Tag: trans* community

About that often misunderstood asterisk

Posted by – October 31, 2013

Recently this post by Natalie Reed on the use of ‘trans*’ was proving controversial among many of the nonbinary and genderqueer people I follow on Twitter. I’ve talked about ‘trans*’ before, most recently when answering the Beyond The Binary panel, question 4.

I personally have mixed feelings about words involving punctuation marks, especially ones that confuse search functions and hashtags, look like footnotes and don’t sound any different when spoken (unless you say ‘trans star’). I also strongly feel that ‘trans’ should be able to include everyone who’s in any way gender variant, genderqueer or gender role nonconforming (I’m firmly in the Leslie Feinburg Trans Liberation camp on this one). I’ve tried in the past to write resources to help keep trans and transgender the inclusive umbrella terms I feel they were meant to be.

Why people felt the need to add the asterisk

‘Trans’ was originally intended to be an inclusive term, not just including people who could access medical labels like ‘transsexual’, but including everyone under the wider transgender umbrella. However in day to day usage, the concept tends to be conflated with transition from the gender one was assigned at birth to another.

I think that this is in no small part due to how the constructions ‘trans man’, ‘trans woman’ and by extension ‘trans person’ seem to make it clear what ‘trans’ is meant to denote. Because this prefix usage is so ubiquitous, it’s also common to see this prefix separated out, with ‘trans’ falling elsewhere in a sentence, or on its own entirely, but still having the same connotations.

Perhaps I can make the issue with this clearer with an example (chosen out of the myriad possible as quite a common situation that was originally one of the primary things ‘transgender’ was used to describe). Take someone who was assigned male at birth, sees himself as a man, but also identifies as transgender by way of gender expression, and presents in clothing, hair and makeup that society would see as crossdressing. That person is clearly trans* and I would hope that he would also be included fully in transgender (although I’ve seen plenty of trans and nonbinary people argue otherwise, and plenty of definitions of transgender that would exclude him), but if I were to describe him as a ‘trans man’ that would not be the ‘correct’ usage – resources, information and organisations restricted to trans men would not include him, because ‘trans’ means something specific in this context. If he concludes that he’s not ‘trans’ but is transgender, genderqueer, transvestite or any number of other labels because of this, and therefore ‘trans*’ but not ‘trans’, I don’t think that decision would be difficult to understand.

The fact is that most transgender organisations and people writing about trans stuff (including me most of the time, frankly) don’t spend equal time talking about people who don’t have dysphoria, or don’t have anything to ‘transition to’, or whose gender changes too often for any one transition to make practical sense, or who transitioned medically but later officially ‘detransitioned’, or who did what they consider to be transition for them but are still usually seen as the gender they were assigned at birth, even in some trans and nonbinary spaces.

People using ‘trans’ don’t often talk about people who are transgender by way of gender expression not identity, or who don’t have a gender identity, or whose gender identity changes at different times. They don’t tend to cover people who feel that they are both cisgender and transgender in different ways, or who feel uncomfortable with gender but can’t see their experience reflected in any of the narratives, or if they do they use words other than ‘trans’ to describe this.

I believe that all those people fit my ideal inclusive definition of ‘trans’ and ‘transgender’, and I think that they should be able to feel comfortable using ‘trans’ for themselves if they wish. But I also know that for many of them, being in trans spaces is to expect and experience casual erasure and microaggressions, or even outright policing and hostility. And that no one has the right to insist that someone must be comfortable with a term they find problematic and unwelcoming.

Because of all this, ‘trans*’ was suggested as a way to explicitly include the genderqueer, gender variant, gender role nonconforming, crossdressing, fluid gender, agender etc people who didn’t feel ‘trans enough’ to know if they would be included otherwise. To say, “we know you’re usually pushed out of or erased by these sorts of things, but we’re trying to do better”. It’s meant to be a shorthand when space is limited, and it’s meant be backed up by actual inclusion in both words, policies and actions. But it exists as a quick and easy way to show those people who are used to being pushed out of trans spaces that yes, this is for you too.

And because it is a more comfortable and less pressured term for some people, there are now good numbers of people who feel more comfortable with ‘trans*’ than ‘trans’, or who still don’t consider themselves ‘trans’ but will use ‘trans*’, or who aren’t fully comfortable with any form of ‘trans’ but understand that ‘trans*’ is more welcoming to them. There are now even those who identify with ‘trans*’ itself as their primary label of self description.

I don’t believe that ‘trans*’ has done more to push people out of ‘trans’ than make people feel included. I believe that they were already feeling pretty strongly pushed and excluded before this. From what I’ve seen, it’s pulled in more people who previously only felt comfortable with descriptions like ‘transgender’, ‘not cisgender’, ‘genderqueer’ etc and allowed them to also use ‘trans’ or ‘trans*’ for themselves.

Who owns, and gets to criticise ‘trans*’?

While I do have problems with the way ‘trans*’ is constructed, and do find it unwieldy and somewhat inconvenient to use, I’m also very cautious about criticising something that is another person’s identity, or the only gesture that keeps some marginalised transgender people from disengaging from trans communities entirely.

I know that I shouldn’t really be criticising it, because ‘trans*’ isn’t really FOR me. It’s for people who have to defend themselves and their right to use ‘trans’ because other trans people outright tell them that they’re not allowed to. It’s for people who almost never see ‘trans’ used in a way that doesn’t casually erase their experience. And it’s for the people who are questioning whether they really qualify. And also for those who are certain that ‘trans’ definitely doesn’t include them, because they looked and already decided that it was talking about something different to their transgender, gender variant or gender role nonconforming experience. It’s for people who already discounted that ‘trans’ could include them and chose different words for self description, who have only come back to trans spaces at all since the asterisk has included them.

I also know that, even if I wanted to, I don’t get to say whether we should only say ‘trans’ or that people who use ‘trans*’ for themselves should choose a different word. And that’s because it’s not my word to criticise. As someone who’s confident that ‘trans’ and ‘trans person’ DO include me, it’s not me who would lose out if ‘trans*’ was taken away. Yes, I’m nonbinary, genderqueer and mostly agender and these are reasons that people are excluded, and reasons why I remember how crappy it is to be unsure, starting out and not feel welcomed or even understood by any groups or resources. But I now speak from the position of having a gender dysphoria diagnosis, validation from gender specialists and a clear transsexual medical history (albeit a nonstandard one).

If someone were to erase, ignore or dismiss my right to define as a trans person now (and it does certainly happen), I can laugh them out of the room. I know that I fit almost every part of the transition narrative except the binary gender that some people expect, and even then I can point those people to the DSM-5 and version 7 of the Standards of Care to show that ‘an other gender’ is now officially legitimised (even if many gender clinics are trying to avoid following those guidelines).

Do I think that fitting the narratives or having medical validation should be in any way relevant to who gets to count as ‘trans’? No, absolutely not, I would strongly reject that assertion. But I also can’t ignore the fact that this does nonetheless grant me a type of privilege, security or confidence that other types of transgender, gender variant and gender role nonconforming people might not have in many trans spaces.

