Last time I discussed the controversies and problems surrounding the use of the word cis; it seems only fair to talk this time about the controversies and problems around the word trans.

I invariably use trans as short for transgendered, and transgendered in its so-called "umbrella sense": embracing anyone with a variance with the gender assigned to them because of their biological sex. (When referring to a transsexual's gender, however, I use trans as an adjective modifying that gender: trans man, trans woman. Although this is slightly confusing, I agree with Julia Serano and helen boyd that the space is vital in avoiding "othering" or invalidating a transsexual's gender--something that transwoman doesn't do, since it implies that transsexual women aren't women but something else entirely).

This umbrella sense of the word evolved in the last few decades as a way to be a catch-all to include crossdressers and transsexuals (and later, other people who migh identify as trans--such as some genderqueer people and some drag kings and queens). It evolved from the earlier meaning of the word, coined (as "transgenderist") by crossdressing activist Virginia Prince in the 1950s1970s. In her conception, a transgenderist was someone who lived as the "opposite" sex without having surgery. Always a controversial figure, Prince was at least partly motivated to create the term out of her dislike for transsexuals--even though she spent most of the latter half of her life living fulltime as a woman; most modern-day trans people (at least this trans person) would be more likely to call her a transsexual than a crossdresser or even a transgenderist. (This was hardly Prince's only contradiction--she did found Tri-Ess, the crossdressing support group that explicitly bans both transsexuals and non-heterosexual crossdressers, even as she spent the last half of her long life essentially transitioned and allegedly dated men during that time).

Yet despite the rise of the inclusive sense of transgendered, all too often it is seen as merely a synonym for transsexual. More recently, this may be because transsexuals have tended to be at the forefront of trans activism; with the biggest stakes in trans rights, this is a natural act of self-interest. But let's not kid ourselves: mostly this is because the media sensationalize trans people, as Julia Serano has observed. Transsexuals take chemicals that force drastic changes to our bodies; have surgery that permanently alters our genitals; and live a narrative with unhappy beginning, troubled middle, and fairy tale ending. (Actually, many transsexuals have only some or even none of these things, but we are talking about stereotypes and media perceptions here.) Crossdressers, on the other hand, can have surprisingly normal presentations in either gender; are often not particularly kinky; and may even be boringly straight. (And again, many are some or none of these things--but in this case, this is more due to the invisibility and erasure of crossdressers in discourse.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, these divisions often play out within the trans community itself--one hears of a supposed trans hierarchy, which goes from successful and always passable transsexual down to a panty-wearing fetishist. Transsexuals angrily deny that they are "transvestites"; crossdressers huff that they are not drag queens; drag queens mutter about not doing it as a kink. It's a sad mirror of the real kyriarchy, which privileges those who most closely hew to gender stereotypes and stigmatizes those who break them, a process I like to call sandcastling--because these parodies of the real oppression are as pointless and fragile as sandcastles under the shadow of a fortress wall.

The close identification of transgender with transsexual does more than simply reinforce gender stereotypes, though: it also erases the very real gender dysphoria and pain crossdressers experience. If transsexuals have the comfort of a narrative, crossdressers live without closure--what helen boyd called "the sound of the other shoe not dropping." Partners of crossdressers worry that their loved one will one day decide to transition; crossdressers themselves sometimes feel diminished because they "only" present as the opposite gender some of the time. The social stigma for crossdressers is also pronounced: while transsexuals have run for elected office, incidents like the cases of Sam Walls and Eric Brewer--politicians who had pictures of themselves crossdressed leaked to the press--have seen their careers destroyed--even Stu Rasmussen, who identifies as male, has had breast implants to feminize his appearance and wears women's clothing fulltime. (Likewise, there are many professions where transsexuals are out about their history, but you will almost never hear of a lawyer or surgeon who is open about being a crossdresser.) This stigmatization--as well as the dominance of transsexual discourse--help keep crossdressers the great dark matter of the trans universe, their precise numbers difficult to know, the population predominently closeted.

No discussion of the word transgender would be complete without talking about the controversy raised by some transsexuals who don't want to be under the umbrella at all; this will be the topic of my next post.

transfeminist joins us from The Second Awakening

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