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Trans self-identification and the language of neoliberal selfhood: Agency, power, and the limits of monologic discourse

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Sociocultural linguists share with transgender communities a strong interest in the power of individuals to assert agency over linguistic patterns. For trans people, a key principle of activism is gender self-determination, which treats each individual as the ultimate authority on their own gender identity. This article explores some of the ways gender self-determination and self-identification surface in transgender people’s linguistic practices. Three particular manifestations are highlighted: gendered identity labels, third person pronouns, and body part terminology. The observations offered on these subjects are based on a series of ethnographic projects carried out from 2006–2016 in transgender communities across several metropolitan areas in the United States and in online spaces frequented by trans people. However, the analysis goes beyond mere description by treating this kind of individualized linguistic agency as the product of cultural practice rather than an asocial given. Such a perspective introduces questions concerning why this form of agency arose in the time and place that it has. This article frames gender self-identification as an enactment of neoliberal personhood, in which individuals are framed as the driver of their destiny. What the ideology of neoliberal agency obscures, however, is that agency is not an equally distributed resource.


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Published Online: 2019-02-19
Published in Print: 2019-02-25

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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