Visit theallusionist.org/joins-pride-rerun to hear the episode and read more about it.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, wish you a joyous and loving Pride month, and to celebrate, today I’m playing two of the Allusionist episodes that have stuck with me the most during the show’s existence. The first one is called Joins. It came about a couple of years ago, thanks to you listeners, who talked about your particular experiences in your trans bodies dealing with the available vocabulary for sex and the associated body parts. (Content note: the episode contains language pertaining to sex and the associated body parts.)
After this, there’ll be a short piece about a monumental moment in time, but right now, here’s Joins.
LEE: Hello, my name is Lee. I'm a genderqueer trans masculine gay guy and it's time for me to talk to Helen Zaltzman about my genitals.
So there's actually a lot of different contexts in which genitals come up, and there's different language for each of them. For me as someone who was assigned female at birth and has a vagina has a uterus but mostly passes as male, there's a lot of different things that go into what I'm choosing to call my genitals.
LORELEI: I sometimes like to refer to my genitalia as “anachronistic”, which seems to fit perfectly. I have a friend who refers to my genitalia as “the factory-installed equipment.”
MATTIE: My name is Mattie and I am both transgender and asexual. And both these things influence how I relate to my body and the words I use for it. So asexuality means different things to different people. For me, it means a sexual orientation that refers to little to no sexual attraction to people of any gender. ‘Transgender’ means that my gender and the body that I was born with don't quite align; and ‘gender dysphoria’ is the discomfort I feel because of that disconnect.
MARSHALL: So I want to start off by saying that I am not an example for every single trans person; every trans person is different. Some of them are perfectly fine when it comes to labeling their junk with the clinical terms. Others like me have a problem connecting with that area so they use labels that they make up in order to help disassociate themselves from that area in order to alleviate dysphoria.
MATTIE: I find that the words used for my own genitals impact how dysphoric I feel. So I'm more uncomfortable with words that are more vulgar or euphemistic, like ‘cock’ or ‘balls’; but I'm better with, I suppose, more medical words like 'penis', maybe because those words feel a little more impersonal, since I can’t personally relate to any of the words associated with my genitals.
SEZ: I'm a non-binary person, and I didn't have the vocab to explain that. I knew I wasn't a man, and I knew I wasn't a woman, but I thought I was just crap at being a woman. But no, I was non-binary, I was gender-queer. So yeah, my boobs are non-binary boobs. Deal with it.
MARSHALL: The general vaginal area is simply ‘the front hole’. Vagina is ‘front hole’; asshole is ‘back hole’. The clit is ‘the dick’ or the ‘bio dick’. And the packers or STPs - if you don't know what a packer SDP is, just think of it as a flaccid dildo; it's just something to stick in your pants and give the illusion of a bulge - I call those my ‘peens’. P-E-E-N.
LEE: In a lot of contexts I actually do end up defaulting to ‘vagina’. Some of that is my good good feminism, saying, “We call things what they are,” although many people I know object to me using ‘vagina’ instead of ‘vulva’. I can't get behind ‘vulva’.
REBECCA: This is Rebecca Kling. I am a performance artist, an educator, a writer and a trans woman. Speaking for myself, I didn't have a problem calling my genitalia a penis or a cock or a dick before I had surgery. That said, I've heard people call it a ‘clit’ or a ‘super clit’. I have heard people call it a ‘click’ - a combination of clit and dick. I've heard people use other language like ‘hammer’, which I thought was pretty great, or ‘fun stick’; I’ve heard ‘garden’ or ‘flower’ or ‘button’ or ‘hotspot’; and if everything else fails you can either pick names. So what name is going to make you feel good about your genitalia? Or, at the sort of most directly descriptive ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘here’, ‘there’. Grab your partner's hand: “I want you to touch me here. I don't like it when you touch me there.” And I think part of the excitement there is being able to decide what language is going to make you feel good about yourself. Similarly, now that I have had gender reassignment surgery so I do have a vagina, I like words like ‘vagina’ or ‘pussy’ or ‘cunt’, because they feel right and they feel OK to me.
