With Caitlyn Jenner’s recent transition all over the news, a lot of people are thinking and talking about trans issues for the first time. The overall response seems positive to me–many people are acknowledging Caitlyn Jenner’s courage and honesty. At the same time, others are outraged and wish to express their hostility to trans people by refusing to use Caitlyn’s name and gender pronouns.
I had all this on my mind when I saw the following query pop up in the search terms (edited to correct spelling):
is it oppressive not to use someone’s preferred gender pronoun?
Well, it depends on what you mean by “not to use.” I would say it is rude, mean and very disrespectful to refuse to use someone’s gender pronouns. But it is totally understandable to accidentally screw up someone’s pronouns.
So, genuine mistakes are one matter. Friends and family members deserve patience when someone changes their gender pronouns. This shift takes time and we all slip up now and again. I’m a trans man and I have messed up other people’s pronouns plenty of times.
Refusing to use someone’s pronouns, like some people are doing now with Caitlyn Jenner, is another issue entirely. When you outright reject a person’s new name and pronouns, you make a loud and clear statement that you are opposed to their transition and their understanding of themselves–which is exactly the point. People do this in order to make a statement, and it works. If your intention is to reject trans folks and generally alienate all gender-nonconforming people, well, boycotting our names and pronouns will definitely get you there.
When you reject someone’s transition, you are claiming that you understand this person better than they understand themselves. You are claiming that your views on gender are the be-all, end-all of the human experience. In addition to being hurtful, it’s also very arrogant, and suggests a complete unwillingness to listen.
There are a lot of good reasons to use preferred gender pronouns. You don’t have to be an expert on trans issues to see that this is a sensitive subject and that these little words mean a lot to people. So you can either make a statement about your absolutist views on gender, or you can show care towards your fellow human being. In this case, you really do have to pick between these options. There is just no way to reject someone’s pronouns without being very rude and hurtful.
The question is, should we honor others’ wishes about their own self-expression? Or should we police their self-expression because we think we know better? Should we grant people the small kindnesses they ask of us? Or is it more important to make a point?
Consider an issue that is highly important to you and ask yourself how you’d feel if someone refused to acknowledge this part of who you are. For example, say you were raised as a Christian and later converted to Judaism. You are very devout and want to be known as a Jew. How would it feel if someone insisted on calling you a Christian at every opportunity and refused to respect your conversion, because of their own religious beliefs?
Could this type of behavior be called oppressive? Ok, not to be a dick here, but if I may quote the dictionary,
1. burdensome, unjustly harsh, or tyrannical:
an oppressive king; oppressive laws.
2. causing discomfort by being excessive, intense, elaborate, etc.:
3. distressing or grievous:
Refusing to use someone’s pronouns is burdensome and unjustly harsh–you are intentionally hurting someone’s feelings and forcing them to bear the burden of your discomfort with the reality of gender diversity. In a way, it is tyrannical, in that it is one small part of the systemic marginalization of trans people. It certainly causes discomfort by being excessive–you’ve decided that your beliefs mandate that you trample other’s wishes and make them feel bad. And finally, yes, it is distressing and grievous. Seriously, it just makes people feel horrible and it makes you look like an asshole.
Rejecting someone’s name and pronouns is one of the fastest ways you can damage your relationship and express hostility. Using the right pronouns costs you nothing and is a sure way to express solidarity, respect and support.
The choice is yours.
Ask me a question.
I recently noticed some search terms popping up with folks looking for other ways to say LGBT. They probably found my rant on how LGBT is not a synonym for gay. I certainly stand by that. But what is a good synonym for LGBTQ+?
The best I’ve got is gender and sexual minorities or GSM for short. I like this phrase because it’s clear and inclusive. I like that instead of trying to name each specific minority experience–an impossible project that will always leave someone out–it just points out the axes of experience we’re talking about. It’s a logical grouping; gender and sexuality are so intimately related. Gender and sexual minorities are everyone from lesbian, gay, bi and trans people to asexual, nonbinary and queer people, to kinky and poly people, and more.
In casual settings, I frequently use queer as a synonym for LGBTQ+. It’s not a perfect fit. A lot of people, especially LGBTQ+ folks of the older generation, are just not down with the word queer. And a lot of queer people feel that being queer is quite distinct from being, say, plain old gay, because it includes a certain critical, anti-assimilationist attitude. Still, it rolls off the tongue, and people invariably know what I mean.
