Thursday, June 9, 2011

Infighting, Part 1: Transsexual vs. Transgender

Visitors to my blog may notice that it's described as "a transgender blog." You may also notice that I often don't write about trans-related stuff. There are two or three reasons for this:
  1. I spend a lot of time thinking about my gender. But my thoughts and feelings have not yet been organized into words.
  2. I spend a lot of time thinking about my gender, but I almost wish I didn't have to. I wish I could take it for granted. Non-trans people don't have to constantly interrogate their gender.
  3. I spend a lot of time thinking about my gender, but I recognize that it is more interesting to me than it is to anyone else. And since this blog is a public document, I do try to write about things that other people might possibly be interested in.
Now that I have finally come out as trans, I want to be out. But I know that doesn't mean I have to only talk about trans stuff. I'm still working this all out.

Nonetheless, there are times when I have something to say about transgender. And reading this article generated one of those times.  The basis of the article is the question, "What is the difference between 'transgender' and 'transsexual'?"  (Incidentally, the word "transsexual" was originally spelled wrong in the headline.  Kind of a bad sign.)

Obviously there is a difference between "transgender" and "transsexual."  But the definitions given in this article do not sit well with me at all.  Basically we are told that "transsexual" denotes real trans people (except when they're not - more on this below) and "transgender" denotes people who are faking it, who aren't serious, who are just playing dress-up games and don't deserve any respect.  This is where I have a problem.

The official author of the article is one Tammye Nash, but the main content - the actual explanation of the difference between "transsexual" and "transgender" - is a letter written to her by Michi Eyre.  Ms. Eyre is notably polite and restrained in her comments.  Many "transsexual" people get a lot ruder than this.  I do want to give her credit for that.  Here is her definition:
A transsexual is someone who IDENTIFIES as the gender that is different than their gender assigned at birth and is currently going through medical processes, not necessarily surgical, to live their life in their identified gender.

Someone who is transgender may or may not identify as their birth gender but may contain some kind of gender variant aspect to them. This includes crossdressers, transvestites, drag performers, femme boys, butch women and gender queers.
First of all, there's a problem with lumping all those people under the "transgender" umbrella.  For example, many butch women do not identify as trans.  Second, I would be inclined to say that someone who is transgender does not identify as their [socially-assigned] birth gender.  But I could be wrong.  Finally, I want you to note her inclusion of "gender [sic] queers."  Usually it's spelled "genderqueer," and it generally refers to people who don't identify as either male or female. Nowhere in her article does she acknowledge the existence of more than two genders.

Anyway, she goes on to say:
As a writer, the general rule I use to identify someone as transsexual is:
  • The person has stated they have obtained gender reassignment surgery, or
  • The person has stated they are on a hormone replacement therapy, or
  • The person has obtained a legal name change to a name congruent with their gender, or
  • The person has changed the gender marker on their state identification or passport card.
I have done one of those things (number 3.)  At this time in my life I have no interest in doing numbers 1 and 2.  It would be cool to do number 4, but unfortunately the correct gender marker for my gender does not exist in our culture.  However, I don't identify as "transsexual" and her guidelines make me a little nervous.  I also find it a little odd that she makes a distinction between people who are on "hormone replacement therapy" and people who take hormones without medical supervision.  According to her, it is mostly "cross-dressers" who do this . . . and somehow it proves that they're not serious.

She goes on to make a distinction between "gender identity" and "gender expression."  Those are two terms which often get used in anti-discrimination legislation. According to her, transsexual people have a "gender identity" (which is why she capitalized "identifies" in her definition.)  Transgender people only have "gender expression," which is just pretending. So she advocates throwing those people under the bus:
Most of the objection we hear from legislators and from employers to trans protections laws is around the “gender expression” section, especially where it comes to access to sex-segregated public accommodations (public restrooms and locker rooms) as well as transitioning on the job and the impact such a transition can have on the workplace.  One of the biggest objections from employers are employees who decide to change their gender of dress and mannerism back and forth (or “flip flopping” as I call it).
I wonder how she thinks that transsexual people will be able to transition if employers have the right to object to their employees transitioning.  Also, anti-discrimination legislation would prevent things like people getting fired for cross-dressing in private.  No matter what you think about cross-dressing, employers should have no right to fire people for things they do on their own time.