It isn’t necessarily whether your gender fits the binary options that defines whether you’re secure enough in these spaces to not need more than just ‘trans’ to welcome you in (and, of course, I don’t just mean words or a symbol as ‘more’ here, I mean some actual inclusivity work to back that up and make sure they actually mean anything real), it’s whether you fit enough of the dominant transgender narrative. If you’re not one of the people who is used to being erased in the vast majority of ‘Trans 101’ primers, even the ones that include nonbinary identities in some way, then the asterisk probably isn’t meant for you.

Reasons for respectful, constructive criticism

All this said though, there is legitimate criticism of the way ‘trans*’ is misused, usually by people who don’t need the asterisk themselves. This isn’t to criticise the identities and experiences of anyone who uses ‘trans*’ for themselves, but to look at certain problematic ways that it’s used by or about others.

Since this current wave of criticism and controversy started, I’ve seen plenty of people who have previously used ‘trans*’ to describe others, make it clear from their comments that they had very little idea what the connotations of ‘trans*’ were actually meant to be. Most of them seem to have just assumed that it meant ‘transsexual and transgender’ (but not the all inclusive umbrella term form of transgender), some others thought it meant ‘binary and nonbinary’. This is worrying, but explains a lot of confusing misuse I’ve observed.

Since ‘trans*’ has spread and been adopted outside of the groups who coined and popularised it, I’ve seen way too many posts and discussions using ‘trans*’ in a way that excludes the people it was meant to be including (like the people who actually use the label) by, for example, talking in terms of transition or in terms of dysphoria or in terms of gender identity, using words that imply that these are universal experiences for all ‘trans* people’.

If we put an asterisk on the end of ‘trans’ and don’t change anything else, this could genuinely be worse than nothing. It really is ‘inclusion theatre’ as Reed suggests, no better than people who use ‘LGBT’ interchangeably with ‘gay’.

That trend honestly makes me wonder if we do need another word that makes the intentions of wide inclusion and not needing to fit the narratives as clear as possible, one that people can’t misconstrue. But then it also makes me wonder if there’s a general trend by which any word or umbrella term coined by marginalised people to include a wide disparate group who don’t fit the dominant narrative (e.g. ‘transgender’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘trans*’ etc) will ultimately end up being associated with the most visible group of people within that umbrella. Either way, we definitely do need more primers, resources and articles like this one that make it harder to misunderstand the intentions and connotations of the asterisk.

It’s also important to consider the types of exclusion that ‘trans*’ doesn’t address. There is no shortage of examples of events that advertised trans* inclusivity but in practice excluded some segment of the trans* umbrella. Intersectional oppressions are often at work here, be it the privileging of masculinity or androgyny, transmisogynistic exclusion of trans women or of people based on the gender they were assigned at birth. There’s also the intersectional oppressions that can affect people regardless of how they are trans*, be it the privileging of certain ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds, or the lack of effort taken to accommodate the access needs of all abilities and disabilities.

So what now?

The situation with ‘trans*’ isn’t perfect, and I’ve seen a lot of criticism from people on all sides of this discussion, including some marginalised people who don’t use ‘trans*’ and do feel that they have to resist the pressure caused by the existence, and potential policing, of there being two variations on ‘trans’.

And yes, maybe I’d prefer a better word, but it isn’t really my word to critique, it’s not me who needs it. ‘Trans*’ isn’t there for people who fit the narratives and feel comfortable owning ‘trans person’, it’s for all those whose experience of gender differs not just from societal norms but also from perceived trans community norms, who wouldn’t have shown up at an event or used a service otherwise, unless there was something to say that yes, this really is for you too.

Wherever you fall in this debate, whether you want to use ‘trans*’ or not, I’d suggest that the way to make a real difference is to actually demonstrate inclusivity, in your words, in your descriptions and in your actions. Don’t just use ‘trans’ or ‘trans*’ thoughtlessly, but actually consider who it is that needs transgender resources, events and services but doesn’t feel ‘trans enough’ to use them, or who experiences discomfort, erasure, policing or even outright hostility when they try to get involved. Think about what you can do to actually include everyone under the wider transgender, gender variant and gender role nonconforming umbrellas, and how to demonstrate this clearly to make them all feel welcome and included.

Being Constructive About the Independent on Sunday Pink List

Posted by – October 29, 2011

The Independent on Sunday Pink List 2011Last weekend the UK Independent on Sunday released their annual ‘Pink List’, described each year as a ‘celebration of the gay and lesbian community’. It’s been a tradition of mine to look through lists such as these each year and bemoan the lack of representation for the wider LGBT and queer communities. Last year’s list produced a lot of justified criticism for not including any visibly bisexual or openly trans* people and not representing the grassroots activists within the LGBT community. It’s been very easy to be critical of a list of ‘influential British LGBT people’ that reads as a hierarchy of mainly cisgender (as in, not identifying as trans*), apparently able-bodied, gay and lesbian famous people and politicians who mostly live in England, mainly London. Cynicism is especially easy when it’s arranged as a league table complete with comparisons to where each entry charted in the previous year.

Since last year’s list was released, Time Out Magazine produced an even more problematically structured ‘Pride Power’ list, which at least included one openly trans* person, highly deserving activist Christine Burns MBE, albeit handled in a pretty problematic way. As you’ll see from that blog post and its comments, that spurred Christine and the equally wonderful Trans Media Watch to put pressure on the Independent on Sunday to produce a truly trans* inclusive Pink List this year. As a result of this campaigning, and I’m sure pressure from other parts of the LGBT community, the IoS appointed trans* journalist and activist Paris Lees to the panel of judges and asked their readers to put forward their own ‘unsung champions’ and ‘heroes’ of the LGBT community for inclusion in the nominees for the 2011 list.

Real Progress

With those announced changes, I approached this year’s Pink List with some degree of optimism, and I was indeed extremely pleased to see a considerably improved list with:

  • The frankly amazing teacher Elly Barnes, who has done invaluable work to exorcise the ghost of Section 28 from the nation’s schools, in the top position
  • A performer clearly described as bisexual in the third position
  • More women included in top positions
  • An openly intersex activist in the ‘Nice to meet you section’
  • Six trans women and one trans man in the numbered league table
  • Another two trans women and one trans man in the Lifetime Achievement Awards
  • And yet another trans woman in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section

Note though, five of trans women included were not explicitly noted as trans*.

It was clear that this wasn’t just a small step towards token trans* representation as I’d worried, but a significant jump towards treating trans* people as equally valid members of the LGBT community.

Valid Criticism

Is the list perfect? No, by no means. It’s still arranged in league table format, it’s still mainly white, English, well educated, apparently able-bodied (there is not one mention of ‘disabled’, ‘disability’ or any particular impairments on the entire list), apparently dyadic (non-intersex) people. People who lampoon these things as ‘Pride Privilege Lists’ still have much to rightfully criticise.

My traditional scouring of the list has been to look for bisexual representation and, despite singer-songwriter Jessie J now appearing in third position with a clear declaration of bisexuality, there are no other entries described as ‘bi’ or ‘bisexual’. All other uses of ‘bisexual’ are simply writing out LGBT or ‘gay and bisexual’, there is not one usage of the term ‘bi’ which is preferred within the UK Bi Community or the word ‘queer’, my label of choice. There are other people on the list who I know are bisexual, but not one of them is identified as such, and so bi invisibility continues. As a long term active member of the UK Bi Community, which is hugely accepting of queer-identified, trans*, nonbinary and genderqueer people such as myself, I was particularly disappointed to see all the hard working bisexual activists overlooked yet again.

