Tag Archives: trans*
I really enjoyed our discussion! We talk about why I left academic philosophy and a bunch of trans stuff. Be sure to subscribe to her podcast, Always Another Way, on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And leave a review for her podcast if you enjoyed our discussion.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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 Practice, 21(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
For more information, see:
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.
My gf Jacqueline and I share our feelings about the recent Ru Paul controversy and how it relates to the broader phenomenon of trans people, drag, and LGBTQ+ history.
April 24 – 2015
This is the last known picture of me with a beard.
The gender dysphoria was getting to be so strong that I could no longer live a dual life. My inner feminine self needed to breath and I’ve never looked back.
In May of 2015 I started my social transition. I’ve written about my early days of transition here.
May 27 – 2015
Quite frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. Everything was scary and I had to quickly figure out clothes, makeup, hiding beard shadow, my voice, mannerisms, unlearning socialization, passing, dealing with social anxiety, getting clocked, dealing with legal ID issues, being part-time, coping with dysphoria, not to mention my studies and teaching. How would I present to my students? How would I tell my department? How fast would I make a transformation in presentation?
One of the very first things I would do after starting transition was get laser hair removal on my beard. I eventually got 8 sessions altogether. I still plan on getting more when I can afford it. At the time I just put it all on my credit card because it was so urgent in terms of letting me live my life without dsyphoria and anxiety about passing.
June 5 – 2015
This was still pre-HRT and representative of the androgyny that became my safe-haven before I could live authentically 24/7. I skirted the boundary between both genders. I figured it would be more safer to present as a feminine/andro man than a totally non-passable woman. This strategy would serve me well for a long time.
August 10 – 2015
I think all trans girls get bangs at one point in their transition. I ended up hating them and regretted them almost immediately. My hair has a natural curl and they were SUCH a pain to style. Never again.
September 1 – 2015
This is me at the doctor’s office getting my first script for HRT. I started on estradiol oral pills, spironolactone, and finasteride. I would eventually drop the finasteride and switch to injectable estrogen. I also recently added progesterone into my regime. I also switched doctors because my first doctor ended up being a conservative old fogey who is stuck in the past and refuses to give the best care for his trans patients.
I met AJ and started my first relationship since transition. They were terrific and it was a beautiful time we spent together. We eventually parted ways amicably.
In the middle of December, right before I went home to Florida for Christmas, I met Ashley who was one of the great loves of my life. She was my first real lesbian relationship and it was a major period of personal growth and development in my transition. We were madly in love and u-Hauled it in classic lesbian fashion. We soon got engaged and lived in a beautiful little bubble in her downtown loft.
April – 2016
I get my legal name change. Turns out legal dysphoria is a thing and it absolutely sucked to have to use my deadname to get into bars, do my banking, or any other adult activity. Getting legally recognized as Rachel changed my life in so many countless ways. It was definitely a significant milestone in my transition.
October – 2016
A little over 1 year on HRT.
Ashley and I split up. It was for the best.
December – 2016
I had been dating this trans girl I met, McKenzie. We met in October. It was great. We fell in love. She moved in right away. Things got serious. We even got matching tats:
April 7 – 2017
I dyed my hair purple!
Still with McKenzie at this point.
In my personal life things had changed quite a bit. I had decided to drop out of my PhD program and leave the pursuit of academia. I started working at Starbucks in February. Around this time, I also renewed my interest in fitness and got my certification to be a personal trainer. I underwent my own fitness transformation as well:
In October of 2017 I also ended things with McKenzie. It just wasn’t working out.
Shortly after, I met this cool lesbian poly couple and I’ve been dating them ever since. Things are good. I’m not involved in a serious primary partnership at the moment and that’s OK with me.
I recently gave up on the personal training business. Just wasn’t making enough money and wasn’t finding the work rewarding. Still working at Starbucks. I recently picked up a second job delivering pizza. With the second job, things have been looking up financially.
October 7 – 2017
Nov 4 – 2017
(These are my girlfriend’s dogs btw)
Things are good. I’m happy with my transition. I still have some more medical things I’d like done eventually but I’m not in a rush. I don’t pass 100% but my dysphoria is pretty minimal. I still get misgendered and clocked sometimes but I’ve come to peace with it. I can now sometimes pass as female over the phone if I’m using my customer service voice.
Emotionally, I am really at peace with myself right now. I’m living on my own, paying my bills, feeling more autonomous than I have in a long time, and feel like I’m in charge of my destiny.
