Theory Thursday: Transgender Terms and Concepts

This semester, I added a short unit on transgender studies to my feminist philosophy course. We watched an episode of a LOGO TV documentary program, Real Momentum, called Gender Rebel (2006), about three self-identified “gender queers” who were in various stages of either transition, or coming out, or self-acceptance or all of the above, and how their relationships with partners, families, and friends were enriched, challenged, and deepened. I felt it was important to let individuals who identify and express themselves as trans people present themselves, and video was the only way to do that this time around. Since we were just coming off a week on the relational self and relational autonomy, it worked very well in terms of overall class structure. We also read an article,  SHOTWELL, ALEXIS, and TREVOR SANGREY. 2009. “Resisting Definition: Gendering through Interaction and Relational Selfhood.” Hypatia 24, no. 3: 56-76.

So, since today is Theory Thursday, I thought it might be helpful to offer a few terms and resources. I’m no expert, either in terms of my identity (I’m cisgendered) or scholarship (this is a new teaching area for me, and not a research area). One thing that’s clear is that terms are constantly changing and there is a lot of discussion and disagreement within the trans community about them. There is no term and no definition I could pick that would generate automatic agreement from everyone who identifies as a member of the trans community. I see this as a signal of strength and vitality in that community (really many overlapping communities), but it is also a source of pain and upset, not just psychological, but material, political, and otherwise. So feel free to correct, challenge or expand these definitions in the comments.

Something to question is the whole quest for definition. Who uses a word and in what ways? Any definition, even a provisional one, has hidden assumptions and politics embedded within it. Regardless of the terms, the salient ethical point, for me, is to respect how people are self-identifying, and what terms they are using.

A definition of transgender from the American Psychological Association:*

Transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice, or body characteristics. “Trans” is sometimes used as shorthand for “transgender.” While transgender is generally a good term to use, not everyone whose appearance or behavior is gender-nonconforming will identify as a transgender person.

Transgender is not a noun or a verb, but an adjective. Using it as a noun is experienced by many trans people as depersonalizing and dehumanizing. Although more accepted, “Transgendered” is, for some, problematic:

People don’t write “gayed”, or “womaned”, or “lesbianed” or “christianed” when describing someone. So WTF makes it acceptable to say transgendered?  Seriously.  I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question.  And I’m not asking the people who don’t say it, I’m asking the one’s who do.

“Trans” is often preferred to any version of “transgender.”

One of the subjects in Gender Rebel, Jill, is a self-described “gender queer”, saying: “I don’t mind being female. I just feel more comfortable being perceived as a guy. I don’t agree with the biological sex I was born into. So I’m challenging that. My mindset when it comes to gender is probably 75% male, 25% female.” Jill did not identify as transgender in the film. Umbrella shmumbrella!

Jill from Gender Rebel


A definition of transsexual (from Lecture 2 of the Seminar in Transgender Studies at Cal State LA): this was originally a medical term, connected to the notion of being trapped in the wrong body, a person whose gender identity and sexed body diverged. And it’s been seen as a pathological medical condition, either physical or psychological or both. There are obvious political problems with this paradigm, yet on the other hand, the term and its medicalization is important for some people, in order to have access to services they want and need.

Ryan from Gender Rebel, after chest surgery

Sometimes “transsexual” is used to indicate an individual who has utilized medical technologies. This can include a wide range of medical interventions, not just genital reconstruction surgeries (of which there are many different types). For example, in the film Gender Rebel, Ryan accesses hormone therapy, and chest reconstruction to better express his identity.

But what if someone wants to access the technologies but can’t afford it? Or is ambivalent? Sometimes “transsexual” is used to suggest a cross gender identification, even if a person doesn’t use or want to use medical technologies.

“Transman” and “transwoman” are sometimes also used. Using these words, Chaz Bono is a transman, while Alexis Arquette is a transwoman. But, once again, not everyone would agree to this.

And, since I mentioned Chaz Bono, I should note that although he was on Dancing With the Stars and so seems to some people to be a spokesperson for the entire trans community, he is not. This post by Stephen Ira, a gay trans man feminist activist and writer (who was outed by the National Enquirer) explains why.

