Language matters. In a world filled with social media posts, forums, blogs and online articles; all of them demanding answers to be picked apart, it’s difficult sometimes to find the right words. That would be the case if we were talking about any subject, but when the discussion is around something so personal and individual as gender identity… it’s tough.
One of the most exciting things about our work over the past 25 years has been bearing witness to young people changing and moulding the way they express who they are. We’ve seen certain words and phrases disappear while some other words have moved back into everyday language.
One particular phrase, which has been used for a long time by people, is ‘I was born in the wrong body’.
We recently posted that ‘no child is born in the wrong body’, which is our broad position as a charity. Why? Because we believe that transgender people shouldn’t be expected or encouraged to reject their entire amazing, intelligent, beautiful, creative bodies, simply because of gender incongruity. Still, we also know some people – including some of our amazing patrons – do use that phrase to express who they are. It is your right to use whatever words you choose to describe yourself. As a charity representing lots of different people, however, we have to make sure our language is as inclusive as possible, especially for people who might be struggling with their gender.
To me now, the phrase feels like something that was given to us.Ayla Holdom, Mermaids patron
Of course, the phrase is one we’ve used ourselves in the past and, at the time, it seemed helpful. Back then, the idea that anyone – let alone a young person – could be transgender or gender-diverse was a new concept for many of those we spoke to. That collective lack of experience meant transgender people and support organisations had to find some way of explaining what being trans meant. At best a difficult task, at worst a harmful and humiliating one. After all…
Nobody should have to simplify, redact or misrepresent their own innate self, simply to please the minds of those who struggle to comprehend it.
Model, campaigner and Mermaids patron, Munroe Bergdorf used to say she was born in the wrong body but then decided it wasn’t right for her: ‘I’ve come to understand why the phrase ‘born in the wrong body’ is unhelpful to me. I know why I used to use it; because other people struggled to understand, but looking back I know it did me harm. Saying you have the wrong body feels like a kind of self-abuse, and it’s not the same as saying ‘I need to adjust my body to be my true self’. That’s a different thing. We only get one body and it’s really important, especially for younger people to know they are unique and beautiful. I would say to younger people that transitioning is hard so you need to look after your body, love it and respect it.’
Film director and Mermaids patron, Jake Graf, is an extraordinary champion of trans young people, partly because he speaks so openly about his own journey. For him, language and understanding of trans identities has moved a long way over the last ten years and that’s something to be celebrated, but he still feels he was born in the ‘wrong’ body: ‘I have always felt since I was a child that my body didn’t match my identity. I’ve made changes with surgery and hormones, but I still feel my body is not the one that I was meant to be in. Although I’m now comfortable with myself and in my own body I do still feel a slight disconnect with parts of it and would always describe myself as having been born in the wrong body. It’s important people can use that phrase for themselves, without having to feel uncomfortable about it.’
Mermaids CEO, Susie Green said: ‘Language is evolving all the time, and I find it incredibly humbling to be a part of that journey for so many young people. In the past, I’ve explained my daughter’s journey and her feelings in exactly this way. It can be so difficult to explain these things to people who’re hearing about gender identity for the first time. Certain phrases can make it easier, but no words will ever do justice to reality. Still, and I cannot stress this enough, it is not for Mermaids or anyone else to instruct people on how to describe themselves and there is no judgement whatsoever if you feel it’s right for you to say you were born in the wrong body.’
National Police Air Service Pilot, Ayla Holdom used the phrase to explain her identity to cisgender people but then decided to stop: ‘It never felt right deep down because my body is my body and since I’ve gotten older I’ve come to respect that. I used to feel uncomfortable with myself and the way I fitted into the world, but I never hated my body. I’ve been really blessed to have the body I’ve got. To me now, the phrase feels like something that was given to us. The problem is, it’s so hard to describe what gender incongruence feels like so you do end up using a sort of shorthand. As trans people, none of us became valid the day we had our surgeries or interventions so society needs to understand that we are trans because we’re trans not because of our bodies.’
