Transgender Questions (1): terminology and basics
I’d like to preface this new series by acknowledging that it is intended for general, non-trans* readers (although I absolutely welcome readers who know more than I do on the topic, and hope that you will feel free to give me feedback, corrections and suggestions!) I am not trans*. My child is. One of the things that has become abundantly clear to me since Offspring began this journey is that while most people hold strong opinions (pro, con, or otherwise) about trans* topics, many of us don’t actually know all that much about what it means to be transgender. This isn’t surprising. Trans* people are one of, if not the, most vilified groups in the United States. Although change is happening, much of the common wisdom on transitioning is inaccurate, dated, or just plain hateful. Until quite recently, transitioning was pushed so far outside of what was “acceptable” that it was rarely discussed in popular culture, and when it was, it was treated as either electrifying or horrifying (or both). Questions that naturally occur to laypeople now about transitioning are often personal and awkward, so even if you are close to a trans* person, they are not the sort of thing that can be asked, much less answered, easily. Plus, it is certainly NOT the duty of trans* people to educate the wider populace. This leaves the door wide open for misunderstanding and misinformation (and there are plenty of people who are more than happy to supply the latter.)
In this space I’ll try to shape answers not only to the questions that I, as a parent, have had (often questions I didn’t even know that I would have) but also to the questions (most often well-intentioned, though sometimes not) that I have gotten. I’ll also include a mini-vocab section at the end of each post. It’s difficult to communicate about anything if we have different ideas about what words mean. This is especially tricky here, as language on sex and gender topics is evolving quickly, so please, feel free to weigh in if you think that I’ve missed the mark. I live in the US, and in a mainly liberal region, so while I am trying to educate myself more broadly, my information is going to, naturally, be bounded by my own experiences and limitations. Please don’t hesitate to add information and personal experience, or to ask questions, if you would like to. You can do this in the comments section, if you are comfortable with that, or use the contact feature. I’ll do my best to answer questions, although I don’t promise it will happen immediately! Finally, I’d like to recommend our sibling-site, Queereka. Whether you are a layperson, trans*, or trans*-questioning, it’s a great place to find thoughtful writing and discussion.
And now to the first set of questions. These are just a basic introduction, so most answers won’t be exhaustive. We’re just setting the stage. [CN: Some of the questions I have gotten are troubling, but I believe that they are honest questions, so I will answer them here. My goal is to clear up misconceptions rather than to leave them lingering in people’s minds by avoiding or critiquing problematic questions. This is a luxury that I have in this space. It is not something that should be expected of trans* people unless they are explicitly willing.]
What does “transgender” mean?
At the most basic and literal level, “trans” comes from Latin, and means “across”. To be transgender, then, is to exist somewhere along or across the spectrum of gender, but not at the endpoint to which one was assigned at birth.
Ok, so what exactly is gender, and what is this spectrum that you speak of? Aren’t there only two genders?
“Gender” describes the set of behaviors, preferences, and options assigned by a particular society, at a particular point in time to any sex. In most Western countries, including the US, there have only been two recognized sexes, male and female, and hence two genders, masculine and feminine. Cultures often split categories of labor, leisure pursuits, physical presentation, and social interactions by gender. This division may be both enforced and reinforced by any combination of formal law, customary practice, or social sanction. As a very simple example we could consider high heeled shoes. A Google search for high heels now will give you almost exclusively women’s shoes as top hits. In 21st century America, decorative high-heeled shoes are considered feminine, but this has not always been the case. In 17th to 18th century England and France manly men wore high heels (and silk hose.) Because the exact group of characteristics, objects, and activities assigned to any gender varies over time and space, gender is often described as a “social construction.”
Although it is socially constructed, gender is still extremely meaningful. We make hundreds of decisions and judgements every day that are, consciously or unconsciously, based on gender. Sometimes we don’t mind or even notice that our choices are circumscribed in this way, but periodically we do. For the most part we only notice aspects of gender packaging (and the valuation which almost inevitably comes with it) when they make our lives unpleasant. If there are only a few loci of unpleasantness for us, we tend to focus on realigning things within and between gendered categories, without ever wondering whether the categories, themselves, are problematic. As a woman I might protest against an expectation (sometimes even a requirement) which is not placed on my male colleagues that I will wear a particular type of uncomfortable shoe to work, while never noticing that a male coworker would be fired for wearing the same shoes that I am forced to wear. Likewise, being distressed by footwear rules won’t automatically cause me to remark that male and female employees use different restrooms, much less to question why there are only two restroom choices. For a trans* person, whose identity is at odds with the sex they were determined to be at birth, the entire gendered package becomes untenable.
