When I started this blog I didn’t realize that using the word “transgender” could create a reaction not unlike yelling “Fire!” in a single exit theater crowded with Crips and Bloods. Even less did I realize that almost every other word I knew to describe non-normative gender issues could be perceived as “fighting words” by large numbers of strongly opinionated people within an amorphous blob that you had certainly better NOT call a “transgender community” (because that term itself is an invitation to a fight).
The reason the word “transgender” evokes emotion well beyond its semantic weight is that it has become the “umbrella term” used in popular media, professional journalism and LGBT advocacy to describe a whole host of gender-variant people. So when someone says something about “transgender people,” many different groups have a vested interest in the outcome even if they don’t want to be so invested. This has come to be a problem.
A bit of personal linguistic history: Up until my early 20’s I knew exactly two terms for gender variant people – transvestite and transsexual. My understanding was that transvestites just wore clothes. Transsexuals had gone “all the way” and had surgery. Some trans people say they were excited when they first learned about this stuff and read everything they could find on the topic. I was the opposite. If either of those terms came up in any context, I immediately exited the situation. I didn’t want anyone to see me express even a glimmer of interest in the topic, lest they perceive my own mis-gendered inner feelings. So my understanding of these things remained very unsophisticated and uninformed well into adulthood.
After my college years my vocabulary expanded a bit to include terms like “cross-dresser” and “drag queen.” These seemed to be just variations of the previous two terms, but I was a lot less certain about the specifics. To me it was all a big confusing bundle of gender variant stuff. I had no idea how it might all fit together. There was some talk about a “gender continuum,” and that confused me further. Gender didn’t feel like a happy continuum to me, it felt like a dark prison. But what did I know?
That’s where my vocabulary remained through most of the dark period of denial leading up to my eventual transition. Some time over those years I also picked up the term “transgender,” gleaning from the context that it seemed to cover all the previous terms I once knew. As I started working through my own “gender issues” I started using that term to describe myself. At the time I had no word for “people like me,” so a vague word which might mean anything nicely fit my situation.
Group therapy was the big eye opener for me. That was when I realized that I might be something more specific than a fuzzily defined “transgender” person. It was the first time in my life that I met people who seemed to feel exactly like me… who seemed to be battling with exactly the same demons, and be driven by exactly the same motivations. I had known crossdressers in the past but talking to them never felt remotely similar to this.
But here’s the catch: my therapist had put together the group by invitation only. And the only people she invited were people who were – in her mind if not her terminology – transsexual. This included those of us who might not have identified ourselves by the term, because it wasn’t really about labels. Her intention was to say, “You people are alike. You should talk.” Among other things this helped me discover that there really were other people “like me” in the world.
It’s hard to describe the significance of this revelation to me. I started reading autobiographies of transsexuals and saw myself all over their pages. All the secret thoughts and feelings I never shared with anyone – not even my therapist – were being described in detail by people I had never even met. I went from believing I was a singular kind of twisted freak who could never be understood by anyone, to finding hope and purpose in the shared experiences of others like myself. If the word “transgender” represented my gender confusion, the word “transsexual” came to represent self-awareness and a path to healing.
Anyway, this was my understanding of trans terminology when I started the blog. “Transgender” was a great big open term which might mean most anything gender variant – you didn’t even need to know what. I often used it simply because it seemed more widely known by the general public, but I certainly didn’t mean anything specific by it. “Transsexual” was my specific word for “people like me.”
What I didn’t know, but quickly discovered, was that not everyone was so casual about these terms. More to the point, some people used “transsexual” and “transgender” to mean “us” and “them.” And like other “us” and “them” situations, this one had resulted in an ugly feud. I was dismayed to see that the feud had resulted in even more terms sewing still more confusion… “women born transsexual”; “women of history”; “Harry Benjamin Syndrome.” New words with new definitions seemed to spring up left and right in spirited linguistic outbursts making the point that “they” are not like “us.”
Of course the hottest battle of all surrounded the term “transgender.” Far from the fuzzy term which had almost no meaning in my vocabulary, these arguments were all about a specific meaning – and whether you believed the word included transsexual people was a butter side up, butter side down issue of division.
I can honestly say the first time it ever occurred to me that “transgender” meant something specific to anyone was when I saw someone claiming to be a “true transsexual” mocking someone else for being “a transgender.” To me that read like “I’m a true piece of celery, but you’re merely a vegetable.” Reading similar insults and flame wars was a very poor education into something that turned out to have a serious purpose.
Over time I began to grasp the underlying issues in these word wars. There are implications well beyond self-discovery at stake here. Once the word “transgender” appears in a piece of legislation – and plenty of people are proposing such things at the moment – it can’t mean whatever you personally want it to mean anymore. It will then mean something concrete. In that sense fine distinctions within these definitions can impact a lot of lives – potentially in negative ways.
Of course there are some areas where no distinction is needed. After all, basic matters of human rights apply equally to all. But that’s on the basis that they’re all “human,” not on the basis that they’re all “transgender.” Is there really a driving need to take action on behalf of every kind of gender variant person all at once? That’s the implication here, even if it’s not often said in that terminology.
When it comes to such matters do we really want to proceed as if one size fits all for all the many gender variant groups often included under the transgender umbrella term, which might include transsexuals, crossdressers, gender deconstructionists, gender queers, fetishists, and drag queens, among others? That doesn’t sound right to me. It sounds like painting with far too broad a brush. The only thing in common among all these groups is that they all depart from gender norms in some way. That’s not an identity, it’s a social perception.
To me it makes more sense to think of all these “umbrella term” groups as loosely related but not in any compelling way. Certainly not in a sense that would suggest “if we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.” We’ve got differences. In some cases fundamental differences. Sometimes it makes sense to work together, but surely not always. Shouldn’t that be okay?
A lot of gender variance is a matter of personal expression and choice. But being transsexual is neither one. I’m quite sure there are other kinds of gender variance just as valid and non-chosen as transsexualism. But even accounting for all of those, clearly some kinds of gender variance are matters of choice. When we carelessly conflate it all together, people raise valid objections on the basis that a lot of this stuff seems like “wants” rather than “needs.” That’s because much of it IS about wants rather than needs. If our language is depriving us of the ability to distinguish wants from needs that isn’t progress.
But such confusion is becoming the norm, and I blame the words. Too many people on all sides of this issue are playing around with the terminology. It’s become a game within a game within a game, and we’ve completely lost sight of what we’re trying to win. I’m quite close to these matters, and I can’t keep up with all the terms, let alone their ever-shifting definitions. How is this ever going to be explainable to society at large? This question is actually really important to those of us who are not interesting in tearing apart the social fabric, but who are keenly interested in trying to live normal lives.
I’m not sure what’s needed to untangle this knot. But I’m pretty sure the invention of even more words, and battling over still more rival definitions, is bound to make things worse rather than better.