In theory, GSM is my preferred term, and queer is not. But in practice, I haven’t fully integrated GSM into my vocabulary, and despite its imperfections, I say queer all the time.
What are your favorite alternatives to LGBTQ+?
I do not consider myself trans, but I really hate seeing only male/female options on forms. I guess I would have to mostly classify myself as cis-female, but I definitely have a masculine side and enjoy gender bending and “playing boy” from time to time. I find it empowering and cathartic.
I like to catch people off guard by using vague gender labels from time to time. My Facebook is set up to use “their” rather than “she” or “he” as a small form of protest against the gender binary, and again partially just to try and confuse people, I suppose. Is it acceptable to use trans-related gender terms when I don’t consider myself trans?
This is a great question! I am going to assume that by “use trans-related gender terms,” silencecanbeviolence means using gender-neutral pronouns and similar things.
I find this a bit tricky, and I have to admit that at first, the idea made me a little uncomfortable. However, after giving it some thought and talking it over with Alma, I would say this is fine. Everyone has the right to express gender as they wish, and everyone wins when more people engage with gender in ways that feel right. I will explain why I initially felt uncomfortable, and then talk about why I think it’s a good thing for cis people to ask for gender-neutral pronouns if they want to, or otherwise defy gender norms.
I have encountered people off-line who use gender-neutral pronouns, not so much because of a core identity as nonbinary, but as a way to be a conscientious objector to the gender system. My first reaction was to be a bit miffed. This is because, for me and a lot of trans people, our genders are not a political statement of any kind. Many of us resent the fact that our genders are politicized by other people. The gender system politicizes our genders because they are taboo, and activists on both the far right and far left may interpret out self-expressions as political gestures commenting on gender roles broadly, feminism, etc.
This annoys the hell out of me, because it implies my gender is a chosen statement. I make a lot of political statements related to my gender–for example, I try to embody a nonviolent masculinity, and I consider that a political statement. But being a man, using male pronouns, and so on, is just the only way I can feel comfortable. It’s not inherently more political than anyone else’s gender. I want to make sure people understand that we don’t choose to be trans because of our beliefs about the gender system, that trans people can be conservative, moderate, radical, or anything else. We’re making a statement, but that’s because just being alive as a trans person makes a statement in this society. Our genders are politicized by other people, but not necessarily political statements on our part.
On the other hand, who is harmed if people who consider themselves cis want to mess with gender norms a little? It seems this can only benefit the trans community. The more people ask to be treated the way they prefer, the easier it will be for trans people to do the same. I think everyone should have the right to request the pronouns that work for them, period. There is no need for any kind of test to determine that someone has the “right” reasons for preferring certain pronouns. There is no such thing.
Transgender is a big umbrella, and we should welcome anybody who needs to get out of the rain. Somebody like silencecanbeviolence–who identifies as cis, likes to express different aspects of gender, and wants to use gender-neutral pronouns in some spaces–ought to be welcome.
The terms trans and cis are very useful–otherwise we get stuck with trans vs normal. But we should not let them crystallize into a rigid, absolute binary. They’re more like multiple overlapping fuzzy regions that blend at the edges. We should not police those borders. We should embrace the ambiguity as an opportunity for alliance.
What do you think?
Thanks to Alma for a great conversation that shaped this post.
The following question recently turned up in the search terms.
being transgender when filling out paperwork wat do u put?
This is a good question, one I wrestle with on a regular basis. I’ve shared my thoughts before on how the gender question should accommodate trans people. But as a trans person faced with completing shitty paperwork, what do you do? A few options for how to answer the gender question.
1. Put what’s most comfortable. If you’re faced with the gender question and one option is more palatable to you, put that. For example, when I’m filling out a form and the options are just male or female, I put male. This works for me. So if a certain option works for you, go for it.
2. Put what matches your other paperwork. In some cases, it might not be an option to put down what you’d prefer. For example, if you are a trans woman whose legal sex is male, it might not be safe or feasible to put down female on official forms. You might not want your paperwork to out you, or it might even cause you problems if there is a mismatch. Sometimes, you just have to put whatever your other papers say.