Isn’t gender the same thing as sex? And isn’t sex a binary? I still don’t get the spectrum idea.
One way to understand and organize the world is to split everything into categories. Western culture is particularly devoted to dividing pretty much everything into sets of two, mutually exclusive categories. In other words, we create binary systems. So we end up with: animate / inanimate; day / night; child / adult; male / female; masculine / feminine; sex / gender. This sort of division can be useful, if we take it for what it is, a learning tool or heuristic device. So, as a starting place in the examination of human experience, it is common now to divide gender from sex. In this framework, “sex” represents the biological features which distinguish “male” and “female,” whereas “gender” encompasses the cultural components. This allows researchers to focus more closely on how aspects of sex and gender develop and relate to one another, and, ideally, clarifies communication for everyone.
This desire to describe and communicate about the world and ourselves is the same one that gave us the words “male” and “female.” The trouble begins when we start to take the artificial categories and divisions that we have created to understand the world and ourselves, and not only make them dogma, but think that they completely and infallibly represent reality. Take, for example, the division of time into “day” and “night.” It seems fairly simple, the sun is out during the day, and not at night, so it is light in daytime, but not at night. Except. What about the half hour before the sun actually comes up, but there’s light in the sky? Day or night? There’s light, so it’s day, but the sun isn’t over the horizon, so it’s night. We need new categories and descriptors: dawn, twilight, evening, etc. But then, what if we want to meet someone? Do we say, “I’ll meet you in the day”? Not specific enough. Fortunately it turns out that the category “day” really represents a continuum of time that we can divide into artificial categories to meet our needs: morning, noon, afternoon, 10 o’clock, 7:36 a.m. Of course, then we can go back and argue about whether 7:36 a.m. is in the day or the night. Depending on where we are on the globe, and the time of year, at 7:36 the sun may be up and there may be light in the sky (day! clearly!), or the sun may still be below the horizon but the sky is light (day?), or the sun may not be up and it may be quite dark (night? no sun and darkness mean night, right?) But if we agree to a meeting at 7:36 “at night” by these criteria we may well fail to coordinate with the person we want to meet.
Now let’s consider the division child / adult. There is a biological component (some even say a reality) to this division. After humans are born their bodies change in a fairly predictable sequence of ways over time. The terms “child” and “adult” are meaningful to us, and if I said them to you out of the blue, you would have no trouble imagining an example of each. Just as with day / night, however, we often find that we want more specificity. Is the child a baby? toddler? elementary school age? Wait! Haven’t we strayed? Is there a biological reality to elementary school? The categories reflect the time and place in which they exist. Puritan society had humans around eleven years of age, but it did not have “tweens.” This doesn’t mean either that Puritans were missing an important developmental stage, nor that the concept of “tween” is useless now. It does, however, demonstrate the extent to which the biological and the cultural are intimately intertwined.
In fact, you might start to suspect that the biology / culture binary is, itself, more complicated than it first appears. Take, for example, the age of first menstrual periods in humans (menarche). Menarche can be used as a measure of biological development, so can it be used as a division between childhood and adulthood? Some cultures have certainly done so. But not everyone starts to menstruate at the same chronological age, and not all mental or physical developments are coordinated with menarche. Even more interesting, menarche may be a fairly predictable developmental stage, but the average age of menarche has dropped in many Western nations over the past couple of centuries in response to changes that humans have made in their environments. So is menarche a result of biology or culture? Plus, not all humans, not even all humans classed as women, have periods.
You get the picture. Binaries can be a good way to start organizing the world around us so that we can begin to ask useful questions. They are not, however, sufficient for in-depth understanding because they artificially simplify what is often messy and complex. The very aspect that makes binary thinking useful is one of its most glaring limitations. Additionally, binary thinking actually starts to influence our reality. People tend to weed out or ignore anything that doesn’t fit into established categories if we decide that the binary division is an important one. We will examine this more in a future post when we dissect the social construction of a sex binary. For now, think of sex as largely biological, and gender as largely social, but remember that neither is, in itself, simple, and each influences the other.
So what is the difference between being transgender and transsexual?
Currently transgender is a broad term that includes a range of different identities related to gender and sex, including, for example, genderqueer, gender-variant, gender nonconforming, cross-dresser and transsexual. Many individuals consider the term “transsexual” to be loaded with dated assumptions and pejorative connotations, not unlike the designation “homosexual”. Other people are comfortable with it as a description of identity, but it’s a good idea to listen and be sensitive to preferences. When transsexual is used, it describes a subset within the transgender category. Think of the relationship this way, all nightingales are birds, but not all birds are nightingales. All transsexual people are transgender, but not all transgender people are transsexual.
Hasn’t a trans* person “changed their sex”?
