Monday, December 05, 2011

On Being Transgender

TransGriot Note: Guest post from trans community builder Denise Norris  

The Origin of Transgender

In the early 1990s, 'transgender' was repurposed by a various groups of transsexuals in the US to basically include anyone whose gender expression was non-conforming with society's expectations. There were several reasons for this and one of them was because people with atypical gender identities do not always identify as transsexual.

As we searched for our collective identity, we asked ourselves: "Who are we to judge another's gender identity solely on the basis of how they choose to express it? How can we know what is in the heart of another without knowing the person behind the presentation? Would we not achieve the height of hypocrisy to comment the same sins upon others to which we so strenuously object when others deny our gender identity and our desire to express it?

To us, the answer was obvious and expanded our associations to include crossdressers, drag, butch and every other non-conforming gender expression under the rainbow.

We understood that to be transgender is to have a non-conforming gender expression regardless of one's gender identity. Transgender therefore is a meta-group consisting of many distinct groups, each sharing common causes but each also having unique challenges. Together we are stronger then we are when we are alone.

At that moment in time, we took up the reins of our own fate into our own hands by crystallizing the dissatisfaction with our lives into a global movement that has been fighting for right to safely express our gender identities without fear of harassment, discrimination or violence.
As to the choice of the word 'Transgender' to represent the meme of equality for all gender expressions, I have to admit that honestly it was not my first choice as I felt that residual definitions from its use by Virginia Price would haunt the new re-purposed use. If you read the Charter of the Transexual Menace from 1993 ( you can see that the concept of equality for all gender expression is represented, but it substitutes term 'Gender people' or 'Gender community' for the use of the word 'transgender'. But bowing to public will and the necessity to get the meme adopted, I accepted the use of transgender as the label for the meme.

In 1994, the Advocate published an article that examined our struggle for acceptance within the Lesbian and Gay community and in society at large (
).  It is worth reading by anyone with an interest in the thoughts of some of the major players in the creation of transgender.

Why do people identify as Transgender and not some specific label?

The real problem is that the labels we have all SUCK.  They have been recycled too many times and no one can agree on the meanings anymore.  However, recycled as it may be, transgender represents a comfortable space where there is little need to tightly confine oneself with labels like Crossdresser or Transsexual.
An atypical gender identity (aka GID) is an invisible condition.  There is no test for it.  Doctors can’t prove someone has it.  It is simply a persistent claim made by the individual for a reasonable amount of time.  But NO ONE external to the individual can absolutely know for sure that the individual has an atypical gender identity.  At this point in time, it is impossible to prove anyone’s gender identity.   Since we can’t prove it, we can’t protect it legally.
However, we can observe gender expression.  It is a palatable component of a person’s presentation. We only start seeing discrimination when gender expression conflicts with society’s expectations.
In fact, all of the labels we use for ourselves are derivative from gender expression, not from gender identity. This is true even though gender expression may be the result of an atypical gender identity.
There are three basic forms of gender expression.  Consistent Gender Expression vs. Inconsistent.  Conforming Gender Expression vs. Non-Conforming.  Congruent Gender Expression vs. Incongruent.  Put them in a blender and you can have an Inconsistent Non-Conforming Congruent Gender Expression.  Quite a mouthful.

This all gets very messy and no one actually agrees on any of the meanings behind the labels.   Here are two examples that I have no doubt will cause some to disagree loudly.  This is more or less how the labels are defined in 2011.  I readily admit that 30 years ago, under the clinic model for treating transsexualism, the terms had different meanings.  As I said, recycled too many times.


Transsexual describes someone who professes an atypical gender identity and seeks a consistent gender expression that is congruent with their gender identity.  However, not everyone with an atypical gender identity seeks to have a consistent congruent gender expression and therefore, they are not considered transsexual.   If they do decide to have a consistent congruent gender expression, then they are suddenly  become transsexual. Transsexual is a label of convenience based on the having or desiring a consistent gender expression.


Crossdresser describes someone who presents an inconsistent gender expression that incongruent with their socially perceived gender identity.  Crossdressers can have atypical gender identity and may present an inconsistent gender expression that is congruent with their gender identity and incongruent with society’s perceptions of their gender identity.  The opposite pattern occurs when the individual has a typical gender identity.  Crossdresser is a label of convenience applied to people who have an inconsistent gender expression.
Transgender allows everyone to unite under one meta-group with having to worry about the ridiculous debate over who is real or who belongs in what group.  This is why many people simply identify as transgender when asked.