3. Mess with the form. When you have to choose an option but none of them works for you, and when the form doesn’t carry legal implications, it’s not a bad idea to intentionally mess with the question. On a paper form, you might want to draw in a third box with the label of your choice and check that. One thing I’ve done with online forms that have a write-in option is use it for a comment instead of a label. For example, I’ve seen forms that ask you to choose one option: male, female, transgender or other (write-in). When this happens, I will check “other” and write, “Why can’t I choose male and transgender? As a trans man, I am both male and transgender. Your question implies that trans people aren’t men or women.”
4. Complain. Once in awhile, it may be possible to speak out and even get the form changed. I was recently filling out a membership survey for a professional organization I belong to. They did the good old, “What is your gender identity? Male, Female, Transgender.” The survey had contact info at the beginning, so I wrote an email explaining why I wanted to be able to choose both male and trans. They sent me a very nice email and changed the form to allow people to check more than one option.
5. Walk away. If the form is not that important, and if you’re forced into choosing from crappy options, you can just walk away. As a grad student, I am always getting requests to participate in research, which often sound a bit desperate. If the study asks me to choose from stupid options for gender, I stop filling it out. I might or might not send an email about it. This is kinda mean, but I confess to deriving a tiny pleasure from knowing that, since they didn’t bother to do their homework on the gender question, they will have to work that much harder to get the sample they need, and they will get no help from me.
How do you deal with the gender question?
Somebody recently found this blog searching for answers to the following question.
how can i be transgender if i don’t remember much from my childhood?
The question jumped out at me, a familiar confusion. Answers immediately began to bubble up in my mind. I thought I would share them in case they could be of help to anyone who’s wondering about this.
How can you be transgender if you don’t remember much from your childhood? Being trans is something you are now. If you experience gender dysphoria now, if you just can’t fit into the role of your assigned gender now, if you know yourself to be some other gender now–you are probably trans.
There is still a powerful narrative in our community that says some trans people are “real” while others are… what? Illegitimate? Imaginary? Imposters? The truth is, there are no true and false transsexuals. There are just transsexuals. Another other trans people. And cis people.
This narrative is a relic of the gatekeepers, cisgender “experts” who policed (and sometimes still police) our access to life-saving care. They policed us based on how (un)comfortable we made them. People who seemed likely to fit invisibly into cisheteronormative society were allowed to live. People who didn’t were left to die.
One of their favorite games was scrutinizing our childhood memories. They believed that “real” trans people are only those exceptional, precocious few who, before the age of 5, are able to cast off the weight of a whole society and proclaim their true gender for all to hear, in language that makes sense to adults. Those who didn’t–or didn’t remember–such dramatic, perfectly-worded proclamations were, again, left to die. This standard is strange and cruel and shows a reckless disregard for child development.
We don’t have to live and die like that. We can be more humane to ourselves than these death-doctors were, and indeed, we must.
So again, how can you be trans if you don’t remember much from your childhood? Easily. Their is no age requirement determining the value of an insight. Whether you were able to articulate your gender at 5, 15, 50 or 100 does not matter. You were taught that your existence is impossible. Cut yourself some slack.
That said, I suspect there is a deeper connection between being trans and this lack of memory. It is possible that you’ve got it backwards. It’s not that the fact you don’t remember much from childhood means you aren’t really trans; it’s that you don’t remember much precisely because you are trans, and a great violence was done to your psyche. As you continue on your path, you may find yourself remembering a great deal more than you thought.
A reader writes,
It seems like the trans movement is at a watershed moment right now. Where would you like to see the movement go in the next 10 years? What should our goals be, and what pitfalls should we try to avoid?
Thank you for these interesting and important questions! I appreciate the chance to explore the topic. This is an amazing moment for the trans community. We are reaching new levels of mainstream acceptance and visibility, and we are connected, organized, and engaged like never before. I’ll first discuss some benchmarks I’d love to see us reach in the next decade. Then, I’ll examine our priorities–including a few things I hope won’t become priorities.
It’s difficult to answer this question concisely, because trans equality is intimately connected to justice for all people. Trans people are of every race, religion, gender, nationality, ability, class, sexual orientation, etc. We will never be really free while there are violence and oppression in the world. However, I will focus this post on a few issues specific to the trans communities I know and inhabit.
