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The role of language in constructing transgender and non-binary identities

Sociolinguistic research into language and gender has historically been shaped by the traditional view of gender as immutable, binary, and equivalent to a speaker’s sex, solely with respect to cisgender speakers. By contrast, more recent studies have examined the language of individuals whose gender identities lie outside the cisgender binary - including those who identify as non-binary, genderqueer, transmasculine or transfeminine (Zimman, 2020). The view that such individuals use language to interactionally construct and perform identities allows for the forefronting of speaker agency (Bucholtz and Hall, 2004); when applied to non-normative gender identities, such a view can be used to interrogate cisnormative binary standards throughout society.
In this paper, I aim to review literature analysing language used by individuals with non- normative gender identities through a third-wave sociolinguistic lens, investigating language as a resource used by speakers to index and perform transgender and non-binary identities. Linguistic resources are used to index and perform fluid, socially constructed gender identities that may shift throughout time and space; these resources can broadly be summaries in terms of the embodied voice; discursive practises, and grammatical gender across multiple different languages (Zimman, 2014). Individuals manipulate linguistic and semiotic resources to maintain, uphold, and resist the gender binary throughout various interactions, both online and through spoken interaction (Corwin, 2009). This data may be used to explain inter- and intrapersonal variation, as well as being integral to developing resources such as voice therapy for individuals wishing to transition. (Webster, 2009; Bradley and Schmid, 2019). Moving forward, it is necessary to highlight the importance of further study within this discipline; the body of work thus far is limited in generalisability, primarily as a result of low funding and limited sample sizes. Furthermore, it is essential to acknowledge that transgender identities are not a monolith; identities such as ‘transmasculine’, ‘transfeminine’, and ‘non-binary’ must be disambiguated in future research to provide further insight into the language used to construct each identity.

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