OWL: My name is Owl. I'm an Icelandic trans person who now lives in the UK. I identify as a non binary trans person and I use the pronoun ‘they’.
Before I came out I didn't really speak about my genitals or my body at all in many ways because I wasn't comfortable with my body in many ways, but I feel like after I started hormones or after I had genital surgery, I became much more comfortable with my own body because I was basically hiding it away all the time anyway.
But I feel like now I don't have to hide it away. But I feel like it's not necessarily because I became this super confident person; I also feel like it's because my body was just completely objectified as I went through the medical process. And I remember being in the hospital after my genital surgery and every time the doctor came every morning, he brought about two or three different sorts of students who were studying medicine or becoming doctors, and he asked if it was okay if they took a look as well. So about 30 or 40 people at that hospital saw my pussy; and I just became a bit detached from it. And today I'm not very shy at all. I don't care as much. I can speak about my pussy, my vagina, and I'm not shy to say these words because I sort of feel like my body conforms to how I want to be. And the way it's changed is that I talk about my genitals now as before I never actually talked about them at all.
LEE: You would not believe how much you end up talking about genitals with little kids. And it's an interesting thing being a genderqueer parent and talking about how some boys have vaginas. Most boys have penises. Most girls have vaginas. But some girls have penises. Things like that: trying to divorce anatomy from identity for the next generation.
REBECCA: Language around trans bodies is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, it's because a lot of the time people who are asking trans folks about their bodies have this assumption that they're allowed to ask whatever they want: what's between your legs? Have you had the surgery? How is dating? like, how do you have sex? All of these questions that we would never ask someone that we just met or that we just learn something about their identity. On the other hand there is need to know situations. My doctor probably needs to know a lot about my medical history and my body. But the barista at a coffee shop doesn't need to know.
MARSHALL: When it comes to going to the doctor, I do refer to those areas as their clinical names. If I use my nicknames I would just confuse the doctors. But the difference is that I use ‘the’ instead of ‘my’. So an example is I just use ‘the clit’ instead of ‘my clit’, and that's to just help disassociate myself.
LEE: When it comes to sexy times, there's not a good language right now.
ANDRE: And generally I try to go for neutral words like ‘hole’, and like ‘front hole’, ‘back hole’...
LEE: There's a lot of fun creative language used in some erotica or in just talking about things, especially for guys who are really uncomfortable talking about themselves as having vaginas. ‘Front hole’, ‘cockpit’. Like a guy messaged me on Scruff the other day and asked me if I was a ‘bonus hole boy’, which was his way of trying to sexily ask me if I participated in vaginal intercourse. And that was funny; I hadn't heard that one in a while.
MARSHALL: If you're dating a trans-person and you plan on having sex with them, it's best to just talk to them and see what what labels they prefer to use. And I've been in relationships where right in the middle of things they refer to as my front hole as my ‘pussy’ or my ‘vagina’. And that did not go well. I had a full on dysphoria attack right in the bed, and that was not good. So it is best to sit down with your partner and talk with them. Communication is key.
REBECCA: There's this misconception that asking has to be really awkward and dry. “Excuse me, what language are you using for the genitalia that's between your legs, and what language would I appropriately use to discuss that genitals?” No - what language feels sexy? What language feels good? ”Can I touch you here?” “What word do you use? What do you call this?” There are ways to make talking about sex and talking about the language of sex and bodies fun and part of the experience, and not have to pull out a whiteboard and dry erase markers to start diagramming things out.
ANDRE: I mean I make them fill out a form! No, just kidding.
My name is Andre Perez. I am a community organizer, filmmaker. Mixed Race Puerto Rican trans masculine person who's kind of genderqueer and also very queer.
I love the word ‘cock’. My phone incidentally does not like the word ‘cock’. It always autocorrects to ‘couch’. My phone just thinks I have a lot of really intense conversations about purchasing couches on the weekends. Like, let me see your couch. How big is your couch? Is it hard? Does it feel good?
LEE: There's a fair amount of just referring to things as ‘it’. You know, “Suck it. Fuck it. Lick it.” That sort of nonspecificness that works for any sort of part that someone is near, whether it's genitals or not.
