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October 22, 2015 3:45 pm

The Sign Says It All

I learned something new last Saturday afternoon. As I sat in a warm, sunny room listening to GLAD’s 2015 Spirit of Justice Honoree Jennifer Finney Boylan tell stories and answer questions about her experiences as a transgender woman, I saw language evolve right in front of me. Through the assistance of an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, Ayisha Knight-Shaw, a Deaf lesbian ASL teacher, led the group through the linguistic evolution of the ASL sign for “transgender” with assistance from Rachel Marie Rose, Volunteer Sign Language Interpreter.

From LIPTV1 on Vimeo.

“Put your hand over your heart,” Ayisha said. “And, like a flower blooming, show the transition.” The old sign for transgender indicated a reversal of someone’s physical sex. Ayisha explained that it’s fallen out of favor because of the negative imagery it conjures up when you see it. Transitioning is more than just a reversal of sex, and ASL is evolving to reflect that. Ayisha described the current sign for transgender as embodying “the physical, the emotional, the psychological transition.” As languages evolve to capture the complexity of identity, it was gratifying to learn how the Deaf community is holistically capturing the experience of transition in one fluid motion.

What was Jenny’s response? “I love that,” she replied. The audience applauded, both audibly and in ASL. As for me, I just thought, “I couldn’t have communicated what ‘transgender’ means better if I tried. The sign says it all.”

See the video above for Ayisha’s full explanation and demonstration of the ASL sign for “transgender,” and watch Jenny's full reading here.

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