Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Some thoughts on "Transgender."

Welcome to my blog....

My name is Jennifer. For privacy reasons, I will just leave it at that. You see, unlike so many who call themselves "transgender," I am not "out, loud, and proud." Then again, I am not transgender. I had a condition known as Harry Benjamin Syndrome (formerly transsexualism) but now I am simply a woman. Still, in the hopes of helping others, I have decided to discretely discuss some of the issues surrounding this condition.

I would like to start by discussing a term that has come into common use, "transgender." Most people are familiar with it from it use as part of the more common "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender or LGBT."

Let's start by looking at the term itself...


Hmmm, "trans" meaning to change, or cross over...."gender" meaning, well, gender. So, it appears to mean "to change gender." So, I guess the next question is, "What do we mean by gender? Now, that is a more involved question.

Originally, gender was primarily a language term. Some languages, in particular the Romance languages that developed out of Latin, use "gender." That is, word in languages like Spanish, French, and Italian can be either masculine, feminine, or neuter. For example, in Spanish, the phrase el niño mean "the boy," el being the masculine form of "the" and niño being the masculine form of "child." Likewise, la niña means "the girl," with la being the feminine form of "the" and niña being the feminine form of "child."

Now, that is a very simple example of a much more complex subject. But, or topic is not Spanish. In more recent times, the term "gender" has been adopted to refer to that which makes a person intrinsically a man or a woman. Now, I didn't say, male or female...that's generally a matter of sex, that is whether you are an "innie" or an "outie." That is, penis equals male, vagina equals female. But, man or woman, which is more of a spiritual, mental, emotional sort of thing.

To put it in more scientific terms, social scientists have come to realize that even though for the vast majority of humanity their inner sense of being male or female matches their physical sex, in rare cases, this is not the case. That is, some people are born with the mind of a woman, but the body of a man, or vice versa. There is actually a physical basis for this, which will be discussed in a later article.
So, they decided to separate this inner sense of being man or woman from sex, and they used the term gender to describe it. As some put it, gender is what is between your ears, and sex is what is between your legs.

So, it would appear that "transgender" simply means to change one's gender. But it is not that simple. Gender is, as far as can be determined, immutable. That is, one cannot change this inner sense of self by any known means. So what does "transgender" mean?
Well, while some would use the above definition anyway, others would say that it means to "transcend" or "transgress" gender. This is popular among people who don't care for the binary gender paradigm, the idea that people are either men or women. At the extremes, some of these people identify as gender variant, or gender queer. They deliberately attempt to appear as a mix of both male and female. Some go so far as to demand that people refer to them by so called "gender neutral" pronouns, such as "zie" and "hir." One problem they run into is that there is no generally accepted standards for such pronouns, so what usually results is simply confusion.

Now, since the simple meaning of the word does not seem to work very well, we need to look a little deeper at what "transgender" really means. Let's start at the beginning....
Before people started using transgender, the world was a lot simpler. There were transvestites and there were transsexuals. Transvestites were men, usually straight, who liked to wear women's clothes, often for erotic reasons. Women, of course, often wear men's clothes, but nobody seems to care that much, perhaps because doing so for erotic reasons is pretty much unheard of. Transsexuals were people who were born one sex, but who believed that they should be the opposite sex.
Then, a transvestite who used the pseudonyms Charles Prince as a male, and Virginia Prince when presenting as a woman. Prince became some of an activist for transvestite rights, and wrote several articles on the subject, as well as starting the group that would come to be known as Tri Ess, a sort of social club for transvestites.
Prince also developed a rather strong dislike for transsexuals. Some have suggested that this resulted from Prince being turned down as a candidate for sex reassignment surgery (SRS). Whatever the reason, Prince did not like transsexuals, and worked very hard to convince people to not have the surgery.

Prince was fond of coming up with newer terms to replace "transvestite," One, crossdresser, has become common. Others failed to catch on. One of the terms Prince coined in the 1970s, which some still use, was "transgenderist," which Prince defined as a person who takes on the characteristics and lifestyle of a member of the opposite sex full time, but without any plans to have SRS.