This year the Bi Community focused its visibility activism efforts onto equal bi inclusion in the Lesbian and Gay Foundation’s ‘Homo Heroes’ award, gaining hugely deserving nominees in four categories (none of whom won the popular vote). It’s quite telling that the trans community aimed its visibility activism one way, the bi community another and the end result was that two prominent perviously ‘lesbian and gay’ lists gained more inclusive representation for one of the usually overlooked B and T but not the other (although one of the bi ‘Homo Heroes’ nominees is also trans*, so L, G, B and T are all represented there). I think it’s highly likely that the next Bi Activist Weekend will be discussing strategy to get a bi activist judge on next year’s Pink List panel.

So yes, there is much to criticise and much of my immediate response (on Twitter) after congratulating those listed was to critique the list’s failings. Many others in the trans* community (and beyond) have criticised the list too, some with anger at how the trans* people who were included were all transitioned binary transsexual, mainly trans women rather than trans men, not people of colour and mostly from England rather than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was considerable disappointment that not one openly nonbinary (living as neither a woman nor a man) or explicitly genderqueer (identifying as challenging the gender binary through non-normative gender expression – your definitions may vary, I find the distinction useful) person was included. The trans* people who were included all fit the dominant transgender narrative of cross-binary gender identity and transition.

Some people defending the lack of such people on the list have argued that no British nonbinary, genderqueer or solely gender nonconforming (as in not trans* in other respects) people have done anything notable enough yet and this will come with time. While this may be true of activists (those prominent in the field live overseas while British activists have only come to the fore recently), it isn’t the case of performers and famous people. What about Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror and Crystal Maze fame who came out as nonbinary transgender in 2009? What about stand up comedian, world famous actor, ‘executive transvestite’ and ‘male tomboy’ Eddie Izzard who has helped normalise femme male gender expression, has been an inspiration to a huge number of trans* people of all stripes for years and who recently ran seven weeks of back-to-back marathons (with Sundays off) across the UK to raise money for Sport Relief? Personally I’d have liked to see at least one nonbinary or genderqueer activist or performer on the ‘Nice to meet you’ list and I am hugely disappointed that CN Lester was overlooked for that honour. But I am hopeful for next year.

Unfortunately much of the perfectly valid criticism of the structure and composition of the list inadvertently reads as an attack on the trans women and men who are on the list for the first time this year. There is a very uncomfortable air of belittling or dismissing the achievements of the people who are on the list, because they are ‘tokenism’ or because others ‘more deserving’ are not there. Some of the critiques feel like they’re dragging those people down rather than lifting others up, which CN Lester eloquently describes and confronts here.

This Stuff Is Important

Much like CN, I had an ‘inspiration board’ on the wall of my teenage bedroom, full of printed out song lyrics, pictures and newspaper clippings that kept me going through my last couple of years as a closeted queer teenager at a rural comprehensive school (1996 to 98). My board included people like teenage Age Of Consent campaigners Chris Morris (who was the same age as me) and Euan Sutherland, and famous performers like Ellen Degeneres, Wilson Cruz, Brian Molko, David McAlmont, Ani DiFranco, Michael Stipe and Skin from Skunk Anansie. Being surrounded by images of successful queer and gender nonconforming people and listening to their music made me feel like less of a freak and gave me hope for the future.

As a community, we need visible inspirational ‘heroes’ to look up to. Some people survive, get through it and are inspired to succeed and perhaps become activists themselves due to newspaper articles just like this one. It is possible to critique the form of an award and the nature of the organisation that issued it while still seeing it as important and valuable. As little as I believe in the honours system and the monarchy, I still found it incredibly significant and inspiring when the establishment recognised the work of trans* activist Christine Burns by issuing her with an MBE in 2004 and Stephen Whittle by issuing him with an OBE in 2005.

Being Constructive

I see these lists and the tendency to single out certain prominent famous and notable people for recognition and awards as only problematic in isolation. If we let this be the only way that trans*, queer and LGBT people are celebrated in our communities, then yes, it is problematic. If we let this start a conversation about who else should be recognised and celebrated, the hard work that so many others do in our communities and all the different ways people make a difference, then it becomes just one of many ways that the deserving, inspiring people in our communities receive thanks.

When Dan Savage started the It Gets Better campaign, I was among the critics who found it deeply problematic. But it started a conversation that prompted complementary and constructive campaigns that focused on helping young people to Make It Better, and inspired many other It Gets Better videos that weren’t problematic in the ways that Savage’s had been. There are now some amazing trans* and queer It Gets Better videos out there and no end of testimonials from people saying how seeing them has helped them in the way my inspiration board helped me.

I would like to see positive and constructive reactions amongst the justified critiques of the organisation and form of the current Pink List. While campaigning for next year’s list to end bi invisibility, recognise bisexual, pansexual, asexual and queer activists and include more trans men, nonbinary, genderqueer and gender nonconforming people, we should also be putting forward our own lists of inspiring queer and trans* people, and thanking and celebrating all those who inspired us personally, or who have worked to make our lives better as queer or trans* people.

As such, last night I asked my Twitter followers to indulge me for a while as I thanked those who had inspired me. Rather than focusing solely on individuals, I tried to thank entire groups and classes of people who have helped our communities, while highlighting particular examples that I’ve personally come across and been inspired by. My own personal Inspiration List. You can read it in my Twitter favourites, starting at 10:12pm. Note, there are many many more people who I could name (each category was limited to 136 characters) and, as I was reacting to a list of inspirational British LGBT people, my list was intentionally focused on people from the UK. I would write a very different list if I was including those who are active in other countries and internationally.

I would love to read other people’s Inspiration Lists, especially international lists and lists covering queer and trans* communities of which I’m not a member. I encourage you all to thank everyone who’s inspired you, made it easier to be queer, trans* or gender nonconforming or helped you or your communities in practical ways.

Deserving Their Recognition

And let’s not forget that we do have eleven openly trans* people and several more trans* allies recognised within the Pink List article. Forget the numbering and the different categories and focus on the recognition these people have been rightfully given. As I said above, I want to see more trans* people included, more trans men, more trans* people assigned female at birth, more nonbinary, openly genderqueer and solely gender nonconforming people, and I want us to work towards getting those people into next year’s list and given recognition through our own community efforts, independent of The Independent. But let’s not play down the hugely important work those who are listed have done to represent, inspire and improve the lives of all trans* people.

So here’s my personal take on how some of the trans* people who are recognised in this year’s Pink List article have inspired and represented me as a nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, queer-identified, atypically transitioning, androgynously presenting trans* person…

Longterm Inspirations

I was extremely pleased to see people who have been personal longterm inspirations to me on the lists:

Stephen Whittle and Christine Burns, whose campaigning work for Press For Change was a practical help and inspiration to me while transitioning in the late 1990s, especially as their website and resources recognised that not all ‘trans people’ they campaigned for transition in the same way or at all, live ‘full time in role’ or identify as simply female or simply male.