ANDRE: I'm pretty good at like redirecting people like, “Oh God, I don't really like that word; I'd really prefer if you use this word.” I often will find that men will not be very familiar with trans folks. And so they will be kind of tentative and actually I think that's maybe something that I like look for that's like appealing; I'm like, oh if you don't know everything to do, that's fine.
LEE: It's an evolving language thing and it's made more complicated by how little language even cis-gendered people with vaginas have for their vaginas that aren't like puerile or offensive or combative or medical.
So, yeah: we all need to do better.
LORELEI: My name is Lorelei Erisis. I'm a newspaper columnist for the Rainbow Times, I write the column Ask a Transwoman and I’m the original Miss Trans New England.
Language is a living thing. You know, it's not static it responds, it shapes our world and it allows us to shape our world in turn. So the words I use to refer to my genitalia are really very genuinely going to shape the reality of that genitalia to a certain extent. It's really exciting. It’s a very cutting edge sort of word nursery in the trans community.
The ways we use for ourselves are changing constantly. And that’s changing our ideas about what gender even is, and our ideas about what gender is is changing the language and the words we use to describe gender; and given people’s genitalia is so tied into our ideas of gender generally and specifically personally, that means the words we use to describe our genitalia are in a constant state of flux.
REBECCA: One of the most important lessons from the trans movement I want to spread to the world: we get to decide what our bodies mean, and we get to decide how our bodies should be used and interact with the world. And what I mean by that is: if certain language doesn’t feel right about your body, don’t use that language. And for trans folks in particular, there are parts of our bodies - whether it's breasts or vaginas or penises or whatever - that those words carry a lot of weight. The weight of being told “You have a vagina” or being told “You have a penis” and that means something that's gendered, and that means something that's sexualized about what you're supposed to do with that part. Because words are all tied up in how we think about our bodies and how we think about our bodies is all tied up in the language we use to describe our bodies.
HZ: Thanks so much to everyone who contributed - in alphabetical order, Andre, Lee, Lorelei, Marshall, Mattie, Owl, Rebecca and Sez. And thanks to Sarah Geis for her work on this episode.
Coming up next: Pride.
It’s 49 years since the word ‘pride’ was chosen for LGBTQ Pride events, and when I made this episode in 2015, I hadn’t before encountered the story of why that particular word was chosen. And it is a powerful one. The audio quality is a little crackly but there’s a transcript at theallusionist.org/transcripts. Here it is: Pride.
New York City in 1970. Homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness; gay sex was punishable with fines and prison sentences. A police raid on the Stonewall Inn on Christopher St on 28th June 1969 sparked the Stonewall Riots, after which the gay civil rights movement was gathering momentum, and pride began to mean something more.
CS: My name is Craig Schoonmaker, and in 1970 I authored the word ‘pride’ for gay pride. Somebody had to come up with it!
We had a committee to commemorate the Stonewall riots. We were going to create a number of events the same weekend as the march to bring in people out of town, and wanted to unite the events under a label. First thought was ‘Gay Power’. I didn’t like that, so proposed gay pride.
There’s very little chance for people in the world to have power. People did not have power then; even now, we only have some. But anyone can have pride in themselves, and that would make them happier as people, and produce the movement likely to produce change.
HZ: But the word pride carries negative connotations too, of conceit or vanity - after all, pride is one of the seven deadly sins.
CS: Oh, no. Not that kind of pridefulness; more like self-esteem. That was hackneyed even then. The poison was shame, and the antidote is pride. I understood that, and the Committee understood also, because they immediately voted to make it Gay Pride Weekend.
HZ: There were events with names like Gay Liberation and Gay Freedom, or named after Christopher St. But over the years, most of them have adopted the name Pride.
CS: It's always better to have a standard rubric everybody recognises. Pride is shorthand for gay pride. But it didn’t start out that way. A lot of people were very repressed, they were conflicted internally, and didn’t know how to come out and be proud. That’s how the movement was most useful, because they thought, “Maybe I should be proud.”
HZ: What was the context?
