By Lynnea Urania Stuart
Terms pertaining to sex and gender can be problematic. The term “transgender” is one of them. Sometimes we look at it all and think that, like the featured image, they take on the colors of corn. But even more often, shifts in definitions can generate problems of their own, leading to misunderstanding instead of facilitating harmony. Worse yet, they can unintentionally work to erase the histories we seek to recover for the trans demographic.
What is “transgender”? “Trans” if we take it from the Latin, means crossing over from one side to the other. The “gender” part is iffier. Gender can represent an internal construct of maleness, femaleness, some combination thereof, or neither. It can also represent the roles attached to gender as world or local societies conceive of them. Since local perceptions don’t always align with regional perceptions let alone perceptions in other countries, nobody really knows what anyone means by “transgender” except as a demographic Evangelicals and certain others love to hate.
Another troublesome term, “transsexual”, seems to be more precise but isn’t. The classic binary transsexual transitions from one sex to another in order to match her or his internal construct of gender. What about those who don’t transition, who have been designated “non-operative transsexuals?” They don’t fit the stereotype of the transsexual who seeks surgery and, of course, it’s rude to ask too many questions.
One might also consider whether the classic “transgenderist” as was designated in university circles in the 1970’s should be considered a non-operative transsexual or simply a cross-living individual. In the 1970’s, transsexuals were excluded entirely from what was considered “transgender”.
My how times have changed.
The 1990’s confirmed a shift in definition and it even became legally codified in California:
“’Transgender’ is used as an umbrella term that includes female and male cross dressers, transvestites, drag queens or kings, female and male impersonators, intersexed individuals, pro-operative, post-operative, and non-operative transsexuals, masculine females, feminine males, all persons whose perceived gender or anatomic sex may be incongruent with their gender expression and all persons exhibiting gender characteristics and identities which are perceived to be androgynous”1
The strength of this definition could be found in the fact that it advanced civil rights in the states that have passed legislation recognizing the rights of transpeople. It’s the definition cultivated by heavyweights like Dr. Jamison Green, Holly Boswell, and Phyllis Randolph Frye. When it came to civil rights, this definition got things done. California has passed the strongest pro-trans legislation anywhere on the planet.
But today, another shift in the term has moved away from the disparity between common perception and fact. “Transgender” has now become synonymous with “transsexual”, the complete opposite of its original intentions. The word “transsexual” has become for many people a pejorative.
Rebecca Billy set up some rules regarding usage of terms in Quora:
If you want to treat transgender people in a respectful way, the first two rules to observe are:
- Respect their ability to decide for themselves how they want to be identified, and use whatever name, pronouns, and terms they ask; and
- Don’t ask about, hint about, or focus on their genitals, surgeries, or medical treatments. Especially don’t focus on their genitals.
Using the term “transsexual” violates rule number 2 and, in most cases, rule number 1 as well.2
This view recognizes broad misunderstanding about what it means to be transgender and also broad misunderstanding about what surgery is about.
Another, Elliott Mason, amplified Rebecca’s post and denounced medical gatekeepers:
Transsexual was one of the fine-sliced terms gatekeepers invented to disguise how widespread and varied the experience of all transgender people is, by insisting that it mattered:
- Who you want to have sex with (if anyone)
- Whether you like wearing pants, skirts, neither, or both
- How willing you were to commit early and hard to a lot of invasive surgery with a long recovery time
- How open you wanted to be about your gender experiences or past
- What field you worked in (“masculine” or feminine — would you be able to easily, after transition, get a job from people who think you are cis in your gender of identity?)
- How hot your gatekeeper thought you’d be after transition (I really wish I were kidding about this one)
- How much respectability politics you are willing to engage in
- Whether your self reported [sic] gender journey matches one of the acceptable set narratives that means you’re not “faking it” or “deluded”
If you want to classify us down into microcategories [sic], sure. Fine. But we’re kind of oogy about it because, historically [sic]. The next step was to deny whole categories of people the ability to access treatments that are necessary to make life less unbearably painful.3
Both are valid criticisms. But there’s a problem: they’re skewed entirely to that part of the trans demographic for whom surgical issues are a thing. Many more people in the trans demographic have no such issues.
So “transsexual” is out and “transgender” is in, at least for those who have been called “transsexual”. What hasn’t been considered enough are the consequences and there are many who had been considered trans in different ways have felt ostracized.