It is thanks to Press For Change that Britain now has legal employment and provision of goods and services protection for trans* people (by adding the protected class of ‘gender reassignment’), including the changes in the Equality Act 2010 that mean those protections are no longer prerequisite on a ‘gender specialist’ psychiatrist’s approval or any medical treatments. Stephen has also featured in two prominent television documentaries about transsexual men and numerous trans* publications, providing inspiration to many. As mentioned above, Christine is one of the most vocal campaigners for recognition of the full diversity of trans* activists and influential people in lists such as these.

Travel writer Jan Morris whose groundbreaking 1974 memoir Conundrum and its journey through her transition (most notably chapter 12) was my first exposure to the reality that it was possible for me to become androgynous, it wasn’t just something that some people were naturally gifted with that I could never achieve. I cannot overstate how important this was to me and how much hope and inspiration it gave me as a dysphoric nonbinary person trying to find comfort with my body and social role.

Activists I Admire

I was also overjoyed to see recognition given to current activists who I admire, all of whom have in some way helped nonbinary and gender nonconforming trans* people as part of their work to represent the entire trans* community:

Sarah Brown, Britain’s only openly transgender activist serving in an elected political position; a Liberal Democrat Cambridge City Councillor, and chair of the Lib Dem Transgender Working Group. Sarah was instrumental (along with Zoe O’Connell) in influencing Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert to raise the issue of gender neutral documentation such as passports in the House of Commons. Something that will be vitally important to many nonbinary, genderqueer, transgender and gender nonconforming people in this country (including myself).

Jay Stewart of Gendered Intelligence, an organisation that does hugely important creative work with young transgender and genderqueer people and is explicitly inclusive of the wider transgender spectrum. Jay organised the wonderfully positive and inclusive Trans Community Conference, that I was lucky enough to attend this year, and was previously the chair of FTM London, an AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans* support and social group known for being inclusive of all identities and expressions within the wider transgender spectrum. I have briefly spoken with Jay and seen him speak from stage and on video. He comes across as someone who comfortably challenges stereotypical assumptions that all trans men are hyper-masculine. Read him here encouraging readers of the Times Educational Supplement to celebrate transgender students and allow male assigned students to express femininity in their schools.

Journalist Juliet Jacques (in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section) whose blogging for The Guardian has talked frankly about the process of coming to terms with being a trans woman and undergoing transition in a very public and visible way that has exposed the human story behind trans* people’s lives to a whole new audience. In her earlier articles, Juliet talks about how she did not have the stereotypical transsexual childhood story (in a way I hugely identified with), and tried on and explored numerous transgender identities and communities before transitioning. She writes about having been drawn to male crossdressers, made to feel less alone by the comedy of ‘action transvestite’ Eddy Izzard and going through years of identifying as a gay male crossdresser and later ‘transgender’ as described by Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein. As such she is one of the few journalists to have written about transgender people who ‘live beyond the traditional gender binary’ in a mainstream outlet.

Creative People

Creativity and consuming the creative works of others is hugely important to me. As such, I was pleased to see three creative trans women whose work I enjoy recognised in the lists as much for their non-activist careers and artistic merits as their work as ‘professional trans people’:

Roz Kaveney is given recognition as a poet and novelist. I first saw Roz on television talking about science fiction and fantasy, then later met her in person through science fiction conventions (where she is well known and respected in the community of authors and fans). If you like a science fiction or fantasy author, Roz is probably friends with them. I later learned she is openly transsexual from her (highly recommended) poetry LiveJournal and from there found her Twitter feed, where she’s shared sonnets about transgender history, remembrance and bodies [NSFW], and challenged the prejudices of others (most notably Julie Bindel) in a relentlessly reasonable and open minded way. Roz is notable to the nonbinary community for having talked about neutrois (agender) identity along with the wider inclusive meaning of transgender, for the Guardian newspaper’s blog in June 2010.

Comedian Bethany Black is given recognition for being successful in the competitive and male dominated world of stand up comedy while being openly transsexual. She describes herself as “Britain’s only Goth, lesbian, transsexual stand-up comedian” and challenges binary transgender stereotypes enough to proudly feature in the MtF Butches Tumblr. She’s also very funny.

Actress and singer Adèle Anderson of marvellous humorous female cabaret group Facinating Aida is recognised under ‘lifetime achievement’. Adèle is recognised for her acting and singing career, and her campaigning for the British Humanist Association, most notably against the Pope’s recent state visit to the UK. Adèle came out as a trans woman in the mid-1980s after success while ‘stealth’, in part due to pressure from the press, she later talked publicly about how difficult that process was. As a transgender singer and lover of comedy music, I personally find inspiration in Adèle and her willingness to pursue a singing career despite the risk of it outing her.

To Conclude…

So while I am not aware of any nonbinary, genderqueer-identified or solely gender nonconforming trans* people recognised on the Pink List this year, every one of the trans* people listed above has either worked for their rights and/or recognition in some way, or challenged binary gender roles and the public’s stereotypical view of transgender people through their openness, their humour or their own gender nonconformity. I don’t know about you but, as a genderqueer and nonbinary person, I think that’s worth celebrating.

And let’s not overlook the significance of the inclusion of openly intersex activist and LGBTQQi addiction specialist Sarah Graham recognised in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section, who has been frank and open about her life experiences in an article for The Independent and an episode of the BBC radio programme The Essay broadcast on Radio 3.

Finally, we should not forget all the people on the list who work for trans* people as part of their careers or wider LGBT activism. I want to wrap up this article by pointing you at a video of the person who made the number one spot in this year’s Pink List, Elly Barnes talking about how her Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans History Month work in schools led to her pupils being exposed to positive queer and trans* role models in assembly and taught in science classes about how gender variance and transition is a normal part of some people’s lives. If Elly’s recognition in the Pink List leads to just one other teacher following her example and achieving the same, then it will have been an indisputable success.

* The asterisk at the end of ‘trans*’ denotes that this is the wider inclusive form of trans that includes all transgender, transsexual, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant and gender nonconforming people regardless of gender identity or expression.

The Necker Cube: Symbol For Androgyny

Posted by – June 25, 2011

The Necker Cube is an optical illusion first proposed by Swiss crystallographer Louis Albert Necker in 1832. The cube is a two dimensional line drawing that may be interpreted as a three dimensional cube in one of two orientations. The cube is often presented as a symbol of ambiguity and an illustration of the human brain’s ability to switch between two states of perception when presented with an ambiguous image.

The Necker Cube was first proposed as the symbol for androgyny in c.1996 by Raphael Carter in The Angel’s Dictionary, part of the Androgyny RAQ:

Necker Cuben. 1. An optical illusion in the shape of a cube. May take either of two forms:
CUBE1 . . . CUBE2
Proposed by the author as a symbol of androgyny, because it is either concave or convex depending on how you look at it. I prefer this to the mars-plus-venus sign, which depends upon a juxtaposition of stereotpyes (sword and shield for male, looking-glass for female), and which, furthermore, combines the signs for the two most irritating gods in the Roman pantheon. If we must depend on Greek mythology, I would prefer to take a cue from Janus and use some variation of the two-faces motif on the cover of some editions of The Left Hand of Darkness. The Necker cube, however, is simpler, and suggests ambiguity in more than mere gender. Who wants to design the lapel pin?

