from better understanding my transness. It wasn't just something I couldn't explore; it was something I literally lacked vocabulary for. My coming out process was tortured and long, beginning in my early 20s when I accidentally stumbled upon some online erotica where men turned into women and felt a door I'd kept locked in the back of my brain suddenly threatening to burst open, and not really culminating until my 30s, when I realized I didn't have to be a man because I had seemingly been born as one, that the reason it felt more natural to be feminine and do feminine things was because of the most obvious explanation.

But a big part of me learning to grapple with this as my identity, as my self, was the way my trans brothers, sisters, and non-binary folks kept insisting on redefining the conversation around them on their terms, shifting it from something shameful to just something. Weinstein includes the term "transwoman" in his list of words that social justice progressives supposedly just "invented," but it's not a weirdo trendy thing we all decided to come up with a few years ago. It's who I am. I would still be eating myself into oblivion if I didn't have that word to cling to, that self to understand.

And, look: I am a white person. I know the defensiveness that comes from being told that something you held as inviolate is actually hurting a lot of people. I know how hard it can be to replace that defensiveness with understanding or love. But if my ability to understand myself is somehow destroying the bedrock of Western civilization, as Weinstein insists it is, then that's on a civilization apparently too shaky to stand. It's not on me.


I am a transwoman in her 30s. I live in Los Angeles, and you might have heard of my other self. This is mostly a journal to myself, but you can read it if you want, because I feel like radical honesty is sometimes the best policy, and if I ever come out more widely, I can just, like, point my family to these mad ramblings. I'm obviously not named Emily Sandalwood, because lol, whose last name is Sandalwood? Anyway, you can respond to this, and I will look at your reply and nod sagely and probably never write back, or you can follow me on Twitter, where I am extremely funny.

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