I’m talking about cross dressers, whether heterosexual, gay, bi, or whatever. Their claim for crossing the bounds of gender have relied upon sexual roles, appearance, and deportment. Not a few times have I heard their voices on social media in protest of the ostracism they have felt about this shift in definition. These definitions have too often meant, “I’m more trans than you are.” This, of course, is nonsense. This attitude is no different from those who use one’s choice of surgeons or electrologists as a test of fellowship, much like Cadillac owners sneer at those who happen to like Volkswagen Beetles. Transitioning does not give one person the right to look upon one who doesn’t and decide that person is less on that basis. Nor does the amount of money spent on transition, makeup, or other treatments an individual may deem necessary for construction of the self. The practice of looking down on others on these artificial grounds is not only arrogant and rude, it’s just plain dumb.
We owe much to cross dressers. Many of us who transitioned began as cross dressers. We shared social media sites and attended the same conventions. We also shared support groups as far as we were permitted, though the classic Tri-Ess group typically didn’t accept those of us who transition. But those rules have been relaxed in some places in recent years. Cross dressers, more than transsexuals, have integrated trans society through online and print publication over the years. We should acknowledge this debt.
We also owe much to drag tradition, even if some aspects of drag might be hard for some of us to stomach when parody takes on an art more reminiscent of clownishness than glamour. Drag issues are often different from transsexual issues. The pejorative “tranny” still has use for drag queens and kings who use pejoratives as vehicles for “in your face” performances. But without drag, transpeople would have had a much more hidden history and it was drag that led the post-World War resurgence of trans visibility with aplomb.
Intersex people only peripherally apply to the broad definition of “transgender” and that only if a particular sex assignment doesn’t fit who an intersex individual really is or where the perceptions of others run contrary to that person’s identity. What have my intersex friends said about people like me who are transsexual? “You stress out way too much over gender identity.” In a way they’re right. I’m driven back to my meditations so I can chill. Aum. I love my intersex friends.
But this redefinition of “transgender” has also led to confusion for society in general. Face it. It takes time for anyone to grasp trans issues. We often forget how many years it took for us in the trans community to grasp the diversity of trans society. We spend years coming to terms with our own individual trans issues. How can we expect those not transgender to “get it” any more quickly? We can’t.
When most people become confronted by the term, “transgender” what usually comes to mind? Usually it’s a major media person du jour who’s playing a trans role or may be a trans media person. Yesteryear it was Chaz Bono and Felicity Huffman’s portrayal of Bree in Transamerica. Now it’s Caitlyn Jenner and Andreja Pecij. None of these claim to represent all transpeople. They all know better. The ones who don’t are the media moguls who are always trying to sell something and stereotypes sell almost as much as sex does.
Unfortunately, the popularized equating of “transgender” with “transsexual” has led to misdirected diatribes regarding our histories. Consider, for example, Jeanne d’Arc, popularly called, “Joan of Arc.” Back in the 90’s Leslie Feinberg cited her as a historical example of a transgender person.4
The St. Joan Center vehemently opposed this connection of Joan with transgenderism. Here’s an excerpt:
I submit that Joan put on male attire for one reason only – that she might accomplish her GOD given mission. Joan knew – (either from her own innate wisdom or by the instruction of her voices: Joan of course would say that it was by the guidance of her voices) – that she would have to:
1) gain entry into the male society
2) gain acceptance of those she had come to help and
3) most importantly be taken seriously by them.
The male clothing that she wore was nothing more than a tool and a symbol. A tool in that, it allowed her to do the work God had assigned her – the work of a man.5
None of us deny that these were her reasons. In fact, that has consistently been the pattern of female-to-male cross dressers throughout history. What this article reveals, however, is a persistent anti-transgender bias that presumes the right to delegate transgenderism to psychopathology. People, whether male, female, or whatever by birth have had various reasons for cross dressing. But the reasons really don’t matter so much as the fact that they took gender roles and gender expressions that defied common perceptions of “normality” with respect to sex and gender. Of course Joan didn’t deny her femininity. Femininity doesn’t mean the same thing as “floozy” or “weak” even if some people insist it must. Joan’s actions were a magnificent defiance of these stereotypes. Of course she wasn’t a man all along and that’s precisely the point.
But there’s an even more important issue here. An article like this would not have been written like it has without the redefinition of “transgender” to represent transsexuals only. Joan of Arc was obviously not a transsexual. Do you see the problem yet?
