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The Ultimate Transgender FAQ for Allies

transgender FAQ

What does “transgender” mean?

The term “transgender” has no universally agreed upon definition but most academics define it to mean “anyone who has a gender different from the gender they were assigned at birth”. For example, a trans girl might have been thought to be a “boy” at birth but her gender is actually that of a girl.

There is debate within the trans community about how broad the trans umbrella is. Some want to include gender-nonconforming people, crossdressers, drag queens/kings and basically anyone who does not ascribe to stereotypical gender stereotypes in their expression. Other trans people want to restrict the term “transgender” specifically to those who have dysphoria about their body and seek out medical/surgical treatment. I write more about whether dysphoria is necessary for being trans here.

But despite there not being consensus on how broad the umbrella is, the academic definition of “different gender than gender assigned at birth” works for almost all instances. Notice how this definition does not imply, e.g., a trans man was “born a girl”. It was a false assignment based on a preliminary examination of superficial morphological features. With that said, I have written about whether gender identity is solidified during a “critical window” at ~5 years old like many theorists speculate or whether gender identity can change over a lifespan.

 

What is the difference between sex and gender?

“Sex” usually refers to biological/physiological characteristics of the body (“male” vs “female” vs “intersex”, etc.) whereas gender typically refers to a broader social-cultural phenomena involving expectations about social role, behavior, expression, power dynamics, processes of identification, public spaces (e.g. the “women’s bathroom”), signs, markers, and other normative significations of gendered difference.But “sex” is also ambiguous between multiple different sex concepts.

Harry Benjamin, critical to the history of trans healthcare, famously wrote:

“Here are some of the kinds of sex I have in mind: chromosomal, genetic, anatomical, legal, gonadal, germinal, endocrine (hormonal), psychological and also the social sex, usually based on the sex of rearing.” (1966, The Transsexual Phenomenon)

All these different sex concepts can vary independently in any given individual.

Some gender theorists, however, have argued that the sex/gender distinction breaks down and they are too intermingled to be conceptually disentangled. I have written about the problems with the sex/gender distinction before.

transgender

What is the difference between “transgender” and “transsexual”?

When the term “transgender” was first coined it was defined in contrast to “transsexual”. “Transsexual” was a more limited term, specifically referring only to those trans people who seek out medical assistance via hormones, surgery, etc.

“Transsexualism” was coined in the late 1940s and early 1950s by doctors David O. Cauldwell (a psychiatrist) and Harry Benjamin (endocrinologist). In the 1960s, “most roads let to Benjamin” (How Sex Changed, Joanne Meyerowitz, p. 133). He treated thousands of trans patients and defined the norms through which trans people spoke to their therapists and doctors, essentially creating the script of the modern gatekeeping system.

“Transgender” was originally meant to be more encompassing, including transvestites (aka “crossdressers”), gender benders, and anyone else who doesn’t fit neatly into the gender binary.

Many people feel that “transsexual” is offensive and reductionist, and perhaps it is outdated sociologically, but a good number of trans people strongly identify with the term and so I would caution anyone against making universal statements about whether the term should or shouldn’t be used.

But nowaways, “transgender” is the preferred term of choice for most trans people, often shorted to “trans”.

What does “cisgender” mean?

The term “cisgender” comes from the Latin prefix “cis”, meaning “on this side of”, which is the opposite of “trans”, meaning “across from” or “on the other side of”.

Basically, if you are cisgender you are not trans i.e. you identify as the gender you were assigned at birth. For example, a cis man is a man that was identified as a boy at birth, raised as a boy, and feels totally comfortable with his manhood to the point where he might not have even questioned it nor formed an explicit identity as a man, his identity would be akin to a fish not noticing the water surrounding it: it’s just an omnipresent facet of his reality.

But many cis men do think about their manhood and masculinity and make conscious efforts to solidify that identity through culturally sanctioned rituals. Moreover, many cultures have explicit rites of passage that mark the entrance into the “adult” gender of manhood.

Furthermore, the question can be complicated because the line is fuzzy: “comfort” with your assigned gender comes in degrees and some cis people might be uncomfortable with a lot of aspects of their gender role but maybe still like their body or maybe have questioned their gender a bit but still feel mostly comfortable with their assigned gender. It can get complicated. Needless to say the cis vs. trans distinction is not super sharp because gender stuff is a complex and messy.

How is sexual orientation different from gender identity?

Sexual orientation refers to who you are attracted to. Gender identity refers to your identification/comfort with a gender such as “man” or “woman”. These two things can vary independently.

For example, a trans woman might identify as a woman but be attracted to other women (lesbian). Or a trans man might identify as a man but be attracted to more than one gender (bisexual/pansexual).

