Queer Words (An Advanced Degree in Queerology)

There are plenty of queer "glossaries" and "Trans 101" documents out there on the internet. But interacting in the online queer world as a member, rather than just as an ally, requires more than Trans 101. At times it requires being able navigate a field of linguistics, theory, terminology and queer studies that can be baffling to newcomers and frustrating to lots of people.

Unfortunately, while many people are kind and willing to lend a kind hand to newcomers and those who have had less access to the information, others are too hair-trigger about such things, and newbies can get a bad taste in their mouth from interacting with other radical queers online.

We badly need new words to crack the oppressive code of language, which would often times seem to erase our identities and lives. We already know that words like 'man' and 'woman' aren't enough for the spectrum of beings on this planet. But does the average newbie know that words like "cisgender" can help us to normalize trans-ness and stop centering the experiences of non-trans people? Wouldn't it be helpful if we could explain these things a bit better, a bit more often? Or that CAMAB meant "coercively assigned male at birth," and that this reference to "assignment" of sex is supported by some fascinating ideas about how sex is a constructed, social category?

I came out in 2003, and it was years before I learned about the existence of the genderqueer identity. I had no idea I could formulate my own identity outside the binary AND find a community who thought that was neat. I socially transitioned from being a teenage girl to being a gay man without knowing that I had any other options. I lied to get testosterone, as many of us have had to do. I only half knew I was lying-- the lack of language had made me obscure even to myself.

So I know the value of words, and the spaces of possibility they can open up. But I also know that when I did finally start participating in the online trans/genderqueer community (I've never lived anywhere where there was much of a live, in-person GQ group) I didn't know what to make of the words being used. A flurry of acronyms and terms were being hotly debated, and everyone was pretty touchy and quick to judge.

It was very difficult-- I felt that the college kids who'd had the privilege, many of them, to come out into a preexisting queer community, who had the benefit of being able to pay for queer and trans studies classes, were unwilling to allow an ounce of patience or kindness for me. And I'd come out in rural and small town Maine. I'd fought to lay a little of the groundwork for the community that now existed-- by being out, out, out, and visible, even when it was dangerous and terrifying for me. I don't mean to take any major credit-- I'm one person, but I did fight with my own body and breath in places where it wasn't easy. I did fight for this before there were people, online or otherwise, who had my back.

I understand Rocko Bulldagger, who says: "I read increasingly narrow definitions of the concept [of genderqueer], and hear from folks who have no sympathy for those who do not "get it." Is my participation in creating the meaning of genderqueer over? I used to feel that this was my word, my subculture, my movement."

Is my participation over, too? Well, no. But I'm not entirely comfortable telling you why. I didn't confront the academic privilege of the queers who keep their knowledge close and look down on those trans folk who don't yet know their words, or get the theory. I became part of it. I went to college.

As I gained fluency in the terminology as it evolves, and began to understand its theoretical basis, I become better able to garner respect (and avoid poisonous, painful backlash) within online trans circles. And as I do so, I am aware that it is my privilege which is allowing me to hold my own in these discussions.

Art by john lee bird
Without access to a college education, and without the mental and physical ability to read long complex texts and navigate the web effectively to find other information that I need, I would quite possibly be attacked for making blunders or deviating from the accepted philosophy.

It has only been through the privilege of my college education that I’ve been able to really understand some of the theoretical basis for using terms like CAMAB. It was through my women’s studies course that I finally grasped Judith Butler’s assertion that sex, like gender, was socially constructed. It is through that same education that I have gained some of the tools to communicate these ideas fluently to other college-educated people, and to engage critically, not emotionally, with some of the tense dialogue appearing online. 

So where does this leave us? Are we content to use only words that everyone will get right away, for the purposes of accessibility and challenging classism and other privileges? On the other hand, how can we accept that poorer queers, those without access to college courses, those without time or energy or mental or physical ability to do certain intensive research, will be always one step behind, rarely becoming leaders?

Neither of these are acceptable to me. And the solutions are both complex and simple. They're complex because our world is so complex, and because navigating it is always a matter of using humility, discernment, compassion, fierceness and love in various combinations. And it's also simple, because without the blinders of anger, defensiveness and fear, the path is often clearer than we'd imagined. Us folks who have, or are working on, our advanced degrees in Queerology need to make it our business, every day and in every way we can, to spread our knowledge and the knowledge of the queer and gender theory that backs it up.  

If we don't, it's not a living theory, it's a dead ideology, and we're defending a corpse.

Eco-feminist author Susan Griffin notes:

“When a theory is transformed into an ideology, it begins to destroy the self and self-knowledge...
“Originally born of feeling, [ideology] pretends to float above and around feeling. Above sensation. It organizes experience according to itself […] To invoke the name of this ideology is to confer truthfulness. No one can tell it anything new. Experience ceases to surprise it, inform it, transform it. It is annoyed by any detail which does not fit into its world view.
Begun as a cry against the denial of truth, now it denies any truth which does not fit into its scheme. Begun as a way to restore one’s sense of reality, now it attempts to disciple real people […] All that it fails to explain it records as its enemy” [Emphasis mine].

We've gotta talk about what words we use, and why we use them, and why we think it's worthwhile to rework language. We have to honor those who would learn this particular kind of information that we've got, by not asking them to swallow and regurgitate it blindly, but by engaging in critical, respectful discussion with them. We must never record them as the enemy.