Cisgender (definition from Monica Roberts of TranGriot):

It’s a term coined around 1994 by Dutch transman Carl Buijs that refers to the alignment of gender identity with your physical body.  In other words, it is the opposite of transgender, in which there is a mismatch between your body and the gender identity housed in your brain.

Cis means “nearer the speaker.” The idea is to normalize “transgender.” Rather than having “gender” and “transgender”, which implies that there is this normal, natural thing called “gender”, which some lucky people have, and then there’s this abnormal problematic thing called “transgender” which some unfortunate people have to deal with, “cisgender” and “transgender” reframe the discussion. Cisgender draws attention to the idea that gender for some people in our society is constructed as appropriate and natural, such that they never have to think about it.

The relationship between gender and sexual orientation: one common misconception is that trans people are gay. But trans  people have the same range of sexual orientations (including asexual) as cisgender women and men. This is a good explanation from the APA:

Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Sexual orientation refers to an individual’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person, whereas gender identity refers to one’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual, just as nontransgender people can be. Some recent research has shown that a change or a new exploration period in partner attraction may occur during the process of transition. However, transgender people usually remain as attached to loved ones after transition as they were before transition. Transgender people usually label their sexual orientation using their gender as a reference. For example, a transgender woman, or a person who is assigned male at birth and transitions to female, who is attracted to other women would be identified as a lesbian or gay woman. Likewise, a transgender man, or a person who is assigned female at birth and transitions to male, who is attracted to other men would be identified as a gay man.

In Gender Rebel, Ryan’s relationship with his lesbian cisgender girlfriend was tested when he decided to undergo chest surgery and to take hormones. They were still together at the end of the film.

You can see an example some really transphobic “reporting” on Stephen Ira which reveals ignorance on this very issue in a 2010 article in the Daily Mail:

What’s more, she is now apparently preparing for gender reassignment surgery which will allow her to become fully male.

Confusingly, although she wishes to become male, it is clear from her writings and blogs that she is attracted to men.

I count as least three flabbergasting failures in that short snippet.

Discrimination and oppression against trans people is a major, major problem. The relationship between feminism and transgender activism is difficult. Perhaps one very recent example is the allowing of “transwoman” Jenna Talackova** to compete in the Miss Universe Pageant after initially being disqualified.  I’m sorry to say that much of the tension is due to transphobia on the part of cisgender feminist theorists and activists (see the post on Janice Raymond below). One thing I wanted to impress upon my students is that oppression of trans people is oppression of trans people as trans people, and cannot be subsumed under some other form of oppression (cisgender roles, patriarchy, capitalism, etc.).

There is much left out here. I hope the post and links provide a small start for those interested in gaining more knowledge on these complex topics.

I’ll be moderating comments on this post.


The Seminar in Transgender Studies from Cal State LA, a graduate level seminar with all the lectures and readings posted for public use. The course is taught by Professor Talia Mae Bechtter.

Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Bechtter. Excellent.

Trans101 from Transarchism

National Center for Transgender Equality

The Transadvocate: to give a voice for transgender advocates in the ever growing blogosphere.

Why the Trans Community Hates Dr. Janice Raymond, a post which helps explain the contested relationship between radical feminism and the trans community (see also Bechtter’s SEP entry on this).

I Am Whoever You Say I Am, a post at Questioning Transphobia that taught me a lot about how not to engage with transgender theory as an academic.

Transgender Law: what’s up at the federal, state and local levels in terms of protecting trans individuals from discrimination


*The history and present relationship between the established medical community (APA, AMA, AAP, etc.) and the trans community is fraught, to say the least . Moreover there is not one “relationship,” given the diversity of attitudes and approaches within the established medical community and within the trans community (not to mention that there are, of course, trans individuals working within the established medical community). In short, using this definition is not meant to endorse other practices of the APA with regard to the trans community. For more, see Gender Madness in American Psychiatry: Essays from the Struggle for Dignity for more on this.

** She refers to herself as a woman, not a transwoman.

12 responses

  1. Thank you so much for this post and for the resources – I’m bookmarking it for future reference. I’m still learning about this, but one book that I found immensely useful was Sex Changes by Patrick Califia.


  2. I second what Ana (Nymeth) said and I also recommend Whipping Girl by Julia Serano, which I thought was very thought-provoking (and should be required reading for all Women’s Studies majors!).