Many people falsely assume that, e.g., trans women are just “really gay” men and thus all “true trans women” are attracted to men. But about a third of trans women are only interested in other women. The rest is split between those attracted to men and those attracted to more than one gender.

Furthermore, many trans people are on the asexual/aromantic spectrum. Asexual typically means having a persistent lack of sexual attraction towards any gender. And this is different from to question of romance e.g. someone might be interested in sex with men but only wants romantic relationships with women. Aromantic would be someone who doesn’t experience any romantic attraction.

And there are many more sub-categories and distinctions to be made here. For resources on asexuality, see:

Fantastic resource on asexuality

transgender pronouns

Names and Pronouns: how do I use them?

Some general guidelines are:

  • Always use the name and pronouns that are explicitly requested. If you know someone uses she/her pronouns, then use them. If you know someone uses, they/them pronouns, use them, even if you know you’ll mess up frequently or if it feels “weird”.
  • When referring to the past, still use currently preferred pronouns. For example, if talking about a trans woman named Samantha, you might say “Before Samanatha transitioned, back in high school, she used to be on the men’s track team.”
  • If you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns, find a way to gently ask e.g. “Hey, do you mind if I ask, what are your pronouns? Oh, awesome, thank you! I didn’t want to assume.” If you can’t ask, then use gender neutral pronouns when possible.
  • Often we just assume people’s pronouns based on stereotypes i.e. if someone “looks” like a man they must be a man. But challenge yourself on this because it’s not always true. Avoid honorics like “sir” or “ma’am” unless absolutely necessary.
  • If you mess up on someone’s pronouns, don’t make a big deal about it. Correct yourself without fanfare and move on. Don’t pause and comment or say “sorry”. Just correctly yourself and proceed with what you were going to say.

What is the difference between gender identity and gender expression?

Gender identity refers to how you identify (“man”, “woman”, or something else) and gender expression refers to how you express your gender through clothes, hairstyle, accessories, mannerisms, makeup, etc.

Although the terms “femme” and “masc” have their origins in the lesbian community, some people now use them to describe positions within the space of the feminine/masculine spectrum of gender expression:

futch scale

What is “genderqueer” and “nonbinary”?

Nonbinary means anyone who identifies outside the traditional man/woman binary. For example, someone might:

  • Identify as neither man nor woman
  • Identify as both a man and a woman
  • Identify outside the spectrum entirely
  • Identify as different genders at different times (genderfluid)
  • Identify as lacking all gendered identification characteristics (“agender”)
  • Identify their gender through the perspective of their race identity (“My gender is black”)
  • Identify as having a queer/nonnormative gender that escapes normal categories (“genderqueer”)

 

All these definitions are framed in terms of identity-language, but many trans people prefer to talk about just their genders e.g. a trans woman doesn’t “identify” as a woman she is a woman. So, with nonbinary, instead of “identify as neither man nor woman” we could say “their gender is neither that of a man or a woman”.

But personally, I think that if trans people have a gender identity than on the same grounds so do cis people-the difference is that cis people identify with the gender that was given to them at birth. But both cis people and trans people have the same basic cognitive architecture involved in processing information related to sex and gender; they just arrive at much different conclusions.

And here, “identify” doesn’t necessarily have to mean a conscious process (although I think some aspects of identity are formed at the conscious level) – it can refer to unconscious processing about both our sexed bodies and the norms/rules/systems of gender that forms the basis upon which we come to understand ourselves in gendered terms.

Many nonbinary people think of themselves as being a “sub-category” of trans, but some don’t: they see their nonbinary identity as not being reducible to typical categories of transness.

For more information on nonbinary identities, see:

Further resources about nonbinary people

What is gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is the feeling of deep discomfort with aspects of your assigned gender. Often this focuses on body parts: for example, a trans woman might hate her penis and wish for a vagina, a trans man might hate his breasts and wish for a flat chest. This can apply to almost any body part that is sexually dimorphic: height, size, muscularity, facial hair, hair, handsize, adam’s apple, voice, feet size, ribcage, shoulders, vascularity, facial shape, browbridge, jawline, etc., etc.

But gender dysphoria can also apply to social phenomena: feeling discomfort with how you are perceived by society, your social role, which pronouns people use for you, how you are included in different gendered spaces, and the normative enforcement of gendered expression, etc.

For example, someone can feel dysphoria for not being able to express themselves and then later come to feel dysphoria about their body. Or someone’s dysphoria might focus exclusively on their body and not on gender expression. Or someone could be focused more on the dysphoria surrounding restrictions in gender expression and very little if any bodily dysphoria (though there is debate about this).

Is being transgender a mental disorder?