How Transsexuals Became Transgender

I think that everyone agrees that transsexuals have atypical gender identities.  This condition, whatever the cause, has been called by various names: Transsexualism in the 1960s gave way to Gender Identity Dysphoria in the 1970 and now it is Gender Identity Disorder (DSM IV).  Each time they changed the name, the method of treatment has changed.  Until the late 1970s, the object of the reassignment clinic model was to only select candidates who would be able to present a gender expression acceptable to the clinic in order to assure that the patient would be able to pass as cis-gender woman and assume a cis-gender life after receiving Sex Reassignment Surgery.  For many people suffering transsexualism, this approach left them outside the clinic and without help.  Many of the individuals even lied to therapists and doctors so that they would be selected for reassignment which contributed to the failure rate of post-reassignment patient.   It was the high suicide-rate that finally caused the clinics to close.

In the meantime, the people left outside the clinics began to explore other paths to reassignment where patriarchal standards of acceptable gender expression were no longer used to judge the viability of reassignment candidates.  Lesbian transsexuals began to emerge in the 1980s who had completely bypassed the clinics finding doctors like Stanley Biber or Arnold Melman would perform SRS based solely on the word of psychologists who made the determination if the patient had Gender Identity Disorder.

With the near complete collapse of the clinic model, it was now up to the patient and the therapist to determine if the patient would be able to assimilate into society using a Real Life Test.  If the patient could find a path for themselves during the RLT, they would be recommended as surgery candidates.  It was this shift away from the clinics and the patriarchal model of proper gender expression that opened the door for transsexuals to consider alternatives to a life in pursuit of passing as cis-gender in order to avoid discrimination.

As the early 90s rolled in, more and more people with GID were in RLT and moving on to Gender Reassignment Surgery without the need to pass as cis-gender.  In fact, they began to seriously question the need to pass at all.  Many individuals opted to be ‘out’ and dispense with passing altogether.  Others began to simply blend and if asked would admit to being transsexual.  It was at this point, the need for people who fought for trans-privileges rather than passed to obtain cis-privileges became apparent.  Rather than avoid discrimination by passing and pretending to be cis-gender, the out transsexuals stood up to discrimination and fought back.  It was about this time that Brandon Teena was raped and murdered for being transsexual.  This outraged the activist transsexuals and accelerated the consolidation various groups under a single meme of broad inclusivity.  That meme became the Transgender meta-group.

The 20-year period between the 1970s and the 1990s represents a movement away from assuming identities as cis-gender individuals in order to assimilate into society.  By the 1990s, transsexuals began to actively fight discrimination and participate in society on our own terms.  We went from seeking cis- privileges to creating trans-privileges.  The 20-years from 1990s to 2010s saw an explosion in trans-privileges nationally and globally.  The next 20-years will see us achieving full equality without having to pass as cis-gender ever again.

Transsexual separatists seek to stand apart

Like any progressive movement, there are always reactionary elements who yearn for the good old days with a nostalgia that is not exactly representative of actual history.    There is a small population of transsexuals that considers themselves ‘true’ transsexuals (a term they have chosen for themselves) who reject the notion that the real fight against discrimination is about gender expression and that since they have had surgery (and I know a few who lie about that status) or intend to have it, they should no longer face discrimination due to their gender expression.  Perfect stealth!  They consider themselves Transsexual Separatists, True Transsexuals or Harry Benjamin Transsexuals (forgetting that Dr. Benjamin himself said that within transsexualism (GID), there was a gradual scale of gender expression from crossdressing to surgical conformity).

There is a strong desire to pass as cis-gender in order to enjoy cis-gender privileges and more importantly avoid discrimination in many people with atypical gender identities, especially baby boomers and Gen X. I don't blame anyone for trying to avoid discrimination, but passing prevents actively fighting discrimination because the passing individual has to sacrifice the safety of passing to confront and fight discrimination.   If too many people choose to pass, then there is no one to fight for equality.

But for some reason, the Transsexual Separatists fear and loath that people collectively are fighting for the right to have a non-conforming gender expression and continually make attacks against those who align themselves in a common cause. In my opinion, they do this because they feel their fragile truce with society and their conviction that surgery makes them the same as cis-gender are threatened by the efforts to bring equality to all people regardless of gender expression. 

In my experience, it has always been best to allow them to go their own way without interference. I wish these reactionaries nothing but the best of luck in their quest for cis-gender privileges.  Hopefully they will find what they are seeking and leave the rest of us alone.  And if they find the reality is not as sweet as the memories, we will always welcome them into our movement.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If an umbrella term such as transgender didn't exist, writers (and the media) would invent one or repurpose a term for it. Among other things, writers can't (or shouldn't have to) do a pants check to get terminology correct. And finally, especially on the net, there's the issue of tags -- "transgender" yields better/more results.
While I understand the position of many transsexuals, but from a practical standpoint, accomplishing this task would be difficult even if everyone was on board with it.