This puts all of us who are trying to reclaim our trans histories on dangerous ground. If “transgender” is to be equated with “transsexual”, then the histories we have any right to claim as part of our own become far more limited. Every other aspect of the highly diverse trans demographic would have to be discarded by forfeit. In fact they become so limited we would only find rare instances of attempted surgeries throughout the 16 centuries of the Abrahamic Oppression that took hold in the time of Theodosius.6
The St. Joan Center isn’t the only entity to advance this kind of criticism. Consider this month’s essay on cross dressing women throughout history by Cerys Howell:
Women passing as men is a well-documented manoeuvre that goes back centuries. The history stretches from the legend of Hua Mulan, the fifth-century Chinese warrior who took her ageing father’s place in the army, to 18th-century pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Cross-dressing women defied all odds and deserve to be honoured and celebrated. But their heroism is at risk of being obliterated by the politically correct liberal establishment who want to recast the boldest women of our history as ‘transgender men’.7
“Transgender men?” Really? “Politically correct liberal establishment?” Really? While it’s not clear what exactly she calls the “politically correct liberal establishment,” various liberal sources aren’t that clear on what “transgender” is in the first place. Liberal sources are confused because definitions are confused. Whose definition of “transgender” does each entity follow? The umbrella term? A more restrictive version?
Female-to-male cross dressers aren’t transmen and male-to-female cross dressers aren’t transwomen except in a limited context. They might only be considered “men” in an even more limited context just like male-to-female cross dressers are only “women” in a more limited context than the term “transwomen”. That’s not to say that one sub-demographic is more trans than another. They aren’t. It only means that words have to be taken in their proper context. For that matter, not all male-to-female cross dressers take femme names and not all female-to-male cross dressers take masculine names. This has been so throughout history, and even members of Hijra communities, more often than not, retain names consistent with their assigned birth sex.8
Here’s the choice for the trans community: do we continue our expansive definitions that accept and embrace our diversity or do we redefine our community restrictively and exclude one another? If we choose the latter, then Cerys Howell and the criticisms of the St. Joan Center are basically correct and we have forfeited our right to most of our histories. If we choose the former then we repudiate the criticisms and continue to enrich our lives through our histories. The choice is ours.
I will say this for myself, not only as a transgender writer who is also unabashedly transsexual, but as one who has worked for civil rights, that the restrictive version that rejects those not transsexual goes against every principle I have accepted. Not all transpeople need to be transmen or transwomen. Not all in my demographic need to fit consistently into the gender binary at all. I accept all of them whether others accept them or not. Regardless of whether issues may pertain to sex, gender, gender identity, or gender expression (or non-expression), these are my own people whom I love.
We must work against erasure as a categorical imperative. That doesn’t just refer to erasure at the hands of oppressive politicians and religionists. That includes those forms of erasure imposed by transpeople, whether intentional or unintentional. And sadly, the unintentional forms are the most commonly encountered as well as the most pernicious.
- Human Rights Commission. Guidelines to Prohibit Gender Identity Discrimination; respecting San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12A, 12B, 12C; and San Francisco Municipal Police Code Article 33 (December 10, 1998) Booklet: City and County of San Francisco, p. 2.
- Rebecca Billy. Why is the term transsexual considered offensive lately? (July29, 2016) Web: Quora: https://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-term-transsexual-considered-offensive-lately. Retrieved September 18, 2017.
- Elliott Mason, ibid.
- Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors (June 30, 1997) Book: Beacon Press. ISBN-13: 978-0807079416, p. 39.
- (n.a.) The Question of Saint Joan of Arc’s Sexuality and Gender (n.d.) Web: St. Joan Center: http://www.stjoan-center.com/FAQ/question5.html. Retrieved September 19, 2017.
- Stuart, Lynnea Urania. Alas the Charioteer (November 25, 2016) Web: Transpire: https://lynneauraniastuart.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/alas-the-charioteer/. Retrieved September 19, 2017.
- Howell, Cerys. Pragmatic women have cross dressed throughout history but it doesn’t make them transgender (September 13, 2017) Web: Spectator (blog): https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/09/pragmatic-women-have-cross-dressed-throughout-history-but-it-doesnt-make-them-transgender/. Retrieved September 19, 2017.
- Jaffrey, Zia. The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India. (1991) Book: Pantheon Books, Random House, NY. ISBN: 0-679-41577-7. This is evident throughout the book written by a cis-gender British journalist who interviewed over 100 Hijras over an extended period of time.