This is a complicated question. We can distinguish between gender dysphoria as a debilitating (but treatable) condition vs the mere fact of identifying as a different gender than your assigned gender (being trans). Arguably, being trans in and of itself is not pathological but if your dysphoria is bad enough it can lead to anxiety, depression, dysfunction, suicidal thoughts, etc., etc. For more on this, see this post I wrote on the so-called “truscum” debate.

surgery

Do all transgender people want surgery?

Simply put: no. Many do. But not all. Some only want some of the surgeries but not others. Some are happy with just hormones. Some actually don’t want any hormones or surgery. Some cannot have surgery or take HRT because of medical conditions but of course they’re still trans. Some cannot afford it. Some would get it if they could press a magic button but don’t want to go through the ordeal of major, risky surgery.

What is the difference between “transgender” and “intersex?”

This is a complicated question. Typically intersex refers to a condition where one has sexual characteristics that don’t fit typical definitions of male and female. For example, an otherwise female-appearing person who has a vagina but also male gonad inside of her.

It’s complicated because some trans people have argued that being trans is a kind of neurological intersex condition where there is a mismatch between the sex of their brain and their body. But other theorists argue that the concept of brain sex is sketchy.

Traditionally, intersex was distinguished from being trans in terms of it being a condition of the soma (body) whereas being trans was a psychiatric (mental) condition. But this assumes a mind/body dualism that is problematic.

Drag queen

How is being gender non-conforming different from being transgender?

Gender non-conforming (GNC) means that you have a gender expression that differs from the norms of society e.g. a man who wears makeup, or a woman who shaves her head. Drag queens are good examples of GNC men (although some drag queens do identify as trans or nonbinary).

Arguably, there must be a distinction between being trans and being GNC because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make sense of a GNC cis woman. So therefore, GNC people cannot be part of the trans umbrella otherwise we wouldn’t be able to have a category of a butch cis woman.

What does medical transition involve?

Medical transition can involve a lot of things.

For trans-masculine folks medical transition can involve:

  • Testosterone therapy
  • Top surgery to remove breasts
  • Bottom surgery can often be broken into two broad categories:
    • Metoidioplasty: creates a penis from the enlarged clitoral growth of T-therapy
    • Phalloplasty: creates a penis from skin tissue.

For trans-feminine folks medical transition can involve:

  • Blocking testosterone
  • Estrogen therapy
  • Bottom surgery can involve:
    • Orchiectomy: removal of testes
    • Vaginoplasty: inverting the penis to create a vagina
  • Facial feminization surgery
  • Vocal feminization surgery
  • Vocal therapy
  • Breast augmentation

What are the causes of being trans?

This is still a fairly new field of empirical research. Being trans cannot as of yet be diagnosed like some medical pathologies such as cancer or the flu using empirical tools of measurements. There is some preliminary evidence of correlating biological factors but causation is incredibly hard to conclusively establish in humans for complex traits like being trans. So, in a nutshell, no one really knows the true cause(s) of being trans. Furthermore, trans people are a highly varied population and there might be multiple, overlapping, causes that interact strongly with the environmental context making the extrapolation of causality to single biological factors very complicated.

For a summary of some of the research on the biology of trans identities, see:

Harvard team summarizes evidence on biological foundations of gender

For a literature review of the biological foundations of trans identity, see:

Saraswat, A., Weinand, J., & Safer, J. (2015). Evidence supporting the biologic nature of gender identity. Endocrine Practice21(2), 199-204.

Is being transgender a modern fad?

No. Trans people have always been a part of human history.

Sex/gender expression was much more varied in some ancient cultures and traditions.

Arguably the notion of a gender binary where there are only two genders/sexes and two corresponding gender roles  is a historical construct. Other societies have historically recognized a polymorphous number of gender/gender roles not limited to two dimorphic biological categories (male vs. female).

A white man, describing the Crow Nation of North America, observed:

“Strange country this, where males assume the dress and perform the duties of females, while women turn men and mate with their own sex!” (quoted in Trans Warriors, Leslie Feinberg, p. 22)

Writing in 1724, French missionary Joseph Francois Lafitau observed of Two-Spirit people that they were revered:

“They believe they are honored…they participate in all religious ceremonies, and this profession of an extraordinary life causes them to be regarded as people of a higher order” (Trans Warrior, p. 23)

Hijra in India are India’s social category for trans feminine individuals who have long played an important social function in their society, presiding over many different important social events and making their living this way. Young hijra are brought into the fold by elders in the community and taught how to perform the social rituals.

American journalists reported on “sex changes” as early as the 1930s.

In the 1800s the concept of “inversion” was used to lump together all kinds of gender and sex variance.  If you were male but “inverted” to show the traits of a female then you were considered mentally deviant. The problem with “inversion” theories from a modern perspective is they conflated sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

In summary, it’s clear that gender diverse people have always existed.

Do transgender people face discrimination?