Before I dive in, a caveat. This is just my take as one trans dude/blogger/small-time activist. My thoughts reflect my position as a middle class, light-skinned, Jewish transsexual man in the US. I would love to hear different ideas and different perspectives on this. I’d like to invite others to offer their own answers to the questions above.
The Trans Movement in 2025
How will things change for the trans movement over the next 10 years? I don’t know, but here are four things I’d love to see.
In 10 years, I would like it to be safe to walk down the street as a transgender person. Being visibly trans or gender-nonconforming should not put a person at risk of discrimination, harassment or violence. As a transsexual man who hasn’t been misgendered in years, I am quite safe. Many trans people do not have this basic freedom, and it’s no coincidence that trans women, people of color and poor folks are all at greater risk.
I am nauseated to admit I do not think we will get there in 10 years. But safety is, of course, an essential goal. I recognize there are many places and situations where people aren’t safe, period, regardless of gender identity, expression or history. Still, I feel I have to put this at the top of the list. This is what I would most like to see: that we can move through our own communities without fear.
How we’ll know we’re there. The TDOR list will stop getting longer.
2. Healthcare & Transition
Many people are not able to access medically necessary, life-saving care because they happen to be transgender. In 10 years, I would like to see the disappearance of healthcare discrimination and much expanded access to transition.
It is unspeakably horrible that people are denied emergency attention or cancer treatment just because they are trans. In terms of transition, if we in the US still have our horrible health care system, I would at a minimum like to see transition care covered by insurance.
I would like to see policy changes that give trans people reasonable avenues to update their legal sex (some encouraging recent developments on this; when I changed my sex on my Social Security record just 4 years ago, I had to prove I’d had surgery, and that’s not the case now). I would love to see some kind of option for genderqueer people (and others who are neither male nor female) to reflect their gender on their records, if that is something nonbinary people want.
How we’ll know we’re there. People won’t die waiting for care that will never come just because they are transgender. People won’t have to get hormones on the street or forgo needed surgery because it’s too expensive. We won’t be walking around with mismatched identity documents (unless we want to be!).
3. Awareness & Acceptance
Transphobia and cissexism aren’t disappearing anytime soon. But I’d love to see us make huge gains in public opinion, and I think that’s possible.
In 10 years, I’d like “transgender” to be a concept that more or less all adults understand. I’d like the mainstream to have a basic sense of compassion and respect for trans people. There will undoubtedly be hold-outs who despise us. I hope they will, indeed, be hold-outs, left behind while the public learns to live alongside us. There are signs this is beginning to happen, but we have a really long way to go. This visibility ought to include nonbinary people as well as transsexual women and men, of course.
How we’ll know we’re there. There will be trans characters in popular books, movies and shows (this is starting to happen). Most people will have met at least one openly trans person (like the situation of gays & lesbians in the US now). There will be openly trans people in various occupations and roles. In many jurisdictions, it will be both illegal and unpopular to discriminate against us.
4. Mental Health
Being trans shouldn’t be a near-guarantee of depression and suicidal ideation. I would like to see greatly improved mental health within our community. If we’re safe, if we’re largely accepted, if we can access transition–that will go a long, long way towards alleviating our collective misery. I would also like to see mental health professionals improve and update their understanding of trans issues, so we can easily find professionals who know how to work with us (and, hopefully, actually afford mental health services–see number 2!).
How we’ll know we’re there. Suicide & suicide attempt rates for trans people will be close to the rates of the general population. Family members will by and large support transgender loved ones.
What about goals and potential pitfalls? I really see just one issue here. Our priority should always be improving conditions for our whole community. We should let the most dire issues and the needs of the most vulnerable among us set the agenda. I hope that in 10 years, the trans movement will continue to be a vibrant, diverse coalition. I hope we will continue to address urgent causes, to question systems of oppression, to offer intersectional interpretations of power. I hope we will not take on an assimilationist focus that mainly serves trans people who are already privileged by race, class, etc. That is the pitfall that worries me–that instead of conditions improving for trans people in general, there will be widening inequality within the trans community.
What do you think? Where would you like to see the trans community in 2025?
My buddy janitorqueer posed an interesting question to me a couple of weeks ago:
Have you ever come across someone within your own community who you strongly strongly disagreed with? If so, what action or non-action did you take?