Practical Androgyny uses an adjusted form of the Necker Cube with a smaller square in the centre, as focusing on this square may allow the brain to break out of its cycle between two ‘equally possible interchangeable stable states’ and see the image for what it is; a two dimensional drawing which is neither of the interpreted cubes. Thus the androgyny symbol is itself an example of something that can be taken as one of two binary options or as something else entirely:

Image showing three Necker Cubes side by side, the first is highlighted to cause the cube to appear to be oriented to face towards the top left, the other is highlighted to appear to be oriented downwards towards the bottom right, the third has the centre square and the triangles around it highlighted to invite the viewer to interpret it as a flat image

The Necker Cube is symbolic of the androgynous individual’s physical ambiguity. Regardless of whether we identify our genders in the terms of a gender continuum, as being without gender or as being something else entirely, the Necker Cube symbolises the ambiguity we present to a world that is primed to see all people as one of two binary options. Androgynous people can be taken as female, male or as something else entirely but, like the Necker Cube, our ambiguity invites those who interact with us to question what they see, and perhaps strive to see the true picture.

How transgender organisations can demonstrate inclusivity

Posted by – April 28, 2011

Transgender 'No Entry'Some people with less common transgender identities express feelings of being made to feel excluded, erased or ‘not trans enough’ for general transgender spaces, organisations and even identity labels. However the organisers of these spaces intend that all transgender people should be welcome and included and do not wish to see anyone turned away.

There is a mismatch between how inclusive transgender organisations feel they are or should be and the message their terminology, resources and support materials are giving to non-binary, genderqueer, gender variant and gender transgressive people.

This article is directed at organisations already including or representing transgender people and aims to highlight how well-meaning transgender support and information materials can exclude or erase the experiences of transgender identified people who feel they are on the fringes of, or currently outside of the ‘transgender community’.

Defining ‘transgender’

The most basic way for a transgender organisation to show all transgender people that they are included and represented is to describe the organisation and give its definition of ‘transgender’ in a way that includes those people’s identities. If a transgender person reads an organisation’s materials and fails to see their own experience reflected or, worse still, sees their identity erased by a simplistic or highly prescriptive explanation of what ‘transgender’ means, they are unlikely to feel included or represented.

Before we begin to look at how to demonstrate inclusion of all transgender people, we require a definition of what ‘transgender’ should mean. Practical Androgyny’s definition is as follows:

‘Transgender’ is an umbrella term that can potentially cover all people who transgress or transcend (go beyond the limits of) society’s rules and concepts of gender. People may be transgender due to their self expression, identity or personal history.

Transgender is a wide and nebulous concept and so is mainly used as a ‘cover all’ term to allow all people who experience prejudice or discomfort due to their ‘transgressive gender’ to be described and protected (such as in hate crime or employment protection legislation).

Most people who fall under the umbrella of an inclusive ‘transgender’ definition are likely to have their own specific identity label that may or may not include some concept of ‘transgender’. Some people who technically fit the definition may even strongly object to being called ‘transgender’, however others in the same position may feel just as strongly that it applies to them. Some people with ‘niche’ identities under the transgender umbrella may also use ‘transgender’ as their main identity label, as this is more widely understood.

As with the label ‘queer’, the potential for who may be covered by ‘transgender’ is wide, but it is up to individuals whether they personally choose to adopt a ‘transgender’ identity (self-identification). However what is most important is that no organisation claiming to include, support or represent all transgender people should ever exclude or erase anyone who feels their experience or identity is transgender.

Examples of inclusivity

Many organisations provide similarly inclusive definitions of transgender. For example, the Transgender Education Network of Texas has a verbose definition of transgender, I’d recommend reading it in full, but here is a relevant extract:

Transgender Education Network of Texas defines the term transgender as an umbrella term applied to a variety of individuals, which have an internal gender identity (a self identification as woman, man, neither, or some other combination) different than their sex assigned at birth (the identification by others as a male or female based on physical/genetic sex), and/or individuals which may exhibit behaviors, or a gender expression that diverge from the normative gender role (woman or man).


A transgender individual may have characteristics that are normally associated with a particular gender, identify elsewhere on the traditional gender continuum, or exist outside of it as other, agender, Genderqueer or third gender. Transgender people may also identify as bigender, or along several places on either the traditional transgender continuum, or the more encompassing continuums which have been developed in response to the significantly more detailed studies done in recent years.

Definitions of transgender used for the purpose of protecting individuals from hate crime or discrimination tend to be equally wide. For example in December 1998, the City and County of San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission published Compliance Guidelines to Prohibit Gender Identity Discrimination respecting San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12A, 12B, 12C; and San Francisco Municipal Police Code Article 33. These explain:

Transgender is used as an umbrella term that includes female and male cross dressers, transvestites, drag queens or kings, female or male impersonators, pre-operative, post-operative or non-operative transsexuals, masculine females, feminine males, all persons whose perceived gender or anatomical sex may be incongruent with their gender expression, and all persons exhibiting gender characteristics and identities which are perceived to be androgynous.

Wikipedia opts to recognise that there are a number of different, possibly incompatible transgender narratives and includes the following overlapping definitions:

Transgender (pronounced /trænzˈdʒɛndər/) is a general term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups involving tendencies to vary from culturally conventional gender roles.


The precise definition for transgender remains in flux, but includes:

“Of, relating to, or designating a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender roles, but combines or moves between these.”

“People who were assigned a sex, usually at birth and based on their genitals, but who feel that this is a false or incomplete description of themselves.”

“Non-identification with, or non-presentation as, the sex (and assumed gender) one was assigned at birth.”

Cultural factors

How an individual expresses their ‘transgressive gender’ may vary depending on background and culture. This can affect the type of language they use to explain their own identity, and the identities of other transgender people. It can even affect whether they see themself as transgender at all.

There are transgender roles within a variety of cultures and communities. Within Western culture there are several potentially transgender roles available within gay, lesbian, fetish and crossdressing subcultures, described through medical ‘disorders’ and treatments, and represented through the media or niche online communities.

Which of these roles (or explanations) a transgender individual is initially drawn to depends on their background and life experiences. They may continue to see themself and other transgender people through the lens of these roles even when moving from one role or subculture to another. For example, some transsexual men may still consider themselves to be part of the lesbian community while others would reject this strongly, and some transsexual women would consider themselves to be ‘full time crossdressers’ or ‘autogynephilic’ while others would reject this equally strongly.

There are many different ‘transgender communities’ based around different subcultural roles and philosophies, different in person or online groups and communities (such as social or support groups, club nights or gender clinics), and different writings and literature. Each of these communities may have their own differing transgender discourse and vocabulary, reached through consensus between its members. Each transgender community’s discourse may seem incorrect, exclusionary or even offensive to another transgender community, even when they are self-describing identical concepts.

Avoid oversimplification

Exclusion and erasure is often an unintentional consequence of attempts to make definitions and descriptions neat, simple and easy to understand. As an activist focused on practicalities, this author recognises that it is desirable to explain concepts so that they appear straight forward and compelling to laypeople. However this should never be done at the expense of people’s identities and experiences.

There is no single transgender narrative that covers the self definitions of all transgender people. It is not possible to make statements such as ‘all transgender people have a gender identity different to the one they were assigned at birth’ or ‘all transgender people are trapped in a body of the wrong sex’ without erasing the experiences and self definitions of some transgender identified people.

