Transgender individuals' language evokes journeys

As transgender issues have come into the forefront in recent years, how transgender individuals talk about themselves -- and how friends, family and others interpret that language -- becomes increasingly important.

Assistant Professor of English Language & Literature Jenny Lederer

Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature Jenny Lederer

Jenny Lederer, an assistant professor of English language and literature at SF State, examined posts from Internet forums and YouTube to learn how transgender individuals discuss their lives and their transition and found that a distinct metaphorical model emerges: that of a journey.

The research was detailed in an article published online April 6 in the journal Metaphor and Symbol.

The findings, Lederer says, can help transgender individuals, their advocates and the general public better understand the experience, leading to greater acceptance. Below, Lederer talks about her research.


How do transgender individuals talk about themselves and their transition and how do these individuals understand their lived experience?

Trans people typically describe gender transition through the same language we use to talk about journeys. There are "steps" and "stages" in the transition process, which correlate with actions taken to "move forward" toward the identified gender category. In one beautiful narrative of transition in my data, the speaker likens the process to slowly wading "deeper and deeper" into a lake, with each step checking to see how the water feels and, in some cases, even taking steps "backward." In data of a different flavor, the speaker equates transition to a "train ride" in which she is compelled to "move forward" quickly, unable to navigate the course or get off the train. These two seemingly contradictory elaborations of this journey model tell us that trans people are very conscious and methodical with their transition, while at the same time they often feel compelled to "arrive" quickly at their identified gender.


Why do metaphorical models emerge?

Every abstract idea is metaphorical. There is no way to think or speak literally. Take, for example, a concept such as fury and anger. You can be "brewing" and "steaming" and eventually "exploding" with anger. This is because we metaphorically understand emotions as liquids in the body in addition to understanding anger as heat. Physical, psychological and developmental changes are no different. In puberty hormones "rage" because we understand sexuality as an opponent. In pregnancy, women grow their "little bean" and "welcome" the baby when born. Birth is metaphorically understood as arrival and death as departure. So it comes as no surprise that gender transition is understood through a more literal concept like a journey. Even the label itself -- "trans" -- comes from this understanding of movement between bounded regions in space, the gender categories, male and female. 


Why do transgender individuals feel the need to use these metaphorical models?

Using the model of a journey to talk about the transition from one gender category to the other is expected since we use the language and concept of a journey to talk about many other kinds of transitions in our lives, from college and graduation to career to love and relationships. Metaphors, in fact, structure not just our language and grammar, but the way we live our lives. Even a concept as seemingly basic as gender, a concept so fundamental to our understanding of nature, is, nevertheless, a human-constructed idea that is based in cultural understanding. So it's not that transgender people feel a need to talk about transition through metaphor -- there is no other way to talk about it.


How does this differ from the way other queer individuals, such as gays or lesbians, talk about their experience?

One interesting secondary result revealed in my analysis of transgender coming out stories was how thematically similar they are to gay and lesbian coming out stories. Often, speakers recounted a story of internal realization, a kind of internal coming out, followed by a story of coming out as trans to friends and family. What's remarkable about both types of narratives is their performative nature. The coming out story is, in fact, the act of coming out as gay and/or trans because these identities, unlike race or ethnicity, aren't usually obvious to others. Being trans is, in part, about declaring oneself as such in that moment of coming out.


What does it reveal about the understanding that society as a whole has about transgender individuals?

It's still an open research question as to whether or not those who aren't trans use similar or different language to talk about the same topics. One thing I have noticed is that young people in and out of the LGBT community, including many of my students at SF State, are overtly contesting the gender binary in their language. I hear words like "bigender," "agender," "gender-queer," "gender spectrum." This new language is interesting, but, ironically, even the contestation of two binary gender categories can actually reinforce their conceptual salience. When someone is moving out of the female category and into the male, what are they, and, in the metaphor, where are they? We don't yet have a way to understand this idea other than a mix of two genders and a "movement" from one to the other.


Why did you conduct this research?

I've always been interested in how language reinforces and shapes societal inequality and discrimination. At this moment in time, the transgender community is one of the most disadvantaged and underrepresented communities in our country. Violence and discrimination against transgender people is rampant. Conflicting reasoning patterns are clearly at the heart of social problems. We can think of the study of conceptual metaphor as a fundamental step in the process of understanding social reasoning and public attitude because metaphorical reasoning is deep and hidden. Revealing the unconscious conceptual models used to understand transition, and conveying those models to a national audience, will only help trans advocates and allies.


"Exploring the metaphorical models of transgenderism," published in the journal Metaphor and Symbol, can be read online at


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