I certainly have! This can take a wide variety of forms. As a Jew, I sometimes have strong disagreements with my fellow members of the tribe about Israel/Palestine, among other things. As a trans man, I sometimes have strong disagreements with others under the LGBT and/or trans umbrella. For example, I take issue with all forms of “trans enough,” “subversive enough” and “feminist enough” tests of individuals’ gender identities or expressions.
My responses have varied from situation to situation. The better I know the person, the more likely I am to broach the disagreement. With a solid rapport, even extremely challenging topics can be handled gracefully.
When I don’t know a person well, I usually still try to address the issue. There’s just something that gets under my skin about someone in my own community who holds views I see as harmful to that community.
Sometimes, this goes really well, and we both learn something. Other times, we fail to communicate well. Feelings get hurt, wounds get salted, and we walk away even angrier than we were to begin with.
I love that janitorqueer asked about “action or non-action,” because this is where the latter comes in. When it becomes clear that the conversation is producing a lot of heat and little light, it’s time to walk away. This especially applies on the internet, where we are often quick to judge, slow to listen, and likely to misinterpret and be misinterpreted in turn.
I’ve been in my fair share of debates, and I have little interest in debating anyone now. Treating each other with kindness is more important that proving a point. For trans people, sticking together as a community is an essential part of the struggle for justice.
In an online context, if someone’s opinions drive me nuts and communication is not going well, I simply stop reading anything that they write. That might sound obvious, but it took me years to learn to stop going to blogs that piss me off.
How do you deal with disagreements within your community?
A reader writes,
How do people know what gender they really are? What does gender feel like?
Thanks for the interesting questions. Let’s look at them one at a time.
How do people know what gender they really are? The short answer is, it depends. Most people never wonder–they’re raised as a girl or boy and never give it much thought. The trouble arises when a person senses some kind of mismatch from the gender they were assigned. This opens up a lot of questions: Am I trans? Am I the “opposite” gender? Am I a nonbinary gender? Am I uncomfortable with my assigned gender for some other reason?
There is no formula for finding an answer. Each person has to walk their own journey. There are some things one can do to facilitate that journey.
- Be curious. There is a great deal of stigma against gender variance, so just asking these questions can be terrifying and laden with shame. On the other hand, when you ask the questions, you are opening up the possibility of new kinds of happiness, peace and self-knowledge. That is pretty awesome! Can you get in touch with the part of you that is curious about your true gender?
- Experiment. Try on elements of different roles. Describe yourself with different words. Change your clothing or your haircut. As you experiment, listen carefully to the feedback you get from yourself. Notice thoughts, emotions, sensations, the way your body feels, the way you behave. When do you feel the worst? The best? When do you feel most like yourself? By trying things out and observing how you feel, you can find what is right for you.
- Be pragmatic. Find what works and do it. You don’t have to know why, have the perfect label, or fall inside a certain box. You don’t have to have all the answers. All you have to do is be good to yourself and others.
- Have hope. This may be the most important thing. Believing that things can get better, even a little bit better, is essential. Figuring out your gender issues is possible. Living a life you love is possible. You can do this.
I turned a corner in my gender journey when I was able to approach it with curiosity, pragmatism, and a willingness to experiment. I knew I was unhappy in a female role. I had a sense that I wanted to express masculinity. But I had no idea what that would mean in real terms. I was able to acknowledge this to myself and feel hopeful. I thought I might never be really comfortable, but there had to be something I could do to make things better. I thought to myself, I am going to hack the gender system.
Then, I tried things, and I noticed how they made me feel. I slowly cultivated a more and more masculine presentation. The more I expressed my masculinity, the better I felt. I felt happier, more comfortable, more confident, more myself. I continued to follow that thread. I eventually made the choice to transition to male.
What does gender feel like? This is a much trickier question. Gender is social–I know I’m a man because it feels right when I interact with others as a man. Gender is spiritual–I perceive that I have masculine essence, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Gender is psychological–my sense of myself as male is deeply rooted in my mind.
But maybe those answers obscure more than they reveal. The truth is, I don’t really know what gender feels like, in and of itself. It’s an experience and a mystery, shifting across times, places, situations.
I do know what authenticity feels like. I know what health feels like. I know what peace feels like. I know, through trial and error, I feel authentic, healthy and peaceful living my life as a man.
I hope this answers your questions.