  3. Hello there! I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, but this is my first comment.

    Just wanted to drop in to say that I LOVE your Theory Thursdays. I know very little about theory, but your posts are perfect introductions.

    I was also really excited about the article you got your class to read. I had a class titled “Gender and Sexuality in Literature” this semester with Alexis Shotwell and she’s absolutely wonderful.


  4. I’ve just read this review of a YA on

    I hope to read the book because of this:

    “Corner, the shadow-spinning villain whom the denizens of Safe are taught to fear, is an intersex person and is gendered by them as “it.” Considering that the entire text is about constructions of alienation and Othering, I suspected that Bobet was not going to leave the situation in such a problematic place, and to my relief she doesn’t. Corner—really named Angel—was not a villain, as we discover by the end; sie is in fact the most sympathetic, heart-breaking character in the novel, for the ways in which sie was betrayed and reviled by the people sie most trusted to love and keep hir safe.”

    Leah Bobet’s ‘ABOVE’
    ISBN-13: 9780545296700
    Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.


  5. This is such a fantastic post. Thank you for it. I know six or seven years ago when I was still knee deep in theory and feminist websites, it took me a ton of research to fully understand all these terms and how to use them appropriately. Having it all broken down in one place is so incredibly helpful.


  6. I had roommate who was transgendered. I met some of her friends who were also transgendered. I always thought them as women not transwomen.

    When my roommate came out to my neighbor, her response was you had a penis and got rid of it. Where is it I wanna see it? (there’s an inside joke here and I wasn’t there only heard about it secondhand from both parties) Anyway, that response absolutely endeared my neighbor to my roommate although I didn’t understand why or how much at the time. She came out to me after she came out to my neighbor. I really don’t remember having much of a reaction. It must have gone all right because I’d moved her into my apartment because she simply couldn’t move to where she was planning to move and after that she stayed for a number of years. Moved to New York and then moved back.

    She was and is a beautiful, amazing woman. I don’t envy what she had to go through to get to where she is today. And I felt very sad as I watched some of her relationships with men back in the day. Very difficult balancing act.

    As far as terms. I only met women. Transgender was not a term that was used in our home or at theirs in front of me, except when referring to District 202, a non-profit organization.

    Looking back, I noticed a lot of stuff but I also think a very big part of me was naive and quite honestly oblivious. Rhoda was just Rhoda and Shannon was just Shannon. To tell the truth, I didn’t give it much thought. Maybe it was a good thing because I’d like to think I treated like I would treat well. But maybe I should revisit that assumption on my part.

    Regardless, thank you, Jessica, for once again challenging me to think. I think I have an email or two to send out if for no other reason than to say hello to a dear friend who moved away and I lost track of.


  7. Thanks so much for the thought provoking post. This is a topic that often gets glossed over – embarrassment? ignorance? small population size? – in the LGBT conversation. I’m glad to be slightly less ignorant now!


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  9. Thanks for this post – it’s an issue that has been on my mind recently, partly because of discussion and learning going on in my school division. I knew that “transgender” is not supposed to be morphed into “transgendered” because it’s seen as dehumanizing, and I see the parallels people make (though they seem false parallels), but at the same time, I don’t get why it’s something people get enraged about.

    “Gender” is a noun. We might use it unchanged as an adjective in some cases (e.g., gender identity), but in others, we would add the -ed to form the adjective (e.g. gendered language). To say someone is “transgendered” just seems like correct grammar; to accuse people of an intention of dehumanizing seems like manufactured victimization.

    It seems like there are much bigger fish to fry than this.


  10. @cecilia: I think the upset over “transgender” as a noun is pretty widespread, and I would not use it that way.

    However, speaking only as someone who has been reading a lot around the ‘net and also peer reviewed academic work, “transgendered” as an adjective is more acceptable. I quoted someone who doesn’t like it, but she does not speak for everyone on that.

    I can understand your view, but my two cents, being in women’s studies and feminist theory for twenty years, it is never productive to turn these discussions into which topics are more important. It always ends badly.


  11. Chiming in late but I wanted to a.) thank Jessica for a fascinating thread with lots of great information and b.) recommend a link for further reading. Natalie Reed, an eloquent young Canadian trans woman, does a great job at her blog Sincerely, Natalie Reed of articulating the many issues trans folk face. She’s also just one of the funniest, sweetest, and smartest people you’ll find on the internet.


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