Parrotfish Needed an Update: The Rapidly Changing Language of Transgender Awareness

wittlinger_parrotfish update cover for first edition and revised edition

A decade ago, I wrote Parrotfish, the first young adult novel with a transgender protagonist. At the time I wrote it, most of my (middle-aged) friends didn’t understand the meaning of the word transgender. They guessed that it meant cross-dresser or drag queen, but the topic was not one that straight, mainstream Americans thought about, even educated East Coast liberals like me.

The impetus for writing Parrotfish came from meeting Toby, my daughter’s then-twenty-four-year-old friend, who, she mentioned offhandedly, was FTM (female-to-male) transgender. Toby turned out to be a shy young man with a warm smile and a great sense of humor. It was clear to me that for my daughter and her friends, being transgender was a completely reasonable idea, not in the least weird or unnatural. It was a difference no more unusual than any other — religion, ethnicity, sexuality. The time seemed right for a book that shared that opinion.

After some basic research, I asked Toby if he would help me with the book. We met for an afternoon of tea and truth-telling, and there was no question Toby wouldn’t answer. When I finished writing the manuscript, Toby was the first to read it, and when he suggested changes, I made them. Parrotfish is not Toby’s story, but he gave me the heart of the book, the emotion, the soul.

In 2005, when I was writing Parrotfish, I did an interview for the ALAN Review, a professional journal devoted to adolescent literature, in which I said that I thought transgender equality would follow the same trajectory that equality for gays and lesbians had. “People are going to become more aware of it, and twenty years from now they’ll be saying, ‘Oh, yeah, my cousin or my niece is transgendered.’ It won’t be such a big deal anymore.’” I thought it would take twenty years. To my surprise and delight, understanding has moved much faster.

When Parrotfish was published in 2007, transgender issues were barely a footnote in the public consciousness. Eight years later, Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of Vanity Fair — the public is conscious now, whether they want to be or not. And the language we use to talk about transgender people has undergone a shift as well. Language is fluid and always has been. Despite the fact that Parrotfish had been vetted by Toby, transgender himself, by 2015 enough had changed that it felt dated.

For example, in the article I quote from above, I used the word transsexuality, a term much out of fashion today. According to GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide on Transgender Issues, the word transsexual is an “older term that originated in the medical and psychological communities.” While it’s not an offensive word, it’s no longer an umbrella term, because “many transgender people do not identify as transsexual and prefer the word transgender.”

paperback edition cover paperback edition cover

I’ve known for several years that there were words in the book no longer considered correct and, in fact, that there was one word currently deemed offensive. Several newer reviews of the book pointed to it, and it embarrassed me. I went to David Gale, my editor at Simon & Schuster, and asked if we could change it — if I could, in fact, do a limited update of the whole book. Ten years after it was written, Parrotfish was showing its age. David agreed. We knew that if Parrotfish was to remain part of the discussion, which was now sometimes a boisterous debate, the language had to be correct.

In the ALAN Review interview, and often in the original edition of the book, I used the word transgendered. This usage is no longer correct. If you say, for example, that paper has “yellowed,” something has happened to the paper to make it yellow. But “yellow paper” has always been yellow, just as transgender people have always been who they are — nothing has acted upon them to make them transgender. As the GLAAD Reference Guide points out, “You would not say that Elton John is ‘gayed’ or Ellen DeGeneres is ‘lesbianed,’ therefore you would not say Chaz Bono is ‘transgendered.’” Scratch the “-ed” ending.

But the word that bothered me — and critics — most was tranny. A decade ago, Toby felt it was a word that transgender people would use amongst themselves or to refer to themselves, and that’s how I used it in the book. But the word has evolved to be defamatory. GLAAD’s entry says, “Please note that while some transgender people may use ‘tranny’ to describe themselves, others find it profoundly offensive.” I was happy to delete it.

In October 2015, a new edition of Parrotfish was published that reflects these changes in language. A new section of appended resources replaces and adds to the outdated one from ten years ago. I decided against adding newer terms like cis-gender, genderqueer, genderfluid, or my favorite, QUILTBAG, which stands for: Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Allied/Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer and is much more pronounceable than the string-of-letters acronym that preceded it. My sixteen-year-old protagonist in Parrotfish is just figuring out what it means to be transgender. It seemed to me that, though he may have read some of these terms, he wouldn’t yet be using them, particularly in situations where no one else was transgender.

I wonder how long any of these words will remain up-to-date before they’re replaced with others viewed as more acceptable by another generation whose thoughts about the transgender experience will have evolved from our 2015 ideas. Parrotfish was written in 2005 and published in 2007. That remains its historical moment. I hope any word or idea that might be offensive has been removed from the new edition, but I’m also aware that language continues to grow and change. Getting the language right is especially important to the transgender community because, newly empowered, they want to lead the discourse themselves, as they should. The rest of us will try as hard as we can to get it right.

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Ellen Wittlinger
Ellen Wittlinger
Ellen Wittlinger is the author of young adult novels including the 2008 Lambda Literary Awards finalist Parrotfish and Hard Love, winner of the 1999 Lambda Literary Award and a 2000 Printz Honor (both Simon).
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Just FYI, cisgender isn't hyphenated

Posted : Nov 22, 2015 01:08

jane yolen

When I first heard Ellen was writing this essay, I was dying to read it. And now that I have, I see that it is--like Ellen herself--a thoughtful advocate for the transgender kids and adults. Huzzah! Jane Yolen

Posted : Nov 20, 2015 01:39

Susan Lundy

I bought four copies of Parrotfish when it came out and, over the past ten years, "distributed" all but one of them to friends who would benefit greatly from reading this moving story. Now that the new edition is arriving, I am also ordering multiple copies, this time to list them on my site and then set them free. You will find them shortly over the next year in the Lansdale Avenue Little Free Library. My home is on the walking path for both the local public high school and middle is good to get access to this book again.

Posted : Nov 19, 2015 03:52

Dahlia Adler

Love this. With as few books as we have in YA with transgender protagonists, I think it's so important to keep the ones we do feeling like safe (and accurate) spaces for teens. Really heartened to see a commitment to that by both author and publisher.

Posted : Nov 18, 2015 09:37

Ellen Wittlinger

To be clear, the cover pictured above is the old paperback cover. The new edition has the pink fish cover of the original hardback.

Posted : Nov 18, 2015 08:44



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