The language box.

NOTE: This is a transgender-related entry. If you are confused by any of the terms used here, check out Ronen’s Trans Glossary.

Language is a funny old thing.

I’ve been engaged for half a year now, and in that time I have lamented, now and again, at the fact that I will eventually have to get married. Not because I don’t want to be, but because once I am (and unless I go through some sort of physical transition), most people will start referring to me as a “wife.” I will have to give up being a fiancé.

Except, like a silly person, I forgot that that particular word comes from French, where they like to tack that little extra ‘e’ on the end of everything that is, air-quotes, female. So in the eyes of the French, I’m actually a fiancée.


It is unbelievably difficult to get away from binary language in the English (and French) language. Even if we don’t going around constantly insisting our pens or shoes or houses have a gender (once again: lookin’ at you, French), nearly everything having to do with humans is separated by the two binary genders. Especially when it comes to romantic relationships.

If you try to go for gender-neutral terms, it can sound funny. “Partner” has gained some traction in recent times and is common practice among the LGBTQ crowd, but what about “spouse?” Say it out loud and it sounds a bit distancing, even when you don’t mean it to. You expect people to give you the side-eye, as if to ask: “Wait – you don’t know your spouse’s gender?” And referring to someone simply as your “beloved” in the 21st century is really hard to pull off without irony.

But if you’re non-binary-identified, there are many ways that gendered terms label you as the wrong thing. This is called misgendering. I should probably add that to the glossary.

People should definitely try to use more gender-neutral terms when and where they are desired. Colloquial language will never evolve if we don’t risk getting side-eyed every once in a while, and I would rather be a partner or spouse than a wife or husband. And at least “fiancée” sounds the same as “fiancé” when you say it out loud. Still, the prevalence of binary-based terms in our language shows just how much importance society puts on the type of genetic bits we were born with. But in a world where same-sex relationships are becoming more accepted, the traditional gender roles of marriage are slowly dissolving, and reproduction is far past unnecessary for keeping our species going, how much does it really matter anymore?

I think the only thing left is identity. Whatever one identifies with in terms of gender, they should be allowed to use and own those terms without getting the Weirdo Treatment. I don’t want gendered terms to disappear, honestly – when used correctly, they are beautiful and expressive and celebratory. For the vast majority of the population that is binary-identified, they are also both useful and necessary. But for those of us who are not, they force us into a box that does not fit.

So if you know someone who is non-binary-identified, and they have made clear to you the terms they would like used, please, please use them. You might have to wind up explaining yourself, but you will have given them what a majority of the world already has: the correct space in which to exist.


Posted on March 30, 2011, in Trans, Wedding and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I refer to Mike as my “partner,” because “boyfriend” doesn’t sound intimate enough (we do live together), and we don’t have any kind of legal binding or promise. Also, it’s sort of a conscious choice–I am in a het relationship, but I don’t want to privilege what I’ve got unnecessarily.

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