Question Eighteen: What kinds of meanings are attached to ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’?
April 19, 2013 § 18 Comments
I haven’t gone to bed yet so, by insomnia time, this still counts as today – time for another question. Panel bios here.
I’d like to hear some different opinions on the meanings of the terms “transgender” and “transsexual”. With an awareness of them being cultural labels as well as linguistic ones, I still find it difficult to pin them down. I *thought* gender was in the head, and sex was in the body, and “trans” meant changing that. However, if one was born with a sex (body) that didn’t match gender (head) how is the gender changing at all? Does transgender rather mean * perceived* gender is changing/has changed? Are the terms in fact synonymous and I am looking too etymologically at them rather than semantically? If a person wears the label transgender or transsexual, is there something specific that they are trying to tell me about themselves that I am missing, because I have difficulty distinguishing the meanings of the words? I have discussed this with my partner (who wears the label transsexual herself) and we both just get more and more confused the more we discuss it. Some more opinions would be very helpful. Also, I have recently heard the term “of trans history” a few times, and wondered if this has yet another meaning. Is it all just a matter of preference?
Maeve: The STA guidebook has a good discussion of these terms:
Roz: Pretty much – you seem to be getting it.
Natacha: The answer to this depends on who you talk to. I know a number of transwomen who have not had surgery (and do not intend to) but still describe themselves as transsexual. However there are those who would say that they are not real transsexual women. These people tend to consider that only those who are fully post-operative, who live in stealth, who pass as the other gender and who are heterosexual in their new gender, are actually allowed to call themselves transsexual people. ON the other hand I know some people who are post-operative but who describe themselves as “transgender” or “genderqueer” rather than transsexual people. This may be one of the reasons some people have started to use the word “trans”.
CN: ‘more and more confused the more we discuss it’ – I think that just about covers it! I haven’t found the same meaning twice whenever I’ve asked/looked for answers – I think that there seems to be a broad consensus on some terms, but with many (sometimes very loud) dissenting voices. My understanding of ‘transgender’ as a broad umbrella term is based on the fact that we’re not only assigned a sex at birth – we’re assigned a gender role based on that sex. So someone, like myself, assigned ‘female’ at birth is also assigned ‘girl’ and, later, ‘woman’. Even if I were to understand myself as always having had been a boy and, later, a man, and change my body to be what’s typically considered male, I would still have had to transgress the cultural/social gender role I was assigned, not just navigate the changes to my body. Even someone with a childhood as free from gender stereotyping at home as mine luckily was would still have to deal with school systems, legal paperwork, the reactions of strangers etc. So I do think that transgender can be a useful word – though, as previously stated, I’m not a huge fan of using adjectives to categorise ‘identity’, as such.
Growing up, I always thought that ‘transsexual’ only applied to people who’d transitioned from male to female, or vice versa. I think it actually has a broader application than that, which I’ve seen more and more, which is to signpost bodily dysphoria – I would certainly use both the words ‘transsexual’ and ‘genderqueer’ to describe myself. Though there are still many people who would only apply it to those who are either men or women, but not neither/both/a combination.
Coming back to the idea of trans as an adjective vs. trans as an identity – as far as I know, ‘of trans history’ is used when someone wants to make it clear that transitioning is something that happened in their lives, but that they don’t actively identify ‘as trans’. A debate on what it actually means to ‘identify as trans’ or not is a can of worms too enormous to open here – but maybe for a future post. I would say that ‘trans’ is the safest option, and to ask which terms each individual finds the most comfortable/correct.