Yes. Trans people face discrimination in many areas of life including:

  • bullying at schools
  • discrimination at work (not being hired, being fired after transition, harassment)
  • housing discrimination, denied access to shelter, resources
  • discrimination stemming from not having proper governmental ID matching sex & gender
  • discrimination in healthcare getting access to medical care, both for transition purposes and just general healthcare
  • targeted by law enforcement (especially for being black and trans and femme)
  • harassment on the street, from strangers, friends, or family
  • stares, laughter, ridicule, hatred and trolling on the internet, death threats
  • violence
  • murder

For more information, see:

Wikipedia page on Transgender Equality

LGBT girl

As an ally, how can I be supportive of transgender people?

Work on your own transphobia. Do you have a hard time seeing non-passing trans women as women? Ask yourself why. Critically interrogate your own assumptions about gender inherited from a cis-sexist society.

Respect pronouns. Always.

Call out transphobia. Raises trans voices. Support us. Invite us into spaces.

Listen to us e.g. if the community is telling you Ru Paul is transphobic, then please believe Ru Paul is transphobic.

Be affirming. But treat us like normal people. You don’t have to be excessively effusive in your allyship to be a good ally – often we don’t want the pity and fanfare – we don’t think of ourselves as inspiring, brave people. We are human like everyone else, with the same basic needs just trying to find meaning in an absurd world.

More tips for being a good ally to trans people.

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Butterfly or Acorn? Becoming the Woman I Never Was

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When a caterpillar wraps itself in its cocoon it completely dissolves into a goo. The butterfly emerges out of the goo. Is the butterfly the same entity as the caterpillar that existed pre-goo? Or is the butterfly a whole new entity? It’s easy to think of the butterfly as a new creation that sprung forth from the goo. In other words, the caterpillar didn’t turn into a butterfly, the caterpillar died and the butterfly was born anew.

In contrast, when an acorn turns into a tree it does not die. It merely grows from the inherent potential within itself. We say the acorn developed into the tree just like a child develops into an adult.

As a trans woman, I relate much more to the butterfly than I do the acorn.

Before I go on, I must insist that I am only speaking for myself. The experiences of trans people are incredibly diverse and many trans people might relate more to the acorn. The question isn’t about who’s more valid: acorns or butterflies. I believe both are valid. The right question is rather: what is your story?

The acorns of the trans world are the people who were sure of their identity from a very young age. Many of these same trans people ascribe to the “born this way” narrative where they focus strongly on genetic and biological explanations of their trans identity that places the emphasis on it being innate, a fundamental part of who they are since birth.

In contrast, I am much more of a butterfly. The way I view my journey is that I was for all intents and purposes a man prior to transition. I performed the social role well and this performance did not conflict with my identity. I was, however, a gender nonconforming male who had a feminine side I had been exploring from a young age. I played with this juxtaposition for many years until my marriage ended in my late twenties and an opportunity for further gender exploration opened up.

The more I explored my femininity the more I realized desires were emerging that told me I could no longer live a dual life. I needed to make a binary transition into womanhood. This was largely the result of living in a society that makes it very difficult for a male-identified person to make a complete social/physical/presentational transition while still holding onto their male identity.

Like it or not we live in a binarist culture where manhood and womanhood are associated with certain stereotypes. I began to realize that I wanted nothing to do with manhood and the toxic masculinity endemic to our patriarchal culture.

Hormone therapy activated emotional circuits that allowed me to feel empathy in a way that I previously was unable to.

Social transition provided an opportunity to learn about systemic oppression and taught me solidarity with folks of all stripes. My eyes were opened up to how fucked up this world is and how oppression really functions in this society.

My loss of male privilege gave me new a new epistemic and moral perspective from which to analyze the world. Direct exposure to rampant transphobia gave me insight into the power structures that are actively working to maintain white supremacy, cissexism, ableism, patriarchy, etc.

Transition made me aware of what it’s like to fear walking down the street by yourself. It taught me to fear men. In so many ways transition has changed my entire political/social worldview. I went from being one of the most privileged people on this planet to someone who can now understand what solidarity really means.

But transition also was the catalyst for my metaphormophis. Transition turned my male identity into a goo out of which emerged a woman exploring her identity.

I relate to the butterfly instead of the acorn because I don’t like to focus on the innate factors that predisposed me to explore femininity in the first place. I prefer instead to focus on the interpersonal-social-environmental-learning-cultural-reflective-introspective factors that led to the breakdown of my male identity and provided the matrix through which my trans identity developed.

I worry that the “born this way” narrative is dangerous fodder for conservatives and TERFs hellbent on trans genocide. If we find a biological cause of trans identity, would some parents screen and terminate their babies if they thought they’d turn out trans? After all, many people see it as a medical condition or disorder of some kind. Whether its a psychiatric disorder or endocrinological disorder doesn’t matter – if it’s a disorder why wouldn’t people try to eradicate it from our species?