Not all transgender people subscribe to the concept of ‘gender identity’, not all transgender people experience discomfort around their body and/or their social role. Many transgender people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth but are driven to ‘crossdress’, request alternative pronouns or transgress gender boundaries in some other way. Even those transgender people who have ‘transitioned’ may still consider themselves to be members of their assigned sex, hold non-binary genders or to fit within both binary gender roles under some circumstances.

Do not force transgender people to adopt a prescribed transgender narrative or discourse in order to be included or represented by your organisation, unless you recognise and explain that you are explicitly excluding those who do not.

It is problematic when an organisation claiming to represent all transgender people explains transgender in terms that many would reject. It is especially problematic when such organisations seek to define how transgender people are legally defined or explained to the general public, their employers, medical professionals and loved ones.

Language that may exclude or erase transgender experiences and identities

If your definition of transgender and your supporting materials are explained in terms of a single simple transgender narrative, those who do not adopt this narrative or see their experiences reflected in it are likely to feel excluded or erased.

The following are examples of problematic language and concepts used by major transgender organisations at the time of writing. None of these would necessarily be problematic when explained within a wider inclusive description of transgender. They become problematic when presented as applying to all transgender people, through direct statements or by nature of applying to all examples and case studies presented.

‘Covers transsexual people and crossdressers’

In the 1990s it was common for many organisations claiming to be ‘transgender’ to see this as simply a term that covered both transvestites and transsexual people. This often went hand in hand with the equally outdated implication that individuals assigned male at birth and transitioning to or crossdressing as female were the default type of ‘transgenderism’.

It should not need to be stated that if your definition requires all transgender people to identify as either transsexual, transvestite or a crossdresser, you’re excluding and erasing a large proportion of transgender identifying people. However the following definition was found on the website of a major UK transgender charity that otherwise does admirable and important work:

Transgender: An umbrella term used to include transsexual people, transvestites and cross-dressers, as in “the transgender community.”

This author is informed that the charity is making an effort to be more inclusive and are already working with genderqueer identified people. I look forward to seeing their website and this definition expanded to include non-binary gender and genderqueer identities and experiences.

Binary gender only / Excluding non-binary and genderqueer people

Defining transgender solely in terms of the binary genders (female and male, man and woman, girl and boy) excludes those transgender people who have non-binary gender identities such as agender, bigender, polygender or intergender identities, or ‘third gender’ identities which are defined without reference to female and male.

The exclusion of non-binary gender may sometimes be explicit, for example a definition saying:

Those who seek to adjust their lives to live as women or men

Alternatively the exclusion may be through omission, by including a number of examples or case studies of transgender experience, none of which reflect non-binary genders.

As non-binary gender is a little-known concept, it is not sufficient to simply cover non-binary experience by implication, for example saying ‘an other gender’ instead of ‘the other gender’. While this is an admirable first step, non-binary gender should be spelt out explicitly.

If a list of transgender terms is provided, ‘non-binary gender’ and ‘genderqueer’ should be included within the definitions. One of the first things this author checks when viewing an organisation’s materials is whether ‘genderqueer’ (a term that has been in common use for over a decade) is mentioned or defined anywhere. Not explaining the concept of genderqueer or non-binary gender within explanations of other transgender terms is a clear sign that I’m not included, or at least not considered important.

When providing additional definitions, do not provide definitions of some specific identities under the non-binary or genderqueer umbrella while excluding others. For example if you list bigender, intergender and third gender but omit agender, those who are agender may feel intentionally excluded, or at least annoyed to have been overlooked when other specific identities were singled out. Also be aware that some people with non-binary genders may not include themselves under the label ‘genderqueer’ as this may have political/philosophical connotations in some contexts.

Static gender only / Erasing fluid gender and shifts in gender

Many transgender people experience their gender identity or gender expression as a fluid feeling that changes with time or setting. Some feel different genders on different days, or have different gender preferences around different groups of people. Some experience gender as a social phenomenon that is imposed on them by, or shaped through, their social interactions with others.

Some transgender people identify as having fluid gender that changes from day to day or moment to moment. They may express this through androgyny or by shifting between different gender roles or presentations at different times. Whether they identify as gender fluid or not, most people’s identity and/or self expression shifts over time.

Not all transgender people consider themselves to have been born transgender. Not all transgender people consider their past history of identifying as a different gender than at present to have been a falsehood or mistake. Not all transgender people consider their current gender identity or expression to be permanent.

Explaining transgender solely in terms of a static life-long gender identity or expression erases those whose gender changes over time. Using a prescriptive transgender narrative that expects life long consistency of identity excludes or alienates those who experience any degree of fluidity and fluctuation in their gender over whatever time scale.

Erasing non-binary transsexual/transitioning people

Often when an organisation successfully acknowledges the existence of non-binary identified people, it nonetheless falls short on inclusion when defining terms such as ‘transsexual’ or ‘transition’, for example:

Transsexual Person: A person who feels a consistent and overwhelming desire to transition and fulfil their life as a member of the opposite gender

Transition: The process of moving from living in one gender to living in the other

Many transsexual or transitioning people consider ‘physical sex’, gender roles, social perception and gender identity to be separate factors to their gender dysphoria. They may experience discomfort over their body but not their gender role, they may transition solely to change their body and not their social role or may wish to change their social role while feeling no discomfort over their sex. Many people with non-binary gender identities transition to change their body and/or social role. Many people who currently have non-binary identities have transsexual medical histories (such as this author).

Many people with non-binary gender identities take cross-gender hormones or undergo surgeries or cosmetic procedures to remove or alter sexual characteristics. As such it may alienate or erase these people’s experiences to describe such procedures only in terms of binary gender, or to make assumptions about the gender identity or pronoun preferences of all people undergoing them. E.g. not only transsexual women undergo facial hair removal or voice therapy and not only transsexual men bind their chests or undergo ‘top surgery’.

Similarly, social and medical transition need not always follow the same path or include the same elements. While many organisations recognise that some people choose not to transition ‘full time’ or choose to undergo hormone therapy without altering their social role, there is little recognition of less common transition paths such as surgery without hormone therapy or ceasing or ‘reversing’ hormone therapy after gaining permanent changes and/or undergoing surgery.

Glossing over ‘detransition’, non-transition or experimental identities

There is a tendency to gloss over or omit discussion of ‘detransition’ due to fear that this casts transsexual people in a poor light or makes arguments for the provision of transgender surgeries seem less sound. However doing so erases those whose end goal was to transition to a state of androgyny or gender neutrality, or who found that their gender dysphoria was abated through medical transition making some part or all of social transition unnecessary.

‘Detransitioners’ are often individuals with non-binary gender identities who found they did not fit a traditional ‘transsexual path’. ‘Detransition’ to some degree is not uncommon, what is uncommon is for such people to no longer identify as transgender in some way, or to regret the process of exploring and expressing their transgenderness in order to discover their comfort point.

While there may be a perception that non-binary gender or androgyny is often a ‘phase’ or experimental identity for those on the way to binary and/or transsexual identity, there are many who had the opposite experience of going through a ‘phase’ of binary transsexualism before settling into a non-binary gender expression (this author included).

