Transgender: Time to accept it as a noun?

Jeffrey Tambor blew it Sunday night (Sept. 18). It was a mistake, no doubt, but a telling mistake. With millions of TV viewers watching, he reportedly used the word “transgender” as a noun. (I say “reportedly” because I didn’t see/hear the quote, but saw it reported shortly afterward on several Twitter tweets and on various media sites.)

Tambor was accepting an Emmy Award for his portrayal of a trans woman on the show Transparent. Here’s his noble statement — with the error, as reported correctly by Vanity Fair:

“Please give transgender talent a chance,” Tambor told the audience after winning the lead-actor-in-a-comedy category. “Give them auditions. Give them their story. Do that. And also, one more thing, I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male playing a female transgender on television. We have work to do.”

The error: “female transgender.”

So what, you might be wondering. Why am I making a big deal about it?

Well, GLAAD and most other LGBT advocates will tell you that using the word “transgender” as a noun is a big no-no. They will scold you if you use it that way. And if you are, say, Donald Trump or a right-winger, they might trumpet your use of the word that way as an example of your bigotry and discrimination. If a newspaper used the word as a noun in a headline, GLAAD would be all over them, pointing out the error.

What’s particularly interesting to me, as a journalist, is how many alternative media outlets and some mainstream media outlets, as well as LGBT advocates on Twitter, chose to ignore Tambor’s slip of the tongue on Sunday night and misreported the on-air quote, changing it to say “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male playing a transgender woman on television.”

Some got around it completely by ignoring the on-air quote and reporting what Tambor said after the awards presentation, when he made sure not to use the word “transgender” as a noun.

Reports Vanity Fair:

Less than an hour afterward, the two-time Emmy winner made his way backstage to speak more about the subject to press. “I would very much like to be the last cisgender male playing a female transgender role,” Tambor said, referencing his character Maura Pfefferman on the Amazon series. “I think we are there now, and I think the powers that be—the creators and writers—need to tell the stories and hire these people.”

The CBC, Time magazine, Vanity Fair and others reported the on-air quote correctly — but they didn’t point out his error in their reports.

And too many other media outlets and LGBT advocates chose to cover up his faux pas in reporting on the original on-air quote — which is more serious than you might realize. Tambor, who has been playing a trans woman for two or three seasons and was speaking up for transgender people, effectively told millions of people that it is OK to use the “transgender” word as a noun.

Still a minor issue, you might be thinking.

Perhaps. But the vast majority of trans people don’t like to be referred to as “transgenders.” That’s why GLAAD and others speak out against it — except, apparently, when Jeffrey Tabor uses it that way.

One has to wonder how Tambor could make that mistake, given his work with trans people these past few years.

Maybe he thinks the word should be used as a noun. Perhaps it should be — it is used that way in India, for example. And we in the Western world use the word “gay” as a noun, most often in the plural sense.

Language is constantly evolving, so perhaps Tambor’s apparent faux pas is simply a reflection of that.

Whatever the case, trans people out there better get used to being called “transgenders.”

P.S. I will be part of a panel debate on how the media covers LGBT issues at a Montreal university. Will give you more details on that later.

— Jillian Page

This article was first published on jillianpage.com

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