danica roem

Danica Roem and the Weaponized Use of “Gender-Neutral” Language

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Jeffry Iovannone, PhD

Jeffry J. Iovannone is a queer feminist scholar-activist, who has a PhD in American Studies.

Danica Roem knew she had made history when, on the night of November 7th, 2017, she received a congratulatory call from former-Vice President Joe Biden. Virginia Delegate-elect Roem is the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature in the United States. She follows in the footsteps of Althea Garrison, a black transgender woman elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the early 1990s before being outed, against her will, by the Boston media. As a result, Garrison served only one term. Roem is therefore the first state-elected candidate who openly campaigned as trans.

Roem’s victory is all the more significant because she unseated her opponent, Republican Bob Marshall, who describes himself as Virginia’s “homophobe-in-chief.” During the campaign, Marshall refused to refer to Roem as a woman and would not debate her. Following the election, Marshall stated, via social media, that he had mistakenly approved a headline on a letter to the editor he authored for the Washington Post, which identified Danica as “Ms. Roem” — a gendered title that correctly affirmed her womanhood, much to his horror. To make matters worse, Marshall irrationally argued that the insurance premiums of Virginians would skyrocket after Roem takes office and requires insurers to cover “sex change” operations.

Most recently, Virginia Republicans have announced that if they gain control of the state legislature in January 2018, they are considering changing the formal rules of address on the State House floor to avoid gendered titles. This move appears to be a direct response to a powerful and affirming statement made by Roem in an ad run during her campaign:

“There are millions of transgender people in this country, and we all deserve representation in government. So when I stand up on the State House floor and the Speaker says, ‘The Gentlewoman from Manassas,’ LGBTQ kids everywhere will know they can succeed because of who they are, not despite it.”

Within the Virginia House of Delegates, it has been custom to refer to delegates as either “Gentleman” or “Gentlewoman,” respectively. Republican House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox has instead proposed that all state representatives be referred to simply as “Delegate,” citing the former gendered titles as “outdated.” While it is enterprising to amend traditions that are offensive or no longer appropriate, this change, coming on the heels of Roem’s historic victory and a wave of GOP attacks against transgender Americans on both state and federal levels, smacks of partisan politics, not gender progressivism. Ironically, the change in Virginia State House procedure will create an atmosphere more inclusive of gender non-binary delegates, should one be elected in the future.

Though we should not automatically assume negative intent on the part of Virginia Republicans, their actions must be contextualized alongside attempts made by conservative politicians to limit the rights of transgender Americans nationally, including Donald Trump’s proposed transgender military ban. There is also little evidence that Marshall’s Republican colleagues spoke out against his transphobic rhetoric during the 2017 campaign.

“Gender-Neutral” Language and Weaponized Language

The use of “gender-neutral” language is typically seen as a move toward equality and acceptance, particularly of transgender and gender nonconforming people in shared democratic spaces. Educators, for example, are increasingly encouraged to address their students in gender-expansive ways to be both inclusive of transgender students and to alleviate the pressure of gender roles and expectations from all students equally. Some schools, workplaces, and businesses have also created “all gender” restrooms that seek to publicly accommodate everyone regardless of gender identity.

The concept of gender neutrality, in my opinion, is largely inaccurate, as it implies an absence of gender that is near impossible to achieve. Because Western society, in particular, is highly structured around gender as a meaningful category of human existence, there are few interactions or spaces truly free of gendered implications. There is, in fact, no human interaction or institution that is not shaped or influenced by gender in some way.

The term “gender-inclusive” is preferable, as it implies not a negation of gender, but an environment that is accepting of all genders equally. Virginia Republicans, however, are using inclusive language in an exclusionary fashion. Their intention is to invalidate Roem — and by extension, all trans people — not include her.

In this instance, “gender-neutral” language is being employed in a weaponized fashion. Language becomes “weaponized” when it is used with the intent to harm, demean, or invalidate a particular community or individual. This usage can be intentional or unintentional, stemming from both conscious and unconscious cultural biases such as transphobia. While gender-inclusive language can be productive in shared democratic spaces such as classrooms and workplaces, such language becomes weaponized when it is used with the intent to invalidate, undermine, or exclude.

It must be noted that the use of gendered language is not inherently restrictive or bad. Consider, for example, the work of Second-Wave feminists who fought to be referred to as “Ms.”— a title that identified women not on the basis of their marital status — and for the inclusion of language such as “he and she” in job advertisements that had historically been assumed to address male applicants only. For transgender people who identify within the gender binary (man/woman), the use of gendered language such as “he” and “she”; “Mr.” and “Ms.”; “Gentleman” and “Gentlewoman” may function as signs of hard-won validation and recognition.

What is Transphobia, and How Does it Work?

The invalidation of Danica Roem’s identity via the move to strike gendered titles from the Virginia House of Delegates epitomizes our current understanding of transphobia.

Transphobia, simply defined, is the belief that transgender people are invalid because gender is immutable from birth.

This definition moves beyond the standard notion of a phobia as an intense fear of or aversion to something to understand transphobia as a process of gender identity invalidation. Inherent to transphobia is the belief that the identities of cisgender (non-trans) people, who do identify with the gender they are assigned at birth, are valid, whereas the identites of trans people are not because biology and gender identity share a causal relationship. According to this logic, a person’s “true” gender is the one assigned to them at birth on the basis of sexual anatomy.

This invalidation works by arbitrarily assigning negative values and characteristics to particular human traits that result in oppression, or a denial of rights, resources, and opportunities, via the following formula:

Trait X + Assign (-) Value = Invalidation & Oppression

An example of how this formula plays out in the real world goes something like this: “Trans people do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth based on anatomy, which is the only valid indicator of a person’s gender. Therefore, they are mentally ill [insert other negative values here]. Therefore, the gender identity of a mentally ill person cannot be seen as valid. And finally, such persons do not deserve the same rights, recognition, and respect as everyone else.” Thus, it is more accurate to regard phobias as invalidations, not strictly as fears and aversions.

The concept of transphobia is perfectly illustrated by the following cartoon, created by Henry James Garrett for Transgender Day of Remembrance, 2017:

Danica Roem
Image Credit: Drawings of Dogs (AKA Henry James Garrett).

The snail (representing a transphobic person) insists that the butterfly (representing a trans person) is really a caterpillar despite their current identity and presentation because they were identified as a caterpillar at birth. Just as caterpillars undergo metamorphoses to become butterflies, human genders are not stationary ways of being. The butterfly’s “true” identity is not that of a caterpillar, because they always contained the potential to be something other than what they were first identified as.

The root of transphobia is the invalidation of certain gendered ways of being in the world over others. Being trans is not an invalid gendered way of being, of inhabiting the world; it is simply a less common gendered way of being. If someone says they are a butterfly, we should respect them and treat them as such. We should see trans and gender nonconforming people as credible narrators of their own experience.

Virginia Republicans are poised to change decades of tradition simply to avoid recognizing Danica Roem as the woman she is. To acknowledge Roem as such has implications far beyond the Virginia House of Delegates. The GOP has strategically used transphobia, rooted in the invalidation of trans people’s gender identities, as a partisan tool to motivate and mobilize their core supporters. Republicans are addicted to transphobia — in addition to sexism, racism, and homophobia — as a political strategy.

Despite attempts to undermine her, Roem will be sworn into the Virginia State Legislature as the delegate from Prince William in January of 2018. Her very presence will signal and create change. But as she indicated throughout her campaign, her identity comes second to the issues that effect the daily lives of her constituents. Nevertheless, through her victory, we can glimpse the path of history flex toward justice.

Danica Roem may be the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature — but she surely will not be the last.

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