Symbols mean whatever we want them to mean

I’ve just been to pick up my Christmas food order. It was too early to bother with putting on my face or worrying about wigs so I did the lazy-tran thing of slapping on a beanie hat to hide my hairline before jumping in the car.

At the checkout, the man on the till and I noticed each others’ Apple Watch straps simultaneously. His is the pride rainbow; mine is a combination of two straps to make the trans pride colours. And just like that, we went from fairly tired early-morning people to chatting like a couple of old pals.

Symbols matter, whether it’s the strap on your watch or the pin badge on your messenger bag. In the case of my watch strap or the pins on my everyday bag, they’re a cheerful hello to others, a way to communicate without words that you’re on the same page, travelling in the same direction, part of the same family. It’s a way of communicating with people when it might be uncomfortable or unsafe to speak out loud.

Words are symbols too, of course. When I talk about family in this post I don’t mean a biological or legal family; I mean something bigger and more inclusive than that, a family of people that may have very little in common with each other but who nevertheless have something that connects us.

Words are symbols, shorthand for much bigger things. And we must be careful how we use them, because if we use them carelessly we can exclude people or marginalise them.

On Twitter, the writer currently calling themself Merry Magdalene has posted a great thread about pronouns. As they say, “pronouns are not biological; they’re things we use to demarcate classes of people”.

Magdalene’s thread is about the word “woman”, and how it’s shorthand for a collection of different characteristics that together we use to classify someone as female.

There are women without vaginas. Women who do not have periods. Women who cannot give birth. Women who don’t have uteruses. Women whose uteruses do not work. Women with ambiguous genitalia. Phenotypical women with XY chromosomes.

There is no *single* common characteristic.

But if you bundle those experiences together you can build an understanding of what “woman” means in English, functionally: that you’re on one side of a two-sided social structure, within which certain traits predominate but are not universal.

Anti-trans activists generally define “woman” in the tropes of biological essentialism: you can’t be a woman if you don’t menstruate, perhaps, or if you can’t bear children. But that isn’t the gotcha they think it is. It’s just a way of trying to use language to exclude people you personally don’t want in your club, and which can be used to exclude other people too. There are many cisgender women who don’t menstruate, or who can’t bear children.

And it’s no coincidence that many of the people so hung up on dictionary definitions are so violently opposed to the use of the word “cisgender”, in much the same way anti-gay bigots were so opposed to being described as “heterosexual”. Both groups demanded to be called “normal” or “natural” so they could automatically classify everybody else as abnormal or unnatural. That argument isn’t biological. It’s ideological.

“‘trans women’ are men, not women” isn’t a biological statement; it’s an ideological one about who we’re going to apply that word to, who we will admit to the class “woman,” and more to the point, whether these taxonomies can be transgressed.

These taxononomies are highly subjective. Just yesterday Sharron Davies, the former athlete who’s found a new career as an anti-trans activist, argued that real women are “juggling kids, rushing out a wholesome dinner, doing the laundry & cleaning” like it’s 1953.

It wasn’t so long ago we bundled women into asylums on grounds of insanity because they refused to make “wholesome meals” and do the laundry and cleaning for their husbands. And of course there are women still alive who were excluded and even attacked by so-called feminists because they were gay, because they were bisexual or because they were black.

the things we universalize as traits of women are just *one historical bundle* of traits; in the past, there have been behavioral and temperamental tests as well, where nonconforming women were shunted off into side categories like “virago” that explicitly QUALIFY their womanhood in exactly the same way “trans” does.

Like gender, language is fluid. Unlike bigots, it evolves.