Those who choose not to transition, to delay their transition or who choose to omit, ‘reverse’ or subvert any aspect of their transition are no less transgender than those for whom the traditional transsexual transition path turns out to be correct. Many transgender people feel that the concept of transition does not apply to them at all and that they are fully transgender without making any social or medical changes. This too is an equally valid transgender experience.

Gender identity

A common problematic approach is to define transgender solely in terms of ‘gender identity’, for example:

Transgender people have a gender identity different to the gender role they were assigned at birth.

This implies that those who transgress gender boundaries while identifying with their assigned gender are not transgender. This would exclude those who identify as transvestite or as a crossdresser, or pressure them to adopt a similar narrative incorporating the concept of gender identity. It could also potentially exclude those who experience gender dysphoria towards their body (often described as ‘sex’ rather than ‘gender’) but not their social role, such as self described ‘FtMtF’ and ‘MtFtM’ transsexuals.

The above definition could be made more inclusive by also mentioning ‘gender expression’ and society’s current expectations, for example:

Transgender people have a gender identity or expression different to the gender role they were assigned at birth or are expected to exhibit in adulthood.

Some transgender identified people feel that they do not have a gender, perhaps identifying as non-gender, agender, genderless or neutrois. They may or may not feel that this lack of gender constitutes a ‘gender identity’ and may or may not feel the need to ‘transition’ in some way in order to express it. Such non-gender people are likely to feel excluded by a definition that refers to all people having a gender identity, or that all transgender or transitioning people are motivated by their gender identity. Language such as welcoming people of ‘all genders’ is equally likely to cause unintended feelings of exclusion.

Feminine and masculine

Some transgender organisations recognise the potential for exclusion in the language of gender identity and attempt to be more inclusive by substituting female and male with the associated terms ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. Some organisations define gender solely in terms of ‘expression of masculinity and femininity’. Others seek to avoid referring to gender assigned at birth (as in ‘FAAB’ or ‘MtF’) and so use ‘transfeminine’ or ‘transmasculine’ as substitutes (with the implication than all trans people are one or the other).

Many transgender people however reject the concepts of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’, or identify with the side of that ‘continuum’ traditionally associated with their assigned gender. Transsexual men may see themselves as femme or feminine and reject the implication that they are at all masculine, transsexual women may equally see themselves as butch or masculine and reject the implication that they are feminine. Non-binary gender identified people, especially those who see themselves as non-gender, agender or ‘third gender’ are just as likely to reject ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ as they are ‘female’ and ‘male’, seeing both as false binaries (as does this author).

Using feminine or masculine to describe those who consider themselves to be the opposite, or who reject the concepts of femininity and masculinity as part of a false ‘socially constructed’ binary, is likely to cause those people to feel alienated, excluded, misgendered or erased.

Gender dysphoria and Gender Identity Disorder

Another common problematic approach is to define transgender solely in terms of ‘gender dysphoria’ or ‘Gender Identity Disorder’, or to use these interchangeably with ‘transgender’, ‘trans’, ‘transgenderism’ or the concept of being ‘gender variant’.

As gender dysphoria is tied closely with the ‘medical model’ of transsexualism and Gender Identity Disorder this implies that all transgender people are (or should be) some variant of transsexual. This restricts who may be described as ‘transgender’ to only those who follow the common transsexual narrative of feeling extreme discomfort with their ‘sex’ or ‘assigned gender’ that drives them to wish to present themself as a different gender role within society.

The treatment of ‘gender dysphoria’ and ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ is regulated by a medical organisation known as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (previously know as the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association). This organisation effectively polices the definition of who qualifies as gender dysphoric, ‘suffering’ from Gender Identity Disorder and (due to the nature of their name) who is seen as ‘transgender’ by medical professionals.

Materials produced by organisations following the medical model tend to be heavily focused on gender dysphoria as a medical phenomenon that drives all transgender behaviours and identities. If crossdressing, non-binary gender or genderqueer identities such as bigender, agender and fluid gender are represented at all, these are described as driven by gender dysphoria, either as alternative ways of coping with gender identity disorder (manifestations of transsexualism) or as variations on it (perhaps the disorder is not felt strongly or is seen as ‘Gender Identity Disorder Not Otherwise Specified’). This can create an apparent transgender hierarchy and appear to relegate many forms of transgender to ‘transsexual light’, implying that those who do not transition experience the same feelings of discomfort as those who do, but are choosing to cope without ‘full treatment’.

A definition that places emphasis on gender dysphoria therefore implies that a level of discomfort or even suffering is required in order to adopt a transgender identity, leading to some genderqueer or gender variant people feeling ‘not trans enough’ or that their feelings of transgender identity are ‘appropriation’ if they feel transition is unnecessary or do not experience severe discomfort over their body or social role.

Such emphasis also excludes those who crossdress or transgress gender boundaries for other reasons, even though they may experience transphobic abuse/gender policing or consider themselves to be transgender.

It is not necessarily problematic for organisations wishing to represent and include all transgender people to make reference to the medical model and the phenomenon of gender dysphoria. As this is most likely the current dominant transgender narrative, it is likely to be incorporated into the self identities of many transgender people. However it should always be made clear that many other transgender people do not experience gender dysphoria and do not define themselves in terms of the medical model of transgenderism. These people’s experiences should not be forced into the narrative of gender dysphoria or be implied to be of lesser importance or significance than those who do fit that narrative.

It may be perfectly valid for an organisation to choose to only represent those who experience gender dysphoria and fit the medical model, but if this is the case that organisation should clearly acknowledge that it is intentionally excluding some transgender people who do not fall under its remit. It should not speak for these people or claim that they are not really transgender.

Trans vs Trans*

Many transgender organisations refer to themselves as ‘trans’, say they cover all ‘trans people’ or use ‘trans’ interchangeably with ‘transgender’. However, in practice ‘trans man’ is used exclusively to describe FtM transsexual men and ‘trans woman’ is used exclusively to describe MtF transsexual women. Therefore there is a clear implication that ‘trans’ refers to transsexual people, or at least those who have a gender identity different to that assigned at birth.

In the UK, NHS (medical) materials use ‘trans men’, ‘trans women’ and sometimes ‘trans people’ interchangeably with transsexualism or gender dysphoria.

Transgender people who identify as, or are commonly seen as, the gender role associated with the sex they were assigned at birth (men or women) are unlikely to feel comfortable describing themselves as ‘trans’, as others may assume that they are transsexual or appropriating transsexual experience (claiming to be ‘trans men’ or ‘trans women’).

As many transgender organisations and individuals use ‘trans’ and ‘transgender’ interchangeably, many gender transgressive, genderqueer or gender variant people who have every right to a transgender self identity, may nonetheless feel that they are ‘not trans enough’ to quality as transgender. It is not uncommon for people to use terms such as ‘genderqueer’, ‘gender outlaw’ or ‘tranny’ (note, others consider this offensive) to describe themselves while not feeling comfortable with ‘transgender’ or ‘trans’ for this reason.

