Elle Moxley is the founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson institute.
Language is our battlefield. It is the arena where our struggle for recognition, acceptance, and justice plays out. When we, Black transgender women, wield words as weapons and shields, we challenge the very system that has oppressed us for far too long. Language isn’t just a tool; it’s our revolution.
Marsha P. Johnson, an iconic figure in our fight for transgender rights, was a force of nature. She defied a world that tried to force her into a narrow box, a world that could not fathom the depths of her struggle. In the past, she referred to herself as a “transvestite,” a term that held a different meaning then. But her life, her journey, and her spirit are far more profound and complex than a single word can capture.
Tuesday’s elections in Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania showed the limits of anti-trans messaging.
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Johnson was a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969, and until now, so much of our understanding of who she was came from accounts by people who did not look like or come from the same place as her. As transness is now more accessible to the world, introducing the Marsha P. Johnson Institute to Black trans people who are resisting, grappling with survival, and looking for community has become a clear need.
Language creates our reality. Without words or language, there is hardly a way to express your lived experience. We have faced a world that didn’t have the vocabulary to understand us, to embrace our stories. It’s a world that cannot fully grasp the layers of our identity.
Language, like us, has evolved. We’ve fought to shed the shackles of outdated labels, just as Johnson did in her time. We, as Black transgender women, stand on the shoulders of icons like her. We recognize the importance of embracing a language that represents our experiences.
Yet, in our journey towards emancipation, there are those who persist in using the old, derogatory language – transphobes who see our empowerment as a threat to their prejudices. These individuals, these purveyors of hate, cling to antiquated words as if their bigotry depended on it. They use these words to belittle us, rob us of our dignity, and perpetuate stereotypes that have haunted us for far too long.
The idea that trans people are having some sort of advantage in the world is asinine. This ideology is directly tied to transphobia.
We, as Black transgender women, understand the power of language better than most. We’ve seen how words can elevate and emancipate, and we’ve witnessed how they can crush and dehumanize. The struggle for pronouns should never be a struggle at all. Pronouns are the essence of self-definition, and we stand unwavering in our right to claim them, just as we do our names.
“Cisgender,” a term that is now used more frequently, did not just appear in the world. We fought for it, just as we’ve fought for the right to define ourselves. This evolving lexicon is more than just words; it’s the vocabulary of our existence, the alphabet of our rights. Even the use of pronouns has been a battle. The honoring of pronouns will never happen if people don’t actually release their need to be right, powerful, and dominating about humanity as they know it.
The battle rages on. The transphobes, those champions of prejudice and hatred, continue to wield their outdated, offensive language as a weapon. They deliberately misgender us, using our deadnames to mock and diminish our humanity. It’s an affront to our very being, an attempt to strip us of our identity.
As the CEO of an organization dedicated to the memory of Marsha P. Johnson, we hold the torch she lit for us, and we recognize the unparalleled might of language in our fight. To honor her legacy and the countless others who have paved the way, we must not merely champion evolving language; we must demand that society respect our terminology, our pronouns, and our identities.
The evolution of transgender language is our war cry against the oppressors, a battle for inclusivity and justice. It’s not just linguistic change; it’s a declaration of our humanity. It’s a shout to the world that we refuse to be silenced. It’s a thunderous message that we, Black transgender women, demand acceptance and respect.
Words have the power to heal, to unite, and to uplift. But they also have the power to wound, to divide, and to oppress. Our words become weapons for justice in this struggle, and we will not yield. We will fight not only for the evolution of language but for the entire belief system of humanity. Our belief systems must change, or we will continue to have more genocide, and those who fight back will always be the ones seen as violent.