This is one of the reasons why I prefer to focused on the non-biological factors at play in the formation of my trans identity. Obviously there was some biological factors at play because it’s always a mixture both nature and nurture. But in so many trans narratives we see a reluctance to talk about the non-biological factors. There is a fear that if we admit such factors people will either think we’re phonies or that we can just go to therapy to cure ourselves of the desire to transition.

I reject both claims. Just because there are non-biological factors at play does not entail that conversion therapy will work. The presence of non-biological factors does not mean that we can just consciously choose to be trans. The question of “is it a choice” is over simplified because we have to distinguish between unconscious and conscious cognitive processes. The unconscious feeds off many non-biological factors same as the conscious system. The existence of choice does not mean that it’s willy-nilly and can just be consciously overridden.

Furthermore, nobody is born with a “doctor gene”. But obviously if you choose to be a doctor that doesn’t make you a phony doctor. Similarly, there is probably not a single “trans gene”. But choosing to become a woman doesn’t make you a phony woman. It’s the performance of doctorhood that makes you a doctor and for me it’s the performance of womanhood that counts. Moreover, “performing womanhood” is not the same as performining femininity. You can violate every stereotype known and still perform womanhood authentically.

And once you perform a role long enough it becomes automatized, habitualized, unconscious, and thus “natural”. It becomes part of the unconscious schemas that structure your total personality.

While in many ways I am still quite similar to the man I once was, in many more ways I am a new person. Going on the classic Lockean model of personal identity, there are enough significant psychological discontinuities with who I once was to warrant thinking I am a whole new person.

I have become the woman I never was.

I was decidedly not a woman born into the body of a man but rather a man who turned into a woman. I was not a woman peering out from behind the eyes of a male. I was a gender nonconforming male who had a complex set of new desires emerge from a period of gender exploration in my twenties. This desires included a desire for a feminine name, she/her pronouns, hormone therapy, laser treatment, and a complete change in appearance.

My sexual desires also changed. I went from being bi-curious to pansexual.

All my feelings about my body changed. I did not have significant body dysphoria before transition. Transition precipitated most of my gender dysphoria. It was not gender dysphoria that caused transition but transition that caused the dysphoria.

Again, I want to emphasize this might not be true of all trans people. We all have our own stories, our own life history, and what’s true for me is might not be true for anyone else. The “born this way” narrative absolutely resonates with some people and it’s not my place to take that away from people’s stories. But for me, the “born this way” narrative is stifling and ignores how my journey actually unfolded.

But I think we do a disservice to ourselves by focusing too many on acorns while ignoring butterflies. Both are beautiful. Both are valid.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, My life, Trans studies

Trans Without Transition? A Critique of Gender Identity

life-transitions-therapists

I think many people fail to realize that the very idea of “gender” and “gender identity” as opposed to physiological sex is a modern concept, invented by mid-20th century psychiatrists working with gender dysphoric trans patients. Robert Stoller famously defined gender identity as “one’s sense of being a member of a particular sex”. The concept is best illustrated by trans people, where a person assigned male at birth could have the “opposite” gender identity of being a woman which stands in contrast to her male birth assignment and the gendered expectations associated with that assignment. For cis people, they fail to be amazed about their comfort in their assigned sex. Like the old joke about fish not knowing what water is, cis people often fail to realize that their own felt sense of gender is actively at work behind the scenes, filtering their desires and perceptions. In contrast, trans people, especially pre-transition trans people, feel the mismatch between their gender and birth assignment so acutely it can lead to constant negative rumination, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. 

But what does it mean exactly to “sense” one’s membership in a particular sex? What kind of sense is this? Is it like proprioception? Or like the visual sense? Can we just “see” our gender clearly or does it require an act of hermeneutics?   Are we constantly sensing our sex? Or is it only evident in gender dysphoric people where there is a mismatch? This is like the old philosophical problem called the “refrigerator light problem” whereby we use introspection to ask ourselves if we are conscious, but are we conscious when we are not thinking about being conscious? If we were not conscious we would not know it either way, just like we cannot know if the refrigerator light goes off after shutting the door – the act of investigating corrupts the process of inquiry. Same with gender identity. Is it a construction made each time anew when we reflect on our gender or is it a stable psychological foundation that exists when we aren’t reflecting?

What is the nature of gender identity? Can it “stand alone” by itself or does it need to be connected to other psychological states such as desires? Presumably gender identity is a type of belief – we have a belief we either belong or don’t belong to the male-female gender binary as assigned to us at birth. With trans people, is it merely enough to have the belief that one is a different gender in order to be trans? Or must the belief be connected to a desire to transition?