Recently there has been a move in some online transgender communities to adopt the alternative inclusive abbreviation ‘trans*’ (the asterisk is a wildcard, denoting that several different suffixes could apply). This could be short for ‘transsexual’, ‘transgender’, ‘transvestite’, ‘trans man’, ‘trans woman’, ‘(gender) transgressive’ or ‘(gender) transcendent’. There is also the implication that the wildcard invites and includes the reader’s own personal self definition. As such trans* is understood to also include genderqueer, gender variant and gender non-conforming people, and all other potentially transgender identities.

The use of ‘trans*’ is a quick, shorthand way to symbolise that your definition of ‘transgender’ is the widest, most inclusive form.

One word of caution though, be wary of using ‘trans*’ to only mean non-binary or non-transsexual transgender people as this could lead to othering. Say ‘trans*’ only when you mean all transgender people. Do not imply that some people are ‘trans’ while other people are ‘trans*’, by definition ‘trans*’ must be inclusive of all.


Be wary of including intersex in descriptions and definitions of transgender without clarifying that the majority of intersex people do not object to the gender they were assigned at birth or consider that their intersex status makes them transgender. Do not, for example, list intersex as one of many transgender identities. Intersex is a separate but potentially overlapping issue.

However do be aware of intersex issues and avoid erasing intersex experience by describing sex in purely binary (dyadic) terms, or implying that assigned sex and genetic or physical sex are always equivalent at birth.

Equally transgender people should be wary of appropriating intersex experiences by describing transgender as a type of intersex condition, their own gender identity as intersex (intergender would be more appropriate) or by using intersex people’s existence as an argument against the gender binary or in support of transgender rights. There are many more transgender people than intersex people and so our appropriation of their identity could easily drown out the voices of a group that already struggles for visibility. Allow intersex people to talk for themselves and choose whether they (personally) belong in our communities.

If a transgender organisation opts to also represent and include all intersex people, it should fully understand (preferably through first hand experience) intersex issues and expect to cover intersex people who do not consider their identity and experiences to be at all transgender.

Summary and recommendations

‘Transgender’ is an umbrella term that can potentially include a wide range of gender transgressive identities, self expressions, behaviours and personal histories. Organisations that wish to include all transgender people often unintentionally exclude or erase some transgender identities or expressions with their resources and choice of language.

When non-binary gender, genderqueer or gender variant people look through an organisation’s materials, they look for reflections of their own experiences. If an organisation aims to include and welcome all people with transgender identities, their materials should do the following:

  • Recognise that transgender is a wide umbrella term; define ‘transgender’ in a way that does not exclude or erase any transgender identified people
  • Do not simplify transgender experiences into a single prescriptive transgender narrative; recognise the diversity of transgender experiences, narratives and self-definitions
  • Never make statements about all ‘trans’ or ‘transgender’ people that only apply to transsexual or binary identified people; if you mean transsexual and/or binary gender, say this explicitly
  • Explicitly include non-binary gender, genderqueer and non-transsexual exampleswhen:
    • Including a glossary or list of definitions of transgender terms; at least include ‘genderqueer’ and ‘non-binary gender’
    • Giving examples of hypothetical transgender experiences to illustrate a point
    • Providing case studies or personal stories describing the experiences of real transgender people
    • Selecting ‘officers’ or board members to represent the organisation or be involved in its policy or decision making process
  • Recognise that non-binary gender, genderqueer and crossdressing people can also be transsexual; do not simplify definitions and descriptions of transsexuality to erase non-binary transsexuals
  • Recognise that some transgender people feel they have no gender identity or identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, but have transgressed gender and earned a transgender identity or status by other means; transgender men and women could have been assigned those genders at birth
  • Recognise that some transgender people reject the terms ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ or identify with the side of that binary ‘appropriate’ to their assigned gender; ‘transfeminine’ and ‘transmasculine’ can sometimes be misgendering or erasing
  • Recognise that some transgender people experience gender fluidity and do not expect their gender to remain the same in the future; some people experience gender as changing day to day or arising through their interactions with other people
  • Recognise that not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria or subscribe to the concept of gender identity, this may mean recognising and explaining that you are explicitly excluding some transgender people because they do not fall under your remit
  • Be aware that many people assume that ‘trans’ or even ‘transgender’ refer only to transsexual or gender dysphoric people, and so may need their identities listed separately to ‘trans’ or ‘transgender’ in order to feel included
  • Consider using the wider ‘trans*’ in the place of ‘trans’ when referring to all transgender, genderqueer and gender variant people, however do not use ‘trans*’ only when referring to non-transsexual people as this would be othering
  • Be aware of, but avoid appropriating or erasing intersex experiences; recognise that intersex is a separate but potentially overlapping issue to transgender

Glossaries and other links

Posted by – March 13, 2011

When I planned this site I saw people who already identified as trans*, genderqueer or gender variant as the primary audience. However since launching a week ago, I’ve had requests from people with very little knowledge or understanding of gender diversity asking for some sort of primer or glossary to help them understand some of the words I use.

I’m absolutely planning to write a glossary of my own and make my attempt at describing the complexity of gender at some point. Right now though I want to focus my energies on creating useful resources for those of us who are already living outside the gender binary or who are uncomfortable with their assigned gender and considering androgyny as an option to relieve that discomfort.

That doesn’t mean I can’t point you at a glossary though, in fact I can point you at several different excellent resources provided by a number of organisations and individuals.

TransWhat?If you’re a layperson with little or no understanding of these issues, I’d first like to point you toward TransWhat?, this is a site aimed at potential allies of trans* and gender questioning people, such as family members, friends, co-workers, lovers, spouses, teachers and therapists. Their Confused? Start Here page is an excellent primer on the basics of transgender experience. They also have a glossary of terms relating to the subject with well thought out definitions.

Gender Spectrum, a site aimed at the families, carers and educators of gender variant children and teens also has a great introduction to the complexities of gender, Understanding Gender, including a short glossary with slightly longer explanations than TransWhat’s.

No DesignationThe excellent blog No Designation, which focuses on the political issues of gender and sexual minority communities also provides a set of definitions for commonly used terms. These are defined in a more inclusive manner that may better express the identities of those using the terms to self-define.

GenderforkIf you’re more of a visual person you’ll likely enjoy the community blog Genderfork which provides genderqueer, unisex and androgynous photos and thoughts provided by its readers. The site aims to provide a supportive community for the expression of identities across the gender spectrum and so is a good way to see how genderqueer and non-binary gender people express themselves. If you enjoy Genderfork, you might also enjoy the Tumblr photo blogs Genderqueer and FYAndrogyny (note, the latter also includes examples of androgynous fashion and has a not-safe-for-work full title).

If you’re interested in a more historical perspective, you could read the Androgyny RAQ, the original site on ambiguous gender presentation written in the mid-1990s and sadly offline since 2005. It has however been preserved at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and I’ve created a faster, more reliable mirror of that archive on this server. The RAQ contains several interesting articles on subjects such as the etiquette of interacting with androgynes, a lexicon defining a number of related terms (note, terms coined since the mid-1990s are omitted) and many more. This is possibly the most influential site I ever read, a complete revelation when I was a gender dysphoric teen trying to understand myself. Despite its age, I still find useful insights from reading it today.

And finally, if you’re looking for a discussion community, there are active forums at What Is Gender and a number of active LiveJournal communities including Androgynes (disclaimer: I created this community in 2003) and Genderqueer. And if all those aren’t enough, check out the additional links in the side bar!