Why we need a broad umbrella definition of the word "transgender"
A defense for a broad and inclusive understanding of the terms transgender and trans.
Over at CDL trans activist CM invited to a discussion about whether the term transgender should have a broad, inclusive, definition or whether this could be harmful to trans women and trans men.
I've been around the trans world for what is becoming a very long time. I've seen things evolve and change. I’m seeing, a growing call for gender nonconformity and expression (whether for crossdressing, drag, fashion, etc) to move from just being under the trans umbrella but a call to be considered the same thing as transgender, regardless of actual gender identity/dysphoria.
The real transgender person
These types of discussions has a long history in trans and queer circles. On the positive side they help people understand and accept themselves and others for who they are. On the negative side they may lead to gatekeeping and exclusion, as reflected in discussions about what is a “real trans person”.
In everyday speech the term “transgender” is normally used in one of two ways today. (1) As an umbrella term that includes all kinds of gender variance, and (2) as a term that is closer to the older term “transsexual”, as in someone who have transitioned or would benefit from transitioning.
The last version is often understood as reflecting the binary – as in assigned male at birth, now living as a woman – but nonbinary identities are also included by many.
The “official” definitions of transgender vary a lot, although the umbrella interpretation remains popular.
Trans as an umbrella term
The clearest example of the umbrella term used in an influential book about trans people is the one by Susan Stryker, the one called Transgender History (2008):
I use it [the term] in this book to refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place-rather than any particular destination or mode of transition-that best characterizes the concept of "transgender" that I want to develop here.
CM’s worry is that a definition that accepts people as trans on the basis of gender expression only (as opposed to experienced gender identity) will water out the term transgender and undermine the understanding a fundamental, experienced, gender identity has for those who want to transition.
Drag queens and cis gender variance
I get it. We already see how anti-trans activists try to reduce all gender variance to gender expression, arguing that as long as trans people are allowed to express femininity or masculinity, there should be no need for hormones and surgery. The transphobes reduce gender identity reduced to biological sex, and the existence of cis identifying drag artists and cis i “crossdressers” is then used to “prove” this false statement.
People differentiate between gender identity and gender expression all the time, as the terms help them communicate that gender identity (as is ones sense of a gendered self) cannot be reduced to ones gender expression.
That is also why I often draw attention to all the variation we se among cis people as regards gender expression.
In the wild and stormy parts of Norway I grew up, cis women regularly wore clothes and mannerisms that were both mannish and "dominant", for practical and cultural reasons. Still, their short hair and rubber boots did not stop them from identifying as women. Nor did it mean that they, at the same time, could not emanate at strong feminine vibe of sorts, even this was not the kind of femininity found in glamour magazines.
All of this made me question the simplistic feminine/masculine tales told by traditionalists. They do not fit reality. For me femininity and masculinity + gender expression becomes a complex multi-dimensional space with room for a lot of variation.
The reason Norwegian women got away with all of this gender variation was that they rarely challenged the gender binary in theory (only in practice), and they got away with their “butch” expression because the majority of them were seen as straight.
This "multi-spectrum" understanding of gender identity and gender expression can also be used to describe trans and queer people.
The main difference between them and the cis/straight “butch” women of Norway is that for the queer and trans violators of gender norms the gender expression is not within the limits of local cultural cis/straight acceptability. For them the butch or femme or nonbinary expression is a sign of something deeper, a heart felt need to express what is an essential part of their sense of self. For them the boots are not only footwear that stops you from getting cold; they are a way of making yourself feel whole.
Misogyny and femmephobia
Where I grew up the visible violation of acceptable norms would be clearer for the femme male assigned person, as opposed to the transmasculine women, but both might end up ridiculed or ostracized. The ultimate crime, though is committed by the “femme man", who is also understood to be "gay" (even when they are not).
So what members of this second group have in common is either (1) visible and willed violations of the implicit norms of sex and gender identity or (2) a hidden violation, as the person is still living in the closet.
Both (1) and (2) suffer under the restrictive gender norms of the majority. It is this transgression that makes them trans and/or queer in the umbrella sense of the terms.
This is enough for me to call someone trans. This is what all trans people have in common: They experience an invalidation and a social exclusion due to ones gender and/or sexuality. The sexual transgression is ultimately also a gender issue, as the norm is based on the man meets woman narrative.
This is where some trans people would like to introduce another divide or definition, limiting the transgender concept to those who fully identify with their target gender, as opposed to simply exploring a feminine or masculine side of themselves.
They often use the gender dysphoria concept as a kind of litmus tests for true transness. For the “truscum” and transmedicalists this is even a binary concept, without ambiguity. Others accept the gender dysphoria of nonbinary people, but it is often clear that the latter are hard to understand or even accept.