I just don’t get why it’s such a big deal to people who aren’t affected by it. My body, my choice!Divina De Campo, Rupaul’s Drag Race UK star and Mermaids ally
That’s an important point. So often people fixate on bodies, rather than talking about people as complete individuals. It can lead to inaccurate and often harmful discussion online and in the press. Still, it doesn’t get us down at Mermaids. We know there are millions of trans allies out there ready to listen and empower trans lives and we’re seeing our young people growing in confidence every day.
Former British Army Captain, Hannah Graf MBE has been an inspiration to our service users for many years. She feels there’s an important distinction to be made around the phrase: ‘To me, it depends on who’s talking to whom. I would never tell anyone else they’re in the wrong body but I might use it about myself sometimes because it can be a useful way to describe my experience. If we can’t do that then how can we expect people to empathise with us and give support? Likewise, it would be wrong for me to suggest that any child is in the wrong body but if a young person says they are then they should be listened to and acknowledged.’
Rupaul’s Drag Race UK star, Divina De Campo says, no matter your position, it’s important to focus on the positive: ‘Life is the most amazing and incredible gift. The fact we’re even alive is in itself incredible! That being said people are born with all kinds of issues and questions about their own bodies, not just trans people. The important thing is that people feel free to express themselves with their bodies and their language in a way that makes them feel empowered. We all experience the world differently and no-one is 100% certain that what we experience is the same for everyone else. To me, feeling like my body isn’t right is valid. I just don’t get why it’s such a big deal to people who aren’t affected by it. My body, my choice!’
The question of language and messaging is an important part of our work as a charity. We always do our best to stay attuned to our service users and supporters, and we don’t always get it spot on. Thankfully, we have junior and senior staff with lived experience who help to keep us right.
Our Director of Legal and Policy, Lui Asquith said: ‘As a non-binary person, the language I use to describe the relationship between my body and my gender identity has changed throughout my life. It responds to what I’m experiencing at any one time really, and it is a very personal decision. It’s never ok to tell an individual that the way they wish to describe themselves is wrong. There will be terms that I use today that I won’t use in 10 years’ time and then I’ll probably be rolling my eyes. The current language of our ‘community’ will be the history of language to the next generation and I think that’s a history to respect, look back on with interest and embrace.’
Hollyoaks actress, Annie Wallace added “Back when I transitioned, many years ago, I thought that “being born in the wrong body” was an easy shortcut to explain how I felt to people who couldn’t understand what being transgender meant at all. But it’s much more complex than that. For many years, I hoped my mind would feel at home in its body, but unfortunately that never came to pass. The more I tried to ignore it, the stronger the feeling would come back. Eventually, I reached the point where my body had to be changed to
fit the mind.
For some, body modification is absolutely the right thing to do, and for others, it’s not. No-one should feel pressured to be a “proper trans person” through surgery. Everyone’s journey is different. In the past, things were fairly cut and dried and there was an expected surgical path for trans people. Today, there are more options, and wider spectum of gender than ever before, and along with that, a greater understanding of
YouTuber and head of Mermaids socials, Jake Edwards has talked publicly about their journey as a non-binary young person. They manage social media and monitor traffic when we get a particularly strong reaction to our communications. A recent post on Twitter gained a lot of attention from people who thought we were somehow shifting or even ‘pulling a 180’ in our position.
Which, Jake says, is strange and revealing: ‘Yes it’s a bit weird to be honest. We’ve enjoyed making our position on various things really clear recently and in some of those cases, people have been finding out we’re not so opposed on certain points as they’d imagined. You might think that’s a good thing, but some seem very angry about it. To me, needing to adjust your body isn’t the same as rejecting your whole body. Personally, I absolutely do not think my body is wrong; I don’t feel that there was a mistake when I was born, and I don’t think I needed to ‘fix’ myself. As someone who has taken hormones and had surgery, I view those things as… how can I put it?… kind of personal upgrades to who I was supposed to be, if that makes sense? Not that they’d be right for other people. Sure, I may have seen those upgrades as essential, but my body wasn’t wrong without them. Surgery was essential for me to live my happiest and most fulfilling life, because I could look at myself in the mirror and see something that reflected the inside.’
Thanks Jake and thanks everyone who gave us their thoughts. This article isn’t supposed to be the end of a conversation; in fact, it would be great if it started a new discussion around this area of language and gender identity. For now, as always, we call for people to listen to trans people before speaking about them.