February 15, 2014

Too Many Names For Gender?

Asked recently on Tumblr:

Is having many different names for gender a productive thing to have?

I’m not entirely clear on your meaning, but I’m going to work under the assumption that you’re referring to the use of terms like “cis” or “trans” or “natal” to distinguish between varieties of male and female.

If that is the question, then my answer is: Yes, it’s entirely productive, in that it helps to clarify, deepen, and better represent the concept at hand. The fact is that the two terms “male” and “female” simply don’t give us the vocabulary we need to discuss things like the gender spectrum and nontraditional gender roles. In more formal conversations about gender, more information is required.

It’s like the old canard that “Eskimos have 42 words for snow.” It turns out it’s not true (or more specifically, that it’s way more complicated than that simple statement), but really we don’t have to look beyond our own language to see how having multiple words for snowfall can make life more productive. If the weather forecast says “there’s snowfall in the forecast” in January in Michigan, that’s not enough information. Is it flurries? Is it a blizzard? Will it be sleet or mixed with freezing rain? Will it be falling at an inch an hour or an inch a day? I literally can’t walk out of the house that morning without more specific information to plan my day around.

Thus it is with gender. Two binary words don’t cut it anymore. The conversation has evolved and the language needs to reflect that.


  • I agree. Language needs to develop to reflect our thinking. Male and female are two opposite ends of the spectrum. What Is In Between? Androgynous doesn’t cover much either. Cis, trans*, and natural are a good start in the right direction. But I feel there is still room to grow.

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