Even though I am no longer pursuing academia and I am “merely” working at Starbucks/Domino’s, I still have big intellectual goals. I want to keep blogging, maybe start working on a book. My eventual goal is to make a living from my writing. In the meantime I am content with working in the wage economy while having the freedom to follow my interests in my free time. I’m only 30 years old. My dating life is good. I have a nice apartment and good pets. My stress levels are low. I’m in a good place mentally and physically.
Here’s to hoping that my 30s will be my best decade ever.
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.
Trans feminism sometimes gets mistaken as feminism’s little cousin, a mere side show to the Main Event: Cis Feminism i.e. feminism written by and for other cis women.
On a superficial level, this seems fitting. After all 99% of women on this planet are cis so it makes sense that “feminism” is largely concerned with the perspective of cis women. According to this logic, “trans feminism” is merely “feminism light”, a pale shadow of the real thing.
But I want to argue that not only is trans feminism real feminism, real feminism *must* incorporate the insights of trans feminism if it is to be complete, to the extent any feminism can ever be complete.
Intersectional feminism is basically the idea that if you are a black woman the oppression you face as a black woman intersects with the oppression you face as a black woman. Gender and race also intersect with socio-economic status, disability, orientation, etc.
Being trans is just another axis along which intersectionality functions. Any feminism worth its weight recognizes this. Trans women have experiences that overlap with cis women as well as experiences that don’t. But that’s not inherently different than black women having experiences that overlap/don’t overlap with white women.
In my opinion it’s a fool game to try and find the experience or set of experiences that is universal among all women. But that doesn’t entail the concept “woman” is without meaning. Philosophers have noted it’s surprisingly difficult to give necessary and sufficient conditions for simple concepts like “chair” – yet I know a chair when I see one.
Why should we expect complex concepts like “woman” are any different? I might not be able to define womanhood precisely in such a way that will correctly sort billions of unique individuals into two mutually exclusive classes: women and not-women. It’s not so easy! Yet I know a woman when I see one. And “seeing” here is of course a metaphor for understanding. A pre-transition trans woman can radiate her womanhood without necessarily “passing” as a woman. “Passing” as a cis woman is such an arbitrary standard anyway because there are cis women who get misgendered on a regular basis.
Why will feminism never be complete without the inclusion of trans people? Because feminism has inputs. It’s not just done completely a priori. It operates with experiences and narratives as data to be explained. Traditional feminism started with only the experiences of white middle-class women as the inputs and got quite a bit done. But it was far from complete. Then black feminists started feeding in their inputs. And through similar processes the voices of people from diverse backgrounds have given their inputs.
Trans people represent 1% of the population. That might not sounds like a lot but that’s millions and millions of data points. And furthermore, they are data points that are highly relevant to feminism insofar as trans people have unique insights into the dynamics of gender, which should be of special interest to feminist theory. So not only does trans feminism bring the experience of millions of trans women, trans men, and non-binary folks, it brings it in such a way that has the potential to reshape the very concepts central to feminism.
Some prominent feminist theorists such as Judith Butler have recognized this conceptual potential and have started to work through those insights. And of course trans feminists themselves have been dissecting this stuff for decades.
But feminism has yet to fully digest the trans experience. Though a mere “1%” trans folks have so much to bring to feminism, with spectacular proclivity to keep pressuring feminism to remain intersectional.
A common phenomenon in intersectional feminism is a feminism that believes itself to be fully intersectional yet is missing the perspective of important class(es) of people. To me it seems the best tactic is to remain humble about the intersectional reach of our feminism. There are probably voices feminism has yet to hear, stories that are important for understanding the full operation of intersectional semiotics.
Any feminism without trans experience is partially blind. This is why trans feminism is real feminism. Real feminism is spongelike in its absorption of different perspectives. Any feminism that fails to uptake the experience of trans people is incomplete at best and actively harmful at worst.
There has been a lot of ink spilled lately about trans women and male privilege. I have seen so many discussions recently where people ask the question “Do trans women as a whole have male privilege and if so what kind and how much?” And then you see some trans women writing articles responding to this drivel by arguing “That doesn’t match my experience” and then go on to detail how their lives were not filled with privilege and how in fact they were brutalized for being feminine as children and did not internalize society’s messages about male socialization the same way cis boys did.
And on the other hand, some trans women are writing articles saying “I did have male privilege but I gave it up or am in the process of giving it up oh and btw I’m still a woman” or something along those lines. I’ve seen some of these articles also make the general claim that some types of male privilege were afforded to ALL trans women in virtue of living a life pre-transition as someone who was coded as male. But then other trans women deny this reflects their own experience growing up and we are going in a circle, with universal claims being negated by individuals claims and individual claims being taken as proof of some universal claim.
