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.
I’ve been seeing a lot of posts lately on partners’ problems with transition. It’s hard to read about cisgender people who are possessive of their trans partners’ bodies, who politicize the choice to transition, who pressure their partners to stay in the closet.
Before I go any further, let me say that I mean no disrespect to these cis folks, their trans partners or to these relationships. Some of these couples have been together longer than I’ve been alive. I don’t know the first thing about that kind of love. I hope to someday. If you’re struggling with transition in your relationship, please share your thoughts–including if you think I’m full of shit!
Being trans is really goddamn hard. It bothers me when those closest to a person–parents, spouses, lifelong friends–make transition any harder than it already is. Our loved ones should support us.
It’s a blight on the face of justice that some people try to talk us out of transition in the name of feminism. Gender essentialism is not feminism. The idea that no one should transition, that trans people don’t actually exist, is plain old gender essentialism. What happened to “My body, my choice”?
Trans people are not traitors. Transition is not a political choice, except insofar as the choice to live is political. It is downright radical for trans people to assert our right to exist, to live fully and authentically, in a hostile world.
We should all do a better job of recognizing where we end and our partners begin. I think we can all agree that it would be sexist and unacceptable for me to, say, feel entitled to sex from my female partner, or to try to control how she dresses, who she talks to, or how she spends her time. So too is it cissexist and unacceptable for partners to feel entitled to our body parts, medical choices, wardrobes, and the words we use for ourselves. It’s an overreach, it’s controlling, and it’s disrespectful.
I’m not saying it’s wrong for people to feel overwhelmed, afraid, confused, sad and/or pissed off when a partner shares their wish to transition. What I am saying is that partners should own their feelings and respect others’ bodies and choices. It’s not okay to try to control your partner because you feel scared or lost. I feel like if you really love and respect your partner, you will want the best for them–even if that takes them away from you.
My views are colored by my own experience with an unsupportive girlfriend. She was my high school sweetheart. We were together about three years, living together for two of them. She liked my masculinity as long as it was labeled “butch,” but she was extremely dismissive of my desire to transition. She staged what I can only call temper tantrums about how my face would look different, how I’d never pass as a man, how she didn’t want me to have surgery, how I was robbing her of her “queer” identity card. She used my new name and pronouns grudgingly and behind my back told people to “humor” me by going along with it. I was undertaking the most difficult, important task in my life thus far–and she made it 100% about her.
We broke up when I found out she was cheating on me. I cried for one day and then was overcome by a wonderful feeling of euphoria and freedom. I made the appointment to start hormones that very week. I never knew getting cheated on could be so awesome!
I’m now with a woman who gets me and respects me. I think everybody deserves that.
Partners of trans people–please don’t make your partner’s journey about you.
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?
I recently came across this post by journeytojames on the question, “If you could take a pill to get rid of dysphoria and make your mind align with your body, would you?” James shares that he would not:
I truly believe I was put on this earth to hold a masculine role, no matter how that role manifests itself and even if it means spending most of my life in transition, I want to get there. I want to be the father that my children will need, the husband to my wife, and just a good Black man in society.
I really appreciate his answer–this is much how I feel. I’ve thought about this question a number of times over the years, and always felt strongly that I would not want to turn myself into a cis woman. Actually, the idea is ridiculous. I’m a guy. This is who I am. I would not want to remove my dysphoria at the cost of being someone else.
Thinking over this question, I remembered another one, similar yet opposite: If you could flip a switch and be a cisgender person of your gender, would you? In other words, if you’re a trans man and could choose to have been born a cis man instead, would you make that choice?
For a long time, I thought I would flip the switch. It would be so much easier to be a cis guy. I could have avoided pain and inconvenience. My childhood and adolescence would have been immeasurably simpler, and my life would probably be easier going forward, too.
But you know what? I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. At bottom, both questions come down to the same thing: Would you rather be someone else? I think we all wonder that from time to time.
I have no way of knowing if another life would be any better. If I can’t be at peace with this life–my actual life–why should I be at peace with any other?
As difficult as it is, being trans has shaped who I am, and I like who I am. There are plenty of good things about being trans. More importantly, being trans presented me with a challenge, and I have risen to it. Being transgender gave me the chance to take a huge risk, tell a frightening truth, make a life-changing decision and take a transformative journey–all at a very young age. That experience is irreplaceable.
I have been given an amazing window on the human experience that most will never glimpse. I have learned the power of my own resolve and intuition. I have developed compassion and confidence. I have known pain and peace. I have lived.
So it’s not so much what makes the transgender experience unique that is at issue here. It’s what makes it universal. It’s a struggle, and struggle defines the human experience. At the end of the day, the content of our struggles is less important than what we make of them. Being transgender is a lot like being anything else. As a wise man once said, how strange it is to be anything at all.
You may have noticed the “Ask A Question” link in the upper right corner of this page. You can use it to submit anonymous questions, which I will do my best to answer in a post. You are welcome to send in anything–questions about transition, questions about trans* lives and bodies, or anything else I might be able to answer.
Anyone is welcome to ask. My intention is to allow trans* and questioning folks to ask any questions they might have for another transgender person, and to give cisgender (non-trans) people an opportunity to ask questions about what it means to be transgender. I welcome all questions asked in good faith.
Consider this a chance to bring up that awkward thing you’re confused about.