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How language can include — or exclude — trans people

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There was an exchange during a recent Senate hearing about abortion policy that set off a furious side debate. It was less about abortion and really more about language. The whole exchange is too long to repeat here, but this is the part that set off the Twitter threads and think pieces, when it got heated between law professor Khiara Bridges and Republican Senator Josh Hawley when Senator Hawley noted that professor Bridges used the term people with a capacity for pregnancy rather than women.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KHIARA BRIDGES: I want to recognize that your line of questioning is transphobic, and it opens up trans people to violence by not recognizing that...

JOSH HAWLEY: Wow. Are you saying that I'm opening up people to violence by asking whether or not women are the folks who can have pregnancies?

BRIDGES: So I'm - I want to note that 1 out of 5 transgender persons have attempted suicide. So I think it's important...

HAWLEY: Because of my line of questioning? So we can't talk about it?

BRIDGES: Because denying that trans people exist and pretending not to know that they exist is...

HAWLEY: I'm denying that trans people exist by asking you...

BRIDGES: Are you? Are you?

HAWLEY: ...If you're talking about women having pregnancies?

BRIDGES: Are you? Do you believe that men can get pregnant?

HAWLEY: No, I don't think men can get pregnant.

BRIDGES: So you are denying that trans people exist.

MARTIN: This exchange got a lot of attention, but it's just the latest in a series of emotional, often angry exchanges and commentaries we've seen lately over the use of terms that many people increasingly prefer because they are deemed to be more inclusive but which others are vocally decrying, arguing that these terms alter, even erase what it means to be a woman.

Now, seeing all this reminded us that this debate isn't exactly new. Back in 2014, on NPR's Tell Me More, we hosted a series of discussions with a group of women that centered on a California law allowing transgender students to choose bathrooms and sports teams based on the gender with which they identify. Conservative columnist Gayle Trotter was one of our guests. She spoke for many in the audience and, of course, infuriated others when she expressed that these changing norms made her uncomfortable and conflicted with her beliefs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GAYLE TROTTER: I think first, we need to be gentle with one another. And part of what I really enjoyed about our conversation last week when we went off the mic is that we could just be real with each other and share the experiences that we've had. In researching this, Massachusetts also has a similar school policy that California has now just adopted. And as part of that policy, it calls for disciplining children who are not calling transgender children by the pronouns that they want to be called by. And I think that's really troubling not only for the children who are transgender, but also for the other children who are not experiencing that. And we try to be gentle with each other, but it's very hard when the goalposts are moving all the time and to say that children could be disciplined because they aren't saying something that, to their mind and their eye, conforms with nature is very difficult on these children. And so for me, pushing that into children who are preschool age or lower must be ideologically driven.

MARTIN: So we wanted to talk about where we are and where we may be headed since this conversation eight years ago, so we called Mara Keisling. She was also part of that series of discussions. She's the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. She's moved on to other activism in the trans community, and she's with us now. Mara, it's great to have you with us once again. Thanks for joining us.

MARA KEISLING: Thank you so much for having me. I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: So obviously we wanted to talk with you because I would say you're one of the founding mothers of the transgender rights movement. I just wanted to get your reaction to the exchange that took place in the Senate earlier this week between professor Bridges and Senator Hawley. Is there something in particular that stood out to you?

KEISLING: I watched the video like 9 million other people, and it wasn't two people being gentle with each other. It was, you know, Senator Hawley, who, you know, is a trash talker, and he knows how to get attention. And he - you know, he's running for president. And so he's going to do anything to get attention. And he was trash talking, and I think Professor Bridges picked up on that and responded to it. And I don't think either of them were being gentle with each other.

MARTIN: A lot of people are in this place of feeling not just confused but aggrieved right now. That wasn't the only exchange that speaks to this question of language. I mean, earlier this month, The New York Times columnist Pamela Paul wrote about language. She wrote, quote, "even the word women has become verboten. Previously a commonly understood term for half the world's population, the world had a specific meaning tied to genetics, biology, history, politics and culture - no longer. In its place are unwieldy terms like pregnant people, menstruaters and bodies with vaginas."

Now, I don't think she's running for president. I don't think she's a, you know, far-right conservative activist in the mode of a Josh Hawley. But she still has this feeling of something being taken from her. And I wondered, how do you understand this argument that her lived experience as a woman is being erased? I'm presuming you've heard this before.

KEISLING: Sure.

MARTIN: How do you respond to that?

KEISLING: It isn't all zero sum. There are some good people who are really, really afraid that they are losing something. They may be right. They may be wrong. I may disagree with them. But again, if we're trying to win them over - and if we're not doing that, then what the hell are we doing? Sorry. But we have to understand that people do feel zero sum about some things, certainly about human rights. I don't know why, and I don't know why we stopped talking about the need to not think of it as zero sum. Just because some people are no longer being mistreated or who don't want to be mistreated any longer doesn't mean that other people have to be mistreated. But it feels that way. And part of how it feels that way is when people are attacked for trying. Believe me, I do not in any way think that Senator Hawley was trying his best to understand things. He knew exactly what he's doing, and he's very good at it. And he knows how to bait people. But we have to get past this everything is zero sum.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, what do you think would make it better such that we could continue to talk about this or try to return to talking about this or maybe start talking about this with mutual respect and acknowledging people's dignity? And some people do have good faith, at least reasons that they consider to be good faith for having a different point of view or not wanting to accept certain language or embrace it. Do you see what I'm saying? What would make it better?

KEISLING: Well, boy, I can't believe I'm going to just lean on Gayle Trotter here, but we have to be kinder to each other. We have to be kinder to people who don't agree with us. We have to be kinder to people who are just wrong. We have to be kinder to people who fall for Senator Hawley's, you know, bullying. We just have to be kinder, and we have to be educating people, and we have to be educating them in the language they understand.

MARTIN: That was Mara Keisling. She's the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. She's since moved onto other activism related to these issues. Mara Keisling, thanks so much for talking with us once again.

KEISLING: I appreciate it, Michel. Good talking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.