roland barthes

“Roland Barthes, in his essay ‘Grain of the Voice,’ described the adjective as one of the poorest of linguistic categories because it effectively communicated nothing but assumptions.”

The following essay appears as part of the month-long series “Post-Truth Politics and the Creative Craft” on the blog, curated by guest editor Natalie Wee.

I see it almost every time I open up a transgender memoir: true self, true gender, true authenticity. I hear it every time I listen to people, cis or trans, talk about transgender identity: true self, authentic self, full self. True true true.

I’ve heard it so much that it’s become an empty signifier. Roland Barthes, in his essay “Grain of the Voice,” described the adjective as one of the poorest of linguistic categories because it effectively communicated nothing but assumptions. When I teach writing, especially memoir writing, I tell my students to be especially wary of adjectives. Depending on your audience, you have absolutely no idea what you could be communicating. I also tell them, when writing memoir, to not base so much of their story on the “facts” of the event. As Michael V. Smith taught me, it doesn’t matter if the dress is red or blue—only what the dress made you feel in that scene. Red and blue, for all linguistic purposes, are empty modifiers and communicate nothing of importance in this particular scene. Pick one and don’t worry about the rest.

When I taught my class this semester, however, Oxford Dictionaries had already declared the word of 2016 to be “post-truth” and I found myself pausing when I talked about the truth. Memoir and news reports are not the same genre, first and foremost, and they should not be mistaken for one another. But transgender identity is one of the issues that I tackle the most in my writing and in my scholarship and that is now being discussed in major policy decisions and civil rights battles. I see memoir informing the news. Transgender people like Gavin Grimm need to simultaneously explain their identity (which often amounts to a life story that is heavily informed by memoir traditions) and also argue for their rights to inhabit a public space. Personal cases like these need to inform the public, for empathy and understanding, but I find myself watching transgender people cover news stories with an editor’s voice in my mind consistently fixating on the word “true.”

True self, true gender, and even the concept of “authenticity” communicate very little. They are empty statements that do nothing to move the story forward; moreover, these phrases often express a very specific and outdated ideology. Calling a transgender person “true” in any way implies that their gender identity and transition could be read as fake and their voices devalued as delusional.

Red and blue, for all linguistic purposes, are empty modifiers and communicate nothing of importance in this particular scene. Pick one and don’t worry about the rest.

Transgender people are perpetually framed in this real/fake dichotomy from the moment they come out as trans. Because doctors see transgender people as physiologically normal from the outside, they require a reason why transgender people must transition. The process of transitioning becomes naturalized in successful transgender case studies as a way to differentiate trans people from cis people and re-inscribe what “nature” really means for trans people (i.e., if it’s not their birth gender, it must be this newer, truer gender that comes out with the help of doctors). Jay Prosser, a transgender scholar studying memoirs, has examined this real/fake dichotomy and how it informs transgender people’s memoir practices. In order to assert themselves as authors of their own life story, they must find a way to naturalize something that seems “unnatural,” like gender affirmation surgery, so they talk about truth, authenticity, and simply “being.”

What is this “truth” though? If the medical apparatus used to diagnose and treat people is not what is wholly true in these memoirs, and neither is the transgender body at birth, then it’s the feelings of the transgender patient that become true. The feelings of self-realization and gender dysphoria that inform the memoir genre are often expressed in emotional and religious language because they hinge feelings on belief. The truth of this matter is the immaterial gendered soul: the true self the trans person must express in order to feel authentic in their body.

The only problem with this version of truth, though, is that it’s actually post-truth. Post-truth, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means, “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

But emotions, sensations, and feelings are all tricky and slip. They change. They are fundamentally immaterial, which makes them hard to measure—which is why we don’t always rely on feelings in news stories. Fake news only feels real because the outrage or fear behind it is real. Feelings are not and cannot be facts for a news-going audience.

This sounds as if I am arguing against transgender as an identity category, as if I’m saying transgender people should not/do not exist. That’s not what I’m saying. Though I have not transitioned through the medical institution, I would describe my life and my own experiences as transgender—but without describing my feelings as “true” in any way. What I’m ultimately arguing against in this essay is a linguistic practice that shrouds transgender people in an aura of truth that is actually part of post-truth dialectics, because if we do not look at the actual facts of transgender existence, it will be easy to discard them as “fake news” about “fake people” when it’s still a very real issue we must take seriously, especially with growing visibility.

In order to assert themselves as authors of their own life story, they must find a way to naturalize something that seems ‘unnatural,’ like gender affirmation surgery, so they talk about truth, authenticity, and simply ‘being.’

What are the facts of transgender existence? Transgender identity has been recorded for hundreds of years. The two sexes that we are presented with at birth are actually infinitely more complicated than that. Much of gender identity can change throughout someone’s life and removing the biological determinism from sex and gender is probably better for everyone involved. Also, even if we don’t fundamentally understand all the biology behind sex, and even if we don’t fully comprehend a transgender person’s experience, we must not—and cannot—discount the fact that they are here. There are 1.4 million people in the US who identify as transgender, while one in 200 people in Canada do. They are here and they are not going away, but they are not the victimizers or predators that the media has portrayed them as. In fact, they are often victims of violence. As of this article’s publication, seven transgender women have been murdered in 2017 in the US alone. These women, and other trans people like Gavin Grimm, need policy changes to exist in public space. Most of all, they need better facts surrounding their existence.

Focusing on whether or not transgender people are expressing a “true gender” means nothing in the news realm. Even on the pages between a memoir, I’d still demand a better adjective.

Evelyn Deshane has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, and Bitch Magazine. Evelyn (pronounced Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Their most recent project #Trans is an edited collection about transgender and nonbinary identity online. 

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