What Does It Mean To Be Transgender?

Thanks to Ieshia for my first reader question! Ieshia asks what it means to be transgender. I think that this is really more about what it means to have a gender at all. Ieshia writes,

I never understood what being transgender actually means and it’s my own fault because I have not tried hard enough to learn. […] I recently saw this comment under a male v. female brain article and it seemed to help more than anything I have learned, is this true though,

“Transgenderism as a phenomenon does not seem to correlate with societal notions of gender performance. In other words, for most transgender people experiencing body dysphoria (or, indeed, dysmorphia) the condition is a physical one: Their brain expects a certain anatomy. It does not seem to be a question of looking or acting a specific way.

An example of this is the fact that trans-men (men born with biologically female bodies) experience a ‘phantom penis’ in a large number of instances — they have the experience of their brain expecting a penis to be there, but not finding one, which any male-bodied man should appreciate would be cause for distress.

So, in summary, transgenderism is orthogonal to gender performance, even if many transgender individuals find it a relief to bring their social, performed gender in line with their expected gender.” […]

[Edited for length. Ieshia’s comment here. Unable to locate the comment she quotes.]

Great question! The short answer is, yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. One’s internal sense of being male, female or otherwise is separate from one’s outward expression of masculinity, femininity or androgyny. Many transgender people experience dysphoria–the pain caused from a mismatch between a person’s physical sex and subconscious sex. At the same time, “transgender” is an umbrella term, and there is a lot of diversity in transgender experiences.

The better we understand how gender really works, the better we can understand why some people are trans. The best model for gender I have seen is the intrinsic inclinations model, created by Julia Serano, who among other things is a feminist activist, biologist and transsexual woman. She describes the model in her book Whipping Girl, a must-read for anyone learning about trans issues.

Serano suggests we think of subconscious sex (AKA gender identity), gender expression and sexual orientation as intrinsic inclinations–deep, persistent parts of who we are, likely created by a complex interaction of many factors. Each of these shows a continuous range in the population–for example, we observe masculine, androgynous and feminine gender expressions. Each correlates with physical sex–for example, most people assigned male at birth have a male subconscious sex, a masculine gender expression and a sexual attraction to women. Correlation is not causation, however, so people can have any combination of traits. Serano offers this model as a more accurate account of human diversity than either biological essentialist or social constructionist models. (Serano, 2007, 99-100)

Here’s the takeaway: We all have a body, including hormones, chromosomes, primary and secondary sex traits, and so on. We were all assigned a sex at birth based on our appearance (the “It’s a girl!” moment). We all have a subconscious sex–a kind of map in our brains that expects a male, female or androgynous body. We all have a gender expression–ways of moving through social roles that are most comfortable for us. And we all have a sexual orientation–attraction to men, women, and/or non-binary people, or to no one at all.

Most people fall into one of two categories: female assigned at birth, female-typical body, feminine, and attracted to men, or male assigned at birth, male-typical body, masculine and attracted to women.

At the same time, all possible exceptions occur. We have gay, lesbian, bisexual, and asexual people, who all have uncommon sexual orientations. We have masculine women and feminine men. Edited to add: Another important group to note is intersex people, whose bodies differ from the standard male and female categories. Apologies for not including this on first writing.

And we have transgender folks. “Transgender” is an umbrella that includes people whose subconscious sex and/or gender expression are exceptional. Many trans folks are like those in Ieshia’s comment–people whose subconscious sex differs (or once differed, before transition) from their physical body, causing dysphoria. Some trans people do not experience body dysphoria, but are exceptional in terms of gender expression in ways that go beyond being a tomboyish woman or flamboyant man. For example, someone may have no dysphoria but may consider themselves a member of a third gender.

Just like the general population, trans* people span the full range of possibilities. To take trans men, for example: what we have in common is that we were assigned the sex female at birth and have a male subconscious sex. Trans men may be gay (attracted to men), straight (attracted to women), bi or queer, and masculine, feminine, or androgynous, and may or may not have taken a wide variety of transition steps. The same goes for trans women. This is explains why some trans women are butch lesbians, for example, which can be a bit confusing to some people. If you understand the relationships of physical sex, subconscious sex, gender expression and sexual orientation, it makes perfect sense.

Does that clear things up? Anyone have anything to add?

Ask me a question.


  1. L

    I’m a big fan of keeping a distinction between gender and physical sex– we acknowledge it all the time, mostly when talking about pre- and non-op folks. But I want the idea that sex identity and gender identity are two separate things. But all in all, good post. :]

  2. rimonim

    Thanks, everybody!

    L, I think I see what you’re saying–by switching from “gender identity” to “subconscious sex,” we seem to lose the possibility that, e.g., someone id’s with their assigned sex and has a different gender identity. Is that what you’re getting at?

    I really like this framework for clarifying our thinking on sex/gender issues, but it’s definitely the map, not the territory.

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