This is one of the most common misconceptions, and something that trans* allies need to understand when debating the ever burgeoning backlash against trans* people which has become so obsessively focused on bathrooms. Physical change is not necessary for a person to be trans*. I’m going to say that again in a different way, because this is extremely important: surgery and other medical interventions are not what make someone trans*. Some trans* people undergo surgery or hormone treatments or both, but some do not. This may be for personal or financial reasons, or because good options are not available in every region, or for every body. Moreover, not all trans* people desire medical transition.
Well then, what does make a person trans*?
We could make this complicated, but, really, there is no need to do so. Someone is trans* if they identify as not being the sex they were assigned at birth.
But then couldn’t every Tom, Dick and Harry claim to be trans*?
I suppose that they could. I could claim to be Norwegian, but since I’m not, it wouldn’t make it so. Being trans* is not something that people choose. It’s not a phase, or a disguise. It is part of who they are. I could ask you, “how do you know what sex you are?” and you might answer based on body parts, or hormones, but the reality is that if, say, you had a disease which took all of those things away, you would still identify as the sex that feels right to you. It is the same for a transgender person.
- binary: involving two parts; for our purposes this describes the tendency to simplify the world by artificially dividing objects, ideas and people into two sets of supposedly mutually exclusive categories; e.g. day / night; wrong / right; man / woman; female / male; gender / sex.
- gender: the set of behaviors, preferences, and options assigned by a particular society, at a particular point in time to any sex; gender is a social construction and describes the set of expectations that a society places on each acknowledged sex category, but gender is not the same thing as sex.
- sex: the term used to describe the categories into which people are classified medically and socially based on the structure of their bodies, most frequently their reproductive organs and external genitalia. The most commonly acknowledged sexes in western cultures, including the US, have been male and female.
- natal sex, sex assigned at birth: the sex that a person is labeled at birth; this is usually determined based on the appearance of external genitalia.
- transgender: this term was originally created to refer to a trans* person who was not undergoing medical transition (hormones and/or surgery); it has come to be an umbrella term for many different identities relating to sex and gender in which a person’s sense of self, sexual identity, or expression of gender do not conform to social expectations based on their sex assigned at birth; transgender may be abbreviated as “trans” or “trans*”; the asterisk in the latter abbreviation stands for other optional identifiers, e.g. trans man or transman; note that although some trans* people pursue some medical interventions, hormone treatment and/or surgery are NOT what makes or legitimizes a person as trans*; not all trans* people desire or have access to medical intervention.
- transsexual (TS): a person who identifies, and lives full-time, in a sex other than the one they were assigned at birth; a subcategory of transgender, transsexual was coined by the medical and psychological fields to refer to a trans* person who was pursuing gender or sex confirmation, particularly through medical interventions (hormones and/or surgery) as well as legal pathways (e.g. name changes); although it is still sometimes used this way, many trans* people find that the term transsexual carries too much negative historical baggage, and prefer the designations transgender, trans, or trans*.
links and reading:
Many universities and most groups that provide LGBTQQIA support have on-line glossaries. There are a number of good ones, and it’s worth looking at more than one to get a feel for what is the same, and what varies between them. Right now I’m partial to the ones provided by the UC Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center, UC Berkeley’s Gender Equity Resource Center, and GLAAD.
There aren’t a ton of books out there for non-trans* people explaining what it means to be transgender, but there are some. Several are intended for medical or psychological professionals, and have more detail on standards of practice than I wanted to start off with. There is another which gets good recommendations, but the author apparently mis-genders subjects (meaning he calls them by their birth sex, rather than using their preferred pronouns). You can find these on Amazon, as well as the book which I will suggest, Transgender 101: a simple guide to a complex issue, by Nicholas Teich. It is (as advertised) extremely simple and concise, so it is not particularly useful to (nor intended for) trans* people, but it is a good starting place for family and friends. Teich is a social worker and member of the trans* community, so the book is insightful and sympathetic (and Offspring-approved). That said, there are, as with any book which endeavors to cover a sensitive and complex topic briefly, legitimate criticisms to be made. I’ve found it useful, but read through the reviews and decide for your own situation.
featured image: Color Wheel by Hitty Evie.
comic frames from Assigned Male.
Louis XIV portrait (1701) by Hyacinthe Rigaud.
Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary (1631-2) by Sir Anthony van Dyck.
Cow Identification – Day vs. Night: From a 1940s Minnesota Driver’s Manual via Brian Dunnette.
The Genderbread Person v.1, Trans Poster, Men are from Venus, Alphabet Soup, and Somebody Gets Me: all from It’s Pronounced Metrosexual. (Seriously, check that site out)