A thought experiment: imagine an AMAB trans person who wakes up one day and has a startling realization: they are transgender! But they have zero desire to engage in any act of transition. They don’t want to change their name, their pronouns, their dress, their mannerisms, their voice, their body, etc. They are totally fine in the gender role assigned to them at birth. Yet they have an internal sense of belonging to the class of females. Is this situation even conceptually possible? Remember: the idea is not that one has a desire to change but is pragmatically frustrated but that there is no desire in the first place. All that exists is a free-floating belief that one is a different gender from the gender one was assigned at birth. Presumably if gender identity is a coherent concept then this situation is possible (ignoring for now the problem in assuming that metaphysical possibility can be read off conceptual possibility).

Some trans theorists implicitly assume that to be trans is to transition in some way. Paul Preciado writes:

In the middle of the Cold War, a new ontological-political distinction between “cis-“(a body that keeps the gender it was assigned at birth) and “trans” (a body availing itself of hormonal, surgical, prosthetic, or legal technologies to change that assignment) made its appearance. Testo Junkie, p. 127

Preciado just flat out assumes that if you are trans than you are “availing” yourself of some kind of transitional technology to change or move away from one’s birth assignment. If you’re a trans man, that might mean wearing a binder, or a packer, or STP, starting testosterone, etc. If you’re a trans woman, that might mean shaving your body or starting HRT, buying clothes traditionally found in the woman’s section, etc. For a non-binary person it might involve changing your name and pronouns, binding one’s chest, or wearing different styles of clothing.

But is my thought experiment actually conceptually incoherent? If the idea of “gender identity” is to make sense in its own right then it should be possible for there to be a trans person with a mismatched gender identity but with no desire to transition in anyway. Or perhaps it is impossible – if it is – then it shows there is something wrong with the idea of gender identity as distinct from physiological sex. It is not enough to simply have an identity that is different from one’s assigned identity – one must also have accompanying psychological states such as desires, desires for change, for transition through presentational, hormonal, surgical means, etc. I believe it is true that to be trans means more than just have a different identity. It means, as Preciado assumes but never argues for, that to be trans means to transition. There is no trans-gender without transition. One “transes” one’s own gender when one decides to self-consciously move away from one’s birth assignment. In a sense, the accompaniment of desires is a confirmation that the identity is not a fleeting whim or a random thought produced by the unconscious. The persistence of desire is in fact one of the defining diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria.

Notice however that transition does not necessarily entail transition to medically relieve bodily dysphoria. The transitional elements could be done for some people without the assistance of medical technology. But availing oneself of legal technologies is certainly a valid and “complete” transition tool. Just to simply have one’s governmental ID match your felt sense of identity is a powerful feeling of validation. Furthermore, the position I’m putting forward is ecumenical between the “trans-medicalists”, who argue being trans is a medical condition defined by bodily dysphoria, and “maximals”, who want to expand the trans umbrella to be as inclusive as possible even for those trans people who don’t identity as gender dysphorics. For Preciado’s definition, bodily dysphoria is not the defining feature of trans identities. Rather, it is the desire to use multiple forms of transitional technology to reject one’s birth assignment. If a non-binary person is happy enough to bind and legally change their name, then that’s a form of transition. But where my position draws the line is with self-identified trans people have no desires to move away from their birth assignment.

But what’s the limit? If a trans person merely “transitions” through changing their gendered expression, is that enough to count as trans? I think the problem with trying to police gendered identities in this way is we cannot from the third-person realize the full psychological significance that expression has for different people. For some butch women getting a short hair-cut might be no big deal but from a trans boy it might mean the world. The same expressions can mean vastly different things to different people. For some people, the significance invested in how clothing is coded might be enough to satisfy latent dysphoria such that other transitional technologies are unnecessary. The point is that any kind of gatekeeping that tries to definitely say where “true trans” ends and begins will come up with the problem of trying to legislate from the outside what the internal felt sense of significance certain gendered activities have for some people. We will never be able to definitely build a singular set of criteria and apply them to all trans people picking out a unique shared characteristic. Trans people are perhaps one of the most diverse populations of people on the planet. I propose there is no “essence” to being trans, no necessary and sufficient conditions for being trans that are universal across all trans people. Instead, being trans is a family resemblance concept, a cluster concept that works in terms of paradigms, not necessary and sufficient conditions.

In conclusion, being trans is not just about identity. It’s about identity and desire. If there is identity without desire, it is passive, but desire without identity is blind.

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Filed under Gender studies, Trans studies

Is Dysphoria Necessary for Being Trans? The “Truscum” Debate

gender-dysphoria

There’s a debate raging in the trans world that has been on going for awhile. The debate is between self-described “truscum” (also called trans medicalists) vs what I will call “maximals”. Truscum believe that gender dysphoria is necessary for being trans and that being trans is essentially a medical condition defined by dysphoria and the desire for “opposite” sexed bodily characteristics. The name comes from the idea of “true trans” – the idea that we can develop a way of determining who is “truly trans” vs those who are merely “trans trenders” i.e. cis people confused into thinking they are trans for whatever sociological/personal reason, perhaps because they want to fit into niche internet communities or what truscum would call the “special snowflake” phenomenon.