We've got to honor people's personal experiences, their struggles and fights for our collective freedom, whether they do it by writing papers or by surviving the streets. 

We have to acknowledge that class is real, and classism is real, and academic and professional privilege is real.  

We need to remember that sometimes people of different classes speak and feel very differently, even when they're the same color. 

We all have something to learn and something to teach.  


So here's the first lesson in the Advanced Degree in Queerology. Stick these terms in your toolbox, even if you don't use them yourself, because you never know when you might need them.

 Cis/cisgender: The state of being not transgender. For example, a cisgender man is a man who was born male, raised as a boy, lives as a man, etc. 

Queer theory: A field of philosophy where people think about identity and whether or not it is natural or real. Queer theorists explore whether identities (like sexual orientation and gender identity) are part of a person’s core self, or performed like roles in a play. Generally queer theorists feel that identities are more like roles. Because queer theory looks at identity as roles within a greater structure, there is a tendency to focus on finding out how the larger structure of society oppresses some identities and not others, rather than trying to get certain identities accepted by mainstream society. “Queer” might be understood to be virtually anything at all that destabilizes or threatens the dominance of heterosexuality.

Intersectionality: Theory which was developed by feminists of color to describe how different oppressions can intersect and interlock, for example, being a person of color and a woman and a trans person would be three interlocking oppressions. A person can be privileged in some ways and oppressed in others. Intersectionality recognizes this.

Binary and non-binary identity: If you have a binary identity, you are fully identified with one of the two genders recognized by mainstream society, man or woman. If your identity is non-binary, you’re not. Someone who is trans can be binary-identified, as long as their gender identity is female or male.


  1. I always feel so stuck between current & competing ideologies. I can remember logging in to live journal and being called transphobic because I dared to ask what cisgendered meant...70+ educate yourself posts=awful.
    Because Brie is non-college & I'm acadmentia we've had to create a strange and secret language...chock full of things like Eve's plums...outer ovaries, tick tocks, uncovery, puberty again, unconvery of hidden selves...translation instead of transformation...discovery of who we are ever becoming. There's just that constant state of translation going on for us...not easy even with as much trust as we have built...
    It's a vulnerable language that we create when/ if we create better descriptives...
    I've been recently toying with A(arbitrarily)AMAB instead of CAMAB but I'm not sure why. I'm exhausted and rambling...
    I'm conflicted about my privilege...both disgusted by it and grateful for it....sigh

    1. Thanks for your response... The CAMAB/AMAB/other variations acronyms I feel are especially confusing, partly because they seem to be in flux right now. I see different variants all the time, and rarely is an explanation appended. I've started guessing at them-- the terms are too unstable, new, changeable to be easily searched up on the internet.

      I like the idea of "arbitrarily." I would say I'm AFAB-- assigned female at birth, or just assigned female. I don't feel comfortable saying "coercively" when it comes to myself, and I don't feel comfortable putting such a negative term as "coerce" on my own birth into this world, which was a joy to my parents and is a positive association for me. CAFAB/CAMAB has come to be the term du jour/blanket term, but I'm not precisely sure why.

    2. Also... your experiences sound really tough. I've had similar. It's so hard to be attacked by the one group of people you imagine are supposed to have your back even when the world is cruel. *hug*

    3. have you also created a secret language with loved ones?!

    4. I've been attacked online by other trans folk who assigned me to the role of oppressor for having the 'wrong' ideas and words -- and left me very confused and deeply saddened.

      As for secret languages, I have not so much! And I'm stone butch almost 100% so I haven't ever renamed parts of my body so that I can share them with a partner. I've rarely had trans partners, either-- so no secret languages there. <3

    5. Do you think there's a place where people really have your back?! Maybe some working class genderqueer enclave...There seemed to be more accesible pockets of lesbian women like this in the 80's...but then gender got all weird and codified. Are you ever comfortable anywhere

    6. I'm comfortable with my loved ones and friends, and yes, they do have my back. I'm surprised that you ask. Perhaps you mean established groups of folks of some kind? That is less certain, although I prefer to think the best.

      I'm comfortable in lots of places -- in nature, with my wonderful friends. Often with my family.

  2. Theres a lot of things about such communities that I find interesting.

    one of the most illogical things is:
    1. They have an established moral code about what is acceptable language and what is unacceptable language, and they get extremely pissed off if you break the rules.
    2. theyre arguing about this code all the time
    3. so its almost as if they arent actually unified, but in the face of anyone whose perceived as a threat, they create the image of a unified front. then once the threat is dealt with, they go back to arguing bitterly about the rules which they previously claimed to be unified about.
    2. they will not explain any of these things to you.
    3. Once, in one of these online communities, I came across a particularly confusing term, and tried to find its meaning through multiple google searches, and could not find anything.

    1. that seemed to be the process!

    2. My tendency is to think that there's something at least a little wrong with insisting that there's no room for 101-type conversations. It's logical that a group shouldn't want to spend it's time educating outsiders on basic stuff, absolutely.

      But educating insiders who are simply newcomers on basic stuff --occasionally, when it comes up-- is a different story. When that's lacking, something isn't right.


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