CS: The Stonewall riots resulted from police invasion of a gay bar and a form of opression. I was, for instance, arrested in august 1968 for talking to a friend on Christopher Street and refusing to break it up and move on, which was the standard language. We were not loud, and it was abusive. I spent the night in jail, and I went to Mattachine Society which was the only organisation for gay people at the time. Around that time, Mayor Lindsay made a change in police instructions, and had them stop harassing gay people. It was a fortunate confluence of events.
Mayor Lindsay had already made changes in police policy, so the police were either not noticeable, or were standing by to protect if there was any trouble, so that was a nice change. But the laws didn’t change for a long time, and we were constantly pushing. They would do things like invade the offices of a hostile magazine, just so they knew we were watching and we weren't going to put up with slander. So that was good. And they would also demonstrate outside the offices of hostile legislators. But it took a while, even with this kind of confrontation, to get things done. Meanwhile, there was still publishing organisations like mine, Homosexual Intransigent, and we continued to work on the intellectual underpinnings of the movement, and to try to bring people to terms with their sexuality.
We were always influenced in the United States by the black vicil rights movement, which preceded us, but not by that much. The black civil rights movement was a pathfinder, it showed us how to proceed in non-violent fashion. When we organised that first march we had Quakers as trainers, to tell us what to do and what to avoid doing on our first march.
We weren’t supposed to wander out of two lanes of Avenue of Americas, 6th Avenue in the original street grid. We were by no means to be aggressive towards the police police; we were not to be disrespectful, and certainly not violent in any way. It turned out to be a very orderly march; people did not violate the terms, and we weren’t interfered with by police.
It wasn’t very large in terms of the numbers of people. It might have been as many as 3000-5000 people in the street and people on the sidewalk; it had not yet caught on, because it had never happened before. We were chanting, things like ‘Gay is good,’ ‘Say it loud; I'm gay and I'm proud’ etc. It was quite festive; it was summer because that was when the Stonewall riots occurred, and the weather was nice, it wasn't rainy, it was quite festive. We went up to Central Park, where more people joined. Someone looked out over the group, which at that point was about 10,000 people, and said, "Just think, there’s someone out there for every one of us in that crowd." Which was a nice thing; people were able to acknowledge themselves and be able to be out in public, which was something you didn’t see before. Most gay life was at night, in bars and clubs, and in Greenwich Village people would walk around, especially on Sundays; but not generally outside of the gay mecca of the West Village.
HZ: Los Angeles and San Francisco held their own marches on the same weekend. Within a couple of years, LGBT rights marches were happening in cities across the US, and in the 45 years since, Pride events have been taking place in hundreds of cities around the world.
HZ: Do you still think the word ‘pride’ is necessary?
CS: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. It works internally, and it makes people more self-assertive. That's what really is going to make the change in people's lives: when they assert their rights to marry, they assert their right to be known, they assert their right to employment. There’s a lot of work to be done in the world at large. But the more people are open and self-assertive in the first world, the more people in the third world see they have the right to be self-assertive too.
HZ: Would you have anticipated Pride would still be the term used, all over the world, with a whole month devoted to it?
CS: I don't think so, but I'm very happy it did. We didn't anticipate that. We hoped it would in the United States at least, because there were other marches that year, in Los Angles and San Francisco. We certainly hoped it would catch on. Not as a slogan so much as an understanding that people should be proud and not ashamed.
HZ: How do you feel about the marches starting off political and evolving into parties and parades?
CS: I’m pretty happy about that; many of the goals have been achieved, so why not celebrate?Rarely has a social movement come so far in such a short time.
The Allusionist is a member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the most independent-minded and inventive podcasts around. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
purfle, verb transitive: to ornament the edge of, eg with embroidery or inlay. Noun, purfling: a decorative border, esp around the edges of a violin.
Try using it in an email today.
These episodes were produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with music from Martin Austwick of palebirdmusic.com. The Allusuionist will be back with a new episode in a couple of weeks, about a word that has had a whole lot of different meanings just within living memory - and it’s never had an easy or comfortable time. It’s so interesting.
Find allusionistshow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and hear all the episodes, read more about the topics, see transcripts, peruse the full dictionary entries of the randomly selected words, at the show’s forever home, theallusionist.org.