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Trans People, Ableism, and the Need to Upgrade our Progressive Lexicon

Giuseppe Milo

If you’ve been at all dialed into the discourse around U.S. politics in the last year, you will have heard any of the following phrases:

“Republicans are taking away a woman’s right to choose”
“Trump is the biggest, dumbest idiot I’ve ever seen”
“No sane person would vote for this bill”
“Her Body, Her Choice”

While those statements come from a place of trying to show allyship to marginalized groups being affected by utterly disastrous policy and governing, it feeds into narratives that further punch down on people that haven’t fully made it into the social awareness net: Disabled folks and Trans folks. I hope that in this article, Progressives and anything left of them will understand the natural need to upgrade our Progressive Lexicon to better support the people we claim to care about.


First, let’s talk about Microaggressions. “Oh no!” I hear some of you cry. “I’m progressive, but Microaggressions are just the manifestation of too-sensitive people looking to put a name to their oversensitivity.” Well first, let’s look to the academically understood definition.

Dr. Derald Wing Sue describes Microaggressions as:

…the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.

So what can these look like? In a basic example; imagine being someone socially considered “overweight” and hearing a family member say, “serve yourself up before X eats it all!” While possibly read with good intentions (knowing X likes those rolls, cause they’re damn good!), it can come across as shaming to said “overweight” person. As a cis woman, it might be “Wow, I can’t believe you fit into that dress!” For a black person, it might be “can I touch/you have such straight/is that real hair?”

All are examples to highlight that, while a person may have “good intentions” in addressing someone, the impact can be far off the given mark. Instead of supporting the person, the statement or action actually acts as a “dig” at them. And while the action or statement might be less impactful than overt bigotry, the accumulation of microaggressions over the course of a day, a week, etc., can have the same depth of impact to a person’s conscious.

So how does this relate to our Trans and Disabled brethren? Well, let’s break it down, beginning with Trans folks.


You might remember this story and others like it, detailing stories about transgender men who have gotten pregnant and had children. Typically, the coverage is very cringe-inducing for trans people, treating them as mystical unicorns that appear once in a blue moon, and only by the modern miracle of medical technology can we help them.

The reality is that trans people of all genders have the potential to be pregnant, and thusly, need the same access to reproductive services that cis women do. And in the discourse about Trump and the Republican’s attempts to do everything from defunding Medicare and Medicaid, to attempting to federally legislate an abortion ban past six weeks, the conversation has been largely focused on cis women’s access to basic reproductive care, even coming from those who are the most progressive among us.

This twitter thread by Nora Reed, a Non-Binary robo-activist, details some of the frustrations in the discussion that not only trans men, but non-binary AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) people face when trying to discuss their access to reproductive healthcare. One point in particular; this rhetoric of cis-female-exclusive reproductive care reinforces the narrative of TERFs (Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists), that we are not deserving as “not women” to have a seat at the table of discussing our own reproductive rights.

As Nora and others have pointed out, it is not merely cis women that are voting to preserve the rights and access to reproductive care, it is also a large majority of trans folks (those that can vote), as the conversation has always actively affected us. This is one way in which the progressive lexicon must be updated; to show that we understand that the Overton window of reproductive rights is no longer exclusive to cisgender people.


I myself am a disabled person. As a person with ADHD, my capacity to progress through public education has been limited, due to a rapidly changing attention span, inability to voluntarily conjure motivation for completing classwork, and my constant stimming can be a frustration for my classmates and teachers especially. As a survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, my immune system has been compromised, which has affected me in physical ways I cannot describe to the average able-bodied person.

As with every other marginalized community, there is a set of baked-in ideas and language habits passed down from our history of bigotries that affect the disabled community, and many of them still exist in present day that I see progressives, leftists, and “allies” of all stripes commonly using. Please understand, while this will not begin to tear down the ableist capitalist systems that oppress everyone but especially disabled people, updating our lexicon to eliminate these words and mindsets will be among the first necessary steps to prove to our disabled comrades that we take their oppression and struggle seriously.

Words like “dumb,” “idiotic,” and “stupid” reinforce the notion that because a person does not see the same perspective or understand what you are saying, they are *lesser*. Words like “crazy,” “insane,” and “r*tarded” have historically been used to euthanize, sterilize, incarcerate and condemn people to a lifetime of torture by a sick combination of the medical and prison industrial complexes. Words like “lame,” “crippled,” and “low-functioning” are used to describe those who have been unable to perform labor that most able-bodied folks were made to do.

Today, Trump’s every action is described with any one of these terms. He is assumed to be without agency or sense, either in his office or in the head. But these are excuses, aided not by professional diagnosis, but by assumptions based upon a mixture of distaste for him and the power he holds, and age-old bigotry masked as what we might consider rational thinking. Hint: “Common sense” is not as common and not as sensible as we may believe. What we consider logical may be the byproduct of any number of patriarchal, colonial, imperialist systems of oppression. And therein lies the point of this message.


We are on the verge of something big, whether you’re of the opinion that a change for the betterment of humans, animals, and the environment is coming, or that we are shortly bound for hellfire. If it’s the former, then we need to understand that we have very little time or chances to get it right this go around, lest theological, corporate, racist oligarchs abandon any pretense of morality or civility, and legally throw our world back into a dark age.

If we are to sustain an active “#resistance” not just against Trump, but against policy and rhetoric from any party or leader, and truly carry out a movement for ALL people, then we must understand the need to upgrade our playbook. Our strategies, our outreach, and yes, our lexicon. We must lead with language that does not alienate, does not punch down, but holds those in power accountable, includes all our fights for liberation, and follow up in the next step with the actions of our intent.

From my lips to your heart, may we all break through to an equitable tomorrow.

Written by Nicholas Knight

Nicholas Knight is an aspiring progressive activist from Eugene Oregon and an instigator with Eugene DSA. Dedicated to the cause, and definitely not a professor. You can catch they/them/theirs on Twitter at @profplum_MD for the most lukewarm of takes.


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Trans People, Ableism, and the Need to Upgrade our Progressive Lexicon