Before I go on further, I need to point out that trans medicalists have self-consciously reappropriated the term “truscum” to describe their position. A more traditional way of talking about this debate is in terms of separating “true transsexuals” from “transgender” people where “transgender” means those trans people who don’t want to medically transition and “transsexual” means those that have dysphoria and want to medically transition. But “transsexual” is a very outdated term that comes from the old-school psychiatric community. Try to read this post without thinking the term “truscum” is pejorative. As you will see, I believe there is a huge amount of truth in the truscum concept so I’m not bashing the belief system, merely using the term I see most often used by self-described trans medicalists.

In contrast, “maximals” believe that dysphoria is not necessary for being trans and generally want to expand the trans umbrella to be maximally inclusive. Maximals often lump crossdressers and gender nonconforming people into the “trans” category (though this is an oversimplication I will discuss below). Maximals don’t believe being trans is necessarily a medical condition or believe that if you’re trans there’s something necessarily “wrong” with you. Instead of defining trans people as those people with gender dysphoria, maximals often define being trans as the state of having a gender that is different from the gender/sex you were assigned at birth. This definition is maximally inclusive because it doesn’t require dysphoria in the definition. For example, if you are non-binary, perhaps agender, you might not have dysphoria about your body but your gender is different from the gender you were assigned at birth.

Let’s get some other definitions out of the way. “Gender dysphoria” is generally defined as a disconnect between the sexed body and your self-model of how you want your body to be. If you were assigned male at birth but feel your body should be female instead then you have gender dysphoria and vice versa for trans males.

So what’s the beef between these two viewpoints? Truscum often argue they are trying to help “real” trans people get better access to medical care for transition. They also argue they are trying to break down gender stereotypes insofar as they argue that if you’re a guy who enjoys femme clothing and makeup that doesn’t necessarily make you trans and vice versa for butch women. The idea is that crossdressing and gender nonconformity is not enough to be trans – one must be deeply dissatisfied with your sexed body and desire the “opposite” sexed body, otherwise we lose the very distinction between gender nonconforming cis people and trans people.

In contrast, maximals generally argue that the line between gender nonconformity and being trans is fuzzy and hard to pin down precisely. They deny that dysphoria is necessary because they want to deny that gender can be reduced to any physical characteristics such that if you have an assigned-male body you don’t necessarily need to medically transition in order to feel comfortable in a female gender identity or live your life socially as a female – and they would go further and argue society should accept these people as “real” women just as real as any other woman, cis or trans. Furthermore, maximals often emphasize that sometimes trans people transition not because they experience gender dysphoria but rather they experience gender euphoria. Gender euphoria is the joy one experiences in taking on a new gender identity, expression, pronouns, social existence, etc. Euphoria can also be achieved through medical transition. One might not necessarily hate one’s body but nevertheless desire to medically transition because one believes that would bring greater satisfaction into one’s life.

Another argument available to maximals depends on transgenderism in non-Western societies. Take native “Two Spirit” people, which is generally the term for trans/gender expansive people in Native American society. The argument goes that being Two Spirit cannot be so easily mapped onto Western ideas of transgenderism which typically revolve around gender dysphoria and medical transition. Instead, transgenderism in non-Western societies or historical contexts generally depends on a more complicated gender role system that is outside the Western male-female binary. But we must be careful because historical trans people sometimes did take steps to alter their bodies e.g. eunuchs in the Bible would sometimes self-castrate. So we can’t necessarily say that non-Western transgenderism is entirely divorced from gender dysphoria. And I will admit frankly I don’t know enough about these other cultures to definitely state anything about whether trans people in these societies felt what is now called gender dysphoria. But the general point maximals make is that transgenderism has been around a long time before it was “medicalized” by the West into a pathological condition that needs to be corrected with HRT and surgery. For example, Two Spirit people would not necessarily believe there is anything wrong with being Two Spirit in the sense of it being a medical pathology.

But we need to be careful – I know a Two Spirit trans woman who does have dysphoria and has been on HRT to correct it – so Two Spiritism and modern medical transition are not at odds necessarily. But the general point maximals make is that transgenderism in non-Western societies cannot just be reduced to Western conceptions of what it means to be trans because that would be trying to force a complex system of beliefs and social roles into something they’re not.