And then there's the "flip flopping."  Let me quote Ms. Eyre's description of herself from her website:
Michi is transsexual due to medical reasons. She has lived for many years in a mixed role and is now living and working fully in her female identity. [italics mine]
A mixed role?  How exactly is that different from "flip-flopping?"  Or indeed, how is that different from cross-dressing, which Ms. Eyre goes on about at length.  Transsexual people do not want to be mistaken for cross-dressers.  Got it.  The thing is, that at any time while she was living her "mixed role," Ms. Eyre could have been told that she was just pretending, that she didn't really mean it, that this was just her "gender expression" and not her "gender identity."  Not only that, but she also mentions that she is pre-op.  In some circles that would disqualify her from being an authentic transsexual.

My point is that you can't go around telling people that their gender is inauthentic.  You just can't.  Ms. Eyre wants to believe that a person's gender identity can be proved with a piece of paper, a revised birth certificate, a doctor's note, or maybe a physical inspection (oops, not for pre-ops!  Or most trans men.)  But your gender identity is how you feel on the inside.  It ain't no piece of paper.  Anyone's gender identity can be challenged.  So if you don't want your own gender to be questioned, you should respect the gender of others.

Furthermore, what's the problem with "gender expression" anyway?  What's the problem with "gender variance?"  What's the problem with cross-dressing? (For the record, I never cross-dressed.)  So a guy wants to put on a dress, big deal.  Women are allowed to wear pants.  I think we would all be better off if our society's gender roles were less restrictive.

The funny thing is that there are a certain number of transsexual people who have very restrictive views of gender.  And as I mentioned above, many of them are much ruder about it than Michi Eyre was in her letter.  I could list the anti-transgender attitudes I've encountered from transsexual people on the Internet, but that would turn into a whole other blog post.

I'll just mention one, since I referred to it above:  when is a transsexual not a transsexual?  There are some people who have completed their medical transition and proclaim that now they're "real women" (as far as I know it's always women who say this), they're not trans anymore and anyone who does identify as trans has something wrong with them.  At the same time, some of them insist that they are the only real trans people and anybody who doesn't go through complete medical treatment is faking it.  It's kind of sad.


  1. Nice post.

    Personally I don't object to a broad use of the word transgender. I believe that we tend to do way too much splitting in the categorization of people based on gender. That said I do safe space training at my college and am always careful to note that transgender in the broad sense includes a range of people some of whom may not identify as transgender.

    As for myself I identify as an m to f transgender since I am not planning on transitioning. Yup I have encountered anti transgender attitudes from some transsexuals; one said my self identification as transgender is a cop out and that I must be either a transsexual or a crossdresser and there is no other option. By the way, I view cross dressing as a behavior and not an identity-there are after many motivations for crossdressing and, at the risk of ruffling transsexual feathers, I suspect people undergo SRS for lots of motivations as well. So splitting hairs may be counter productive and divisive.

  2. Hi Paula

    I agree that "transgender" is a very broad term, and it's certainly acceptable for people to use some other label if it feels right to them. But attacking people who use a different label is just . . . I don't understand what it accomplishes. Like you say, it's counterproductive. We should stick together (which doesn't mean that we all have to do everything the same way.)

  3. Let me make one thing clear.. I did live in a mixed role for a period of time but during that time, my identity documents were still my old name, the birth gender marker and I did not use sex segregated public accommodations. Once I got my diagnosis, I changed my name and gender marker and started to use segregated accommodations. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

  4. Hi Michi - thanks for dropping by. I do have to ask one question: if your employer had decided to fire you because you were living in a mixed role, would you have been okay with that?