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!
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.
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
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.