Another argument the maximals can make is refer to the complexities of how the drag world relates to the world of trans people. Most drag queens are just cis males who enjoy expressing a feminine self from time to time but ultimately don’t desire female bodily characteristics and like being able to come home and take off the drag and get back into guy mode. But if you know anything about drag you know that some drag queens eventually do go on to identify as trans and medically transition. But these drag queens often continue to perform as drag queens during their transition. Is that fair? Allowing trans women to compete in what is traditionally a male activity? The issue is complicated because gender is complicated and messy, with boundaries between different identities being fuzzy. This is what fuels maximalist arguments: gender noncomformity is an expansive phenomenon that reflects many complex facets of identity and social roles.

But clearly truscum are right that gender noncomformity in and of itself is not sufficient for being trans. A man who wears makeup is not necessarily trans just because it’s noncomformist for men/boys to wear makeup. Similarly, a woman with short hair who shops in the men’s section is not automatically trans otherwise we wouldn’t have a distinction between butch women and real trans guys. To think otherwise is to buy into sexist stereotypes that men must act/behave in a certain way in order to be “real men” and vice versa for women. Interests in cars or barbies does not define gender. Whether you are assigned male or female at birth cannot predict the range of interests and activities that someone is going to take up in their lifetime. Some men are femme and some women are masc and some people are very fluid in their gender expression.

So who’s “right”? Truscum or maximals? In my view that debate boils down to a false dichotomy and over simplification. I take a non-reductionist view of transgenderism. It cannot be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions universal to all trans people nor can it be reduced to any one physical condition or medical pathology. Where maximals go wrong is in saying that gender dysphoria has nothing to do with being trans. Gender dysphoria is experienced by almost all trans people in some fashion or another, but truscum go wrong in assuming this dysphoria can be defined neatly in terms of desires for the “opposite” sexed body. First of all, this relies on what Julia Serano calls “oppositional sexism” – the idea that men and women are total “opposites”. Instead, Serano argues that people overlook the massive similarity and overlap between the two sexes and further argues that the very idea there are only two sexes/genders is overly simplistic when we consider intersex phenomena and complex multi-gender systems in non-Western cultures where there are sometimes upwards of 5 different genders.

One thing philosophers learn is that there is often a grain of truth to all theories that have been developed by smart people. There are smart, informed people on both sides of the truscum debate. Both sides think they are doing something to help trans people achieve greater acceptance in society. But the problem with the “debate” is that it tries to reduce the phenomena of transgenderism into a narrow box. Both truscum and maximality are narrow-minded insofar as they try to reduce the complexity of gender and sex to a single ideological system.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

Introspective Non-binary Identity vs Political-pragmatic Binary Identity

There are two broad types of trans people: binary and non-binary. Binary trans folks identify as either 100% women or men whereas non-binary folks identify as neither 100% men or women, both, or identify as agender, lacking any association with gender altogether (this is my best definition of non-binary off the top of my head though I’m sure someone could nitpick on whether it’s the best definition). But in a nutshell non-binary folks identify as outside of the traditional male-female gender binary whereas binary folks identify within the traditional male-female binary.

Most people would probably think I am a binary trans woman. I often refer to myself as a trans woman in casual discourse. I present in a fairly traditional femme way. I love makeup, etc. But I want to make a distinction between introspective identity vs political-pragmatic identity. Introspective identity is the identify revealed to you through careful and deep introspection on your gendered feelings i.e. what is the gender you feel yourself to be upon reflecting deeply on your gender? In contrast, political-pragmatic identidy is the gender identity you adopt in order to face the world at large, either politically or pragmatically.

My introspective identity is non-binary. I identity technically as non-binary femme. What I really am is just a femme person. When I really reflect deeply on my gender I don’t think I’m a man or a woman: I am a third option: a trans femme person. I’m trans insofar as my gender is different from what I was assigned at birth and I’m femme insofar as that is my gender expression. But politically I identify as a trans woman in order to join in solidarity with all women-identified people who are fighting patriarchical oppression. Pragmatically, it’s just easier to identity as a binary trans woman. Non-binary identities are harder to understand for the average cis person and I don’t always want to get into a complicated discussion about gender and identity.

Some trans people might think I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too. Or that I am somehow being a bad representative of the trans community. Binary trans women might think I’m not “trans enough”. Non-binary people might think I’m appropriating their identity. But I really don’t think it’s that complicated. We all have a front we put on for others. We have fractured identities – presenting one way in front of family and another in front of friends and another in front of our romantic partners. My trans identity is similarly fractured. There is the “technical” definition of my gender and the “loose” definition of my gender. I don’t see why I need to present the technical definition in ALL situations. Sometimes it’s just easier to say “Yeah I identify as a woman”. I don’t feel conflicted when I use the woman’s restroom. And politically I don’t feel conflicted feeling myself included in the category of woman especially since this identification will help normalize the inclusion of trans women into the category of woman.

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Filed under Gender studies, My life, Trans studies