This is tiresome.
We have a general claim about ALL trans women being refuted by individual claims about SOME trans women. But the trans women who did not experiences themselves as having male privilege often make the same mistake of thinking their experience is universal. That’s what so wrong with this whole discussion. There are no universals. There are no generalizations to be made in terms of ALL trans women – every trans woman has a difference experience of living pre-transition as well as experiences their loss of privilege via transition differently.
And furthermore, people like to frame the discussion in terms of the pointless question of whether trans women’s experiences are identical to cis women’s experiences. But who cares? It doesn’t matter. Our experiences don’t need to perfectly match the cis experience to be representative of womanhood because to think otherwise is to buy into the cis-sexist belief that the cis experience is the “default” and the trans experience is a pale imitation. But in reality the trans experience is equally valid, it’s just more rare.
Personally, my own experience pre-transition featured a good deal of male privilege which I’ve wrote about elsewhere . I’ve retained some vestiges of that male privilege such as the privilege having grown up not thinking of myself as an emotional creature but rather a rational creature. I still have the privilege of not worrying about getting pregnant. But much of the other privileges I gave up during transition or am in the process of giving up. I now fear walking down the street at night whereas before I never did. I now fear cat-calling – before it was not even on my mind. I’ve lost the privilege of not worrying about my drink being drugged at a bar. I’ve lost the privilege of not fearing men. The list goes on.
The point is that privilege is rarely so monolithic or one-dimensional. My privilege as a white person and the vestigial remains of my male privilege is balanced against my loss of privilege as a woman and especially as a trans woman.
But my experience says nothing about the experiences of other trans women, who experienced their gender much differently than I did as a child and as I do now. I was never really made fun of for being feminine – my feminine behaviors were done in secret behind closed doors and so they weren’t a target for harassment. I was able to regiment my personality into a public boyish self and a private feminine self. It’s a myth that gender identity is formed for life within the first 5 years of life. While that might be true for many people it is not a universal truth. My gender identity has evolved significantly since I was 5 years old and I know I am not alone though I have the feeling that many trans people have a bias towards interpreting their memories as having an earlier identity because that narrative is seen as “more valid” than the ones where gender identity evolution occurs later in life.
Not all young trans girls are able to hide their natural femininity and they are brutalized for it. If someone went through that experience and they are telling you they did not have male privilege then I believe it’s epistemically best practice to head what they are saying and take their narrative seriously. Likewise if a trans woman says she used to have male privilege but has since given most of it up, we need to listen to that narrative as well.
Cishet people seem to be more convinced that if a trait is displayed earlier in life it is “more natural” and thus a product of someone’s core essence. But that’s the wrong question to be asking. Innate or not, natural or not, what we should care about is if a behavior, trait, or personality is authentic and representative of someone’s deepest vision for how they want their life to go, regardless of the “origins” of that vision. If someone’s trans identity originated in their 40’s that does not make their trans identity less authentic than someone who’s trans identity originated in childhood. If someone starts painting in their 40s does that make them “less” of a painter than someone who has been painting since infancy? A painter is someone who paints. A trans person is someone with a gender identity different from their assigned gender. It’s not “gender identity different from assigned gender but also having emerged by five years old”. It just has to be different. But the causal origins of the identity itself in terms of when it originated in the life-line are not relevant for determining the authenticity of of the identity.
My trans identity only surfaced in my late 20s. It would be SO easy and no one could prove me wrong if I began saying things like: “I felt off during puberty but I only learned the words to articulate my feelings years later”. In a sense that would be perfectly true. I did have gender issues at a young age. But I think I would be deluding myself if I claimed I had any awareness of ever wanting to transition at that age. Just like gender identity doesn’t have to be cemented in childhood, neither does dysphoria have to originate in childhood. Dysphoria can surface at any point in a trans person’s life. I didn’t start feeling real dysphoria until my late 20s. The longer we hold onto the traditional narrative that all trans people somehow “knew” then they were children, the longer we will be unable to see the true diversity of the trans community.
The problem comes when we try to generate a one-size-fits-all theoretical framework for thinking about ALL trans women as sharing some kind of universal essence. But that’s a pipedream. There is no universal narrative. The human mind strives to “connect the dots” and create some kind of overarching generalization that is true of all trans women. But we need to resist that and instead focus on studying individual differences.