Over time, some people, believing that there was strength in numbers, decided that it would be a wise political move for people who were transvestites, transgenderists, gender queers, and transsexuals to unite under a common umbrella term. The term that was chosen was, of course, "transgender." Exactly when this term moved from describing people who did not wish to have SRS to being an umbrella term but it was probably sometime in the 1980s. By the 1990s it had entered common usage.
I think the best way of describing the current use of "transgender" is that it is an artificial social/ political construct that attempts to unite a diverse set of behaviors into a single entity. Unfortunately, it simply doesn't work.

The term "transgender" has come to be applied to an ever expanding collection of identities and behaviors. These include, transvestites, crossdressers, transgenderists, drag queens, drag kings, effeminate gay men, masculine lesbians, bois, sissy maids, androgynes, genderqueers... and who knows what else. Oh, and according to some, transsexuals.

Many transsexuals object to being included under the label of "transgender." It links them to groups that they have nothing in common with. In fact, locally, here in San Francisco, it is increasingly being urged to speak in terms of "transgender and transsexual," because of just such objections.

And to make things even more confusing, some people define transgender as referring "to a person who is born with the genetic traits of one gender but the internalized identity of another gender." Such a definition includes transsexuals (actually, it is a good definition of transsexual) but excludes the others who fall under the transgender umbrella. For example, transvestites have a male gender identity. In fact, for transvestites, having that male gender identity is important. They want to be men dressing as women.
So, the next, obvious question is, "Why do so many insist on including transsexuals under the transgender umbrella?" Well, like so much that surrounds this issue, there is no single, simple answer. There are actually several distinct reasons.
First, there are the die hard "transgender." These are people for whom "transgender" has taken on a meaning that is, quite simply, beyond reality. They are the true believers for whom "transgender" is not just an artificial construct, but a very deeply held part of their identity. At the extreme are those who do not identify as male or female, but as "transgender."
These true believers become terribly distraught if someone dares question the concept. To them, transgender is not just an artificial construct. It is a very real thing. They will attack anyone they think should identify as transgender, but who doesn't. They literally try to force the label on people. These people think that they are the leading edge of great societal revolution. They seem to think that humanity is just waiting, every so anxiously, to be lead by them to a new golden age of freedom from the very tyranny of gender. And if all of this sounds almost like some sort of bizarre religion, well it almost is.
Of course, that is all pure bunk. The vast, overwhelming majority of society is quite happy with the binary gender system, and is not remotely interested in being saved from it.

The next group are those who see "transgender" as more of a political cause. For them, "transgender" links them to the greater LGBT whole. They view themselves as being part of a great political movement. Sometimes the lines between this group, and the true believers gets fuzzy. They believe that they can ride the coat tails of things like gay marriage, and laws prohibiting discrimination against gays to winning protections for "transgender" people.

The problem with all of this is that "transgender" is, for political purposes, a very meaningless concept. The rights needed by people with HBS are vastly different in many ways from the rights needed by crossdressers, and others who fall under the transgender umbrella. For example, in almost every state, it is possible for a person to have their birth certificate changed after SRS. Unfortunately, some who are transgender will decide that that right should be extended to anyone who wishes to make the change. I'm sorry, but that is ludicrous. Changing a birth certificate recognizes a very real, physical change bringing the body into alignment with the brain. Providing this for anyone who claims to be transgender simply renders the entire thing meaningless.

Another area where the "transgender" label causes problems is employment rights. There is no question that transgender people need employment protections. Some studies show unemployment rates for transgender people as high as 70%, and that figure comes from San Francisco where such laws exist. Now, the question is, how should such a law work? It is one thing to say that you cannot fire someone for being "trangender." It is another to say that you have to always allow someone who is a crossdresser to come to work dressed as woman whenever it suits them. That sort of thing just alienates people.

Then there are those who use "transgender" because it is the "politically correct" term. Again, this is particularly common here in San Francisco, where LGBT is a major force in politics. But, it just creates confusion. For example, the City of San Francisco's employee health plan speaks of providing "transgender health benefits," including paying for hormones and SRS. But "transgender" people don't need surgical benefits, transsexuals do.
And finally, there are simply those who use "transgender" because they don't know any better. The term has become so common, that many people simply use because it appears to be the correct term. That is why I tend to correct people when they do this.
The bottom line is simple. Transgender has become such a broad term that it is rapidly losing any real meaning. That, and people who are transsexual, or as prefer, HBS, simply are not transgender.