Defining all trans people on the basis of gender identity alone is hard because:
1. It ignores the transgender journey, where people move from identifying as cis to something else.
2. It ignores the messiness of gender identity, and in particular the lived lives of nonbinary people.
3. It violates the underpinning logic of the LGBTQAI+ movement, where belonging is based on the relationship we have with society, not some easily defined "queerness".
Moreover, having worked on trans and queer issues for nearly 15 years now, I have become acutely aware of the way the language and concepts of the cis/heteronormative society has become so given and "self-evident" that even trans and queer people are caught up in them.
I am referring to my debates with trans separatists like the Harry Benjamin Syndrome tribe and the transmedicalists on the one hand and lesbian separatist TERFs on the other. They all make use of the sexual perversion/paraphilia narratives of oppressors everywhere.
All of this leads some trans people to try to distance themselves from "the effeminate man with the stereotypical list and limp wrist", "the kinky crossdresser" and the "fetishistic sissy" or "femboy", and the only way they can do that is to argue that their gender variance is fundamentally different. The others are not trans at all. And this is especially true if they tell us that they are cis.
But what if the reason they tell us they are cis is because they have bought into a narrow definition of trans? Or if it is because they live in denial and try to protect their cis status in the face of harassment and social exclusion? How do we know their true motives and their true nature, if they may not know it themselves?
Transgender is a relative term
One fundamental challenge with the term transgender is that it is relative to cisgender, while cisgender is defined by our understanding of the term transgender. It is therefore extremely imprecise.
The concept of “normal” (which is how many describe cis/het people) varies from person to person and from subculture to subculture. And, as CM’s question documents, the understanding of trans is equally ambiguous. The same ambiguity applies to the term “queer”.
I, for one, love this ambiguity, as it gives trans people room to explore and experience, without having to fear the dismissal of other trans people.
I am afraid that the more restrictive we are in our definition of trans, the more likely we are to end up in replicating the stricter binary of traditional gender values, i.e. the values of those who oppress all types of gender variance.
I fear the kind of social internalized transphobia where we, as trans people, try to please the cis/het majority by living up to their standards. And in the process we invalidate a lot of trans men and women, who – it turns out in the end – may even be severely gender dysphoric. So it is better, as I see it, to stick to an open and welcoming understanding of the term trans.
Essentialist or political
Maybe it would help to look at this discussion from the essentialist versus political/cultural angle.
The transgender umbrella term of people like Stryker is a relative, political, term:
1. We live in a world where the cultural history has caused the majority to classify kids at birth according to a strict gender binary based on genitals. This is a cultural phenomena, not one based in a biological reality per se.
2. The majority manage to live up to this binary, even if most display some kind of gender variance.
3. For some the dissonance between their assigned gender and experienced gender becomes so jarring that they are socially excluded, or fear that they will be excluded, for violating the dogma of the binary.
4. Trans people are those who experience or fear such exclusion.
This is a relative historical and cultural term, defined by the culture's understanding of the cis/het norm. It is not a clear and unambiguous one, as the experience of exclusion will vary from person to person, community to community, epoch to epoch.
Would there be trans people in a world without transphobia?
The test here is to imagine a counter scenario where people are raised to NOT consider genitalia as a sign of an essential and all important social and cultural classification. In such a society, the doctors would not look at the genitalia of the baby at birth or make a M or F mark on a form. The biological sex would be of a purely medical interest only, and only relevant in the case of an illness.
It would be up to the kids to announced their gender (if any) when they are ready to do so, and without any pressure. In such a culture there would be no transgender people, because gender is not seen in context with biological sex. You do not move from an assigned gender to another gender identity. Your experienced gender identity is always respected.
On the other hand we have an essentialist explanation, which states that trans people are essentially different from cis people. There is some inborn condition that case their experienced gender to clash with their assigned gender, and the cause of this is biological in nature. It therefore becomes important to determine who has this condition.
(I believe there is a biological, inborn, component to much of the kind of gender variance we see under the trans umbrella, but I think it is dangerous to use it as a basis for a cultural and political definition, partly because we know so little about the cause, partly because of the gender and sexuality spectrums and also because the narrative is based on the traditional cis/het binary understanding of sex and gender. It locks us into the ruling paradigm.)
People of color
A useful parallel would be the civil rights struggle: “People of color” is not an exact scientific term. It is not based on biological science (even if some racists believe so). It is a relative term.
In Europe Italians and Spaniards are considered white. In the US Latinos and Hispanics are seen as people of color. There was a time, believe it or not, when the Irish were not considered white in the US. The term is relative to what the dominant majority considers the given default: White, Caucasian.
People of color is still a useful term, as it gives us a term to describe a group of people who because of the cultural and political structures of power are oppressed or excluded by many of the white majority (deliberately or because of tacit and implicit social rules and structures).
I think it is better, given all the uncertainty associated with the essentialist understanding, as well as the fact that all trans people suffer because of the prejudices of many cis/het people, to focus on this cultural and political side, instead of the essentialist one.
CDL discussion: Are we just protecting cis people and the binary again?