A reader asks,
As an aspiring mental health professional and a trans* person, what are your thoughts on the recent changes to the DSM-5?
Thanks for this interesting and important question. Short answer: I have a lot of thoughts! This is a complex issue. As a first-year grad student in counseling, I am just beginning to learn about mental health and the healthcare system. There is a lot to address with this topic.
First, a bit of background. Here’s a good overview of the changes to diagnoses affecting trans* people in DSM-V.
One of the biggest revisions is the move from “Gender Identity Disorder” to “Gender Dysphoria.” This change reflects that trans* gender identities and expressions are not mental disorders, while dysphoria–clinically significant distress that often goes along with being trans*–is a mental illness. This diagnosis is intended to be more respectful and less stigmatizing, while still helping to facilitate treatment for dysphoria in the form of counseling, hormone therapy, etc. Check out this fact sheet from the APA (pdf) for more on Gender Dysphoria. There are still problems here, but overall, I consider this a major improvement.
On a more negative note, DSM-V includes a diagnosis called “Transvestic Disorder” (formerly “Transvestic Fetishism”). Frankly, this is a bullshit diagnosis applied to people who are sexually aroused by cross-dressing. Here is a thorough treatment of the problems with Transvestic Disorder.
On to my thoughts on trans* folks and DSM-V–or rather, trans* folks, mental illness and diagnosis. I’m of several minds here.
First, I should say I am no fan of the DSM, period. The DSM is a culturally, historically specific document, which reflects social norms as much as anything. Psychology has frequently been used as a tool of the system to forcibly normalize and stigmatize people. I think mental health workers should focus on helping people live better lives, not on categorizing, diagnosing or describing them. I am suspicious of the validity of pretty much all diagnoses, not just those related to sexuality and gender. (This is largely why I chose to pursue the program I did, counseling, instead of another, such as clinical psychology.)
On the other hand, I sometimes feel uncomfortable when people criticize the inclusion of trans* experiences in the DSM. Sometimes, I think the cries that being trans in not a mental illness smack of ablism. I think we need to be very careful not to perpetuate bias against people who do experience mental illness. “Mentally ill” people are very stigmatized in US society. I use quotes because there is no fixed group of mentally ill people, separate from the general population. A huge fraction of people experience a mental illness, and people move in and out of this category during the course of their lives.
Of course there is nothing wrong with trans people–except insofar as dysphoria, discrimination, etc. interfere with a person’s life. In other words, there is nothing wrong with being gender variant, but people who are suffering may need some help.
At the same time, there is nothing wrong with so-called mentally ill people–except insofar as depression, anxiety, etc. interfere with a person’s life. There is nothing wrong with having gone through trauma, having atypical brain chemistry, or whatever, but people who are suffering may need some help. In many cases, people who have any form of disability suffer mainly because the majority has organized society in ways that don’t meet their needs. Sound familiar?
Personally, I think my dysphoria absolutely was and is a mental illness. For me, symptoms of dysphoria included: years of depression, panic attacks, trying to numb myself with alcohol, trouble forming relationships, trouble enjoying life, wanting to die. If that’s not mental illness, what is?
My gender identity, meanwhile, is absolutely not a disorder of any kind. Trans* people are part of the beautiful, natural variation of the human species. I don’t think being trans has to go along with experiencing mental illness–it’s just that it often does, in some societies. If I had been recognized and affirmed for my gender from an early age, if I were not considered inferior because of my trans status, etc., I doubt I would have experienced much distress at all. I think I would still have wanted to transition and change my body. I just wouldn’t have nearly died in the process.
So my mental illness was caused by the interaction of myself and my society. I think that goes for a lot of mental illness and other disabilities.
In conclusion: DSM-V is an improvement from DSM-IV, but major problems remain. I think the DSM itself is a flawed, historically specific text, and I don’t think it’s the best way for us to approach mental health. As long as it’s here, I think it’s reasonable to say that dysphoria is a mental illness, while trans* identity is not. I think folks who are quick to say that trans* people have no place in the DSM might want to take a second look at their opinion of “mentally ill” people.
Basically, it’s difficult for me to take a stance here, because I disagree with some basic premises that often frame the conversation. These include assumptions that the DSM is a good authority, that mental illness can be easily separated from social norms, and that being described as mentally ill is always bad.
I hope that answers the question. Anyone else have a take on this?
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?