How transgender organisations can demonstrate inclusivity

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.

Intersex

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

17 thoughts on “How transgender organisations can demonstrate inclusivity”

  1. This is v cool and useful! and must have taken many hours of work! I salute your creativity and commitment!

    Of course the bits I’m now going to talk about are the ones I slightly don’t agree with 🙂

    On this bit,

    have transgressed gender and earned a transgender identity or status by other means;

    I’d rather say “arrived at by other routes” than “earned by other means”. “Earned” stood out to me as a loaded concept to bring in here – it has associations for me of policing and exclusion. As in, “who has earned their transgender status & who hasn’t?” (“who decides?”)

    what do you reckon?

    On a more minor level, I also had a quibble about your commentary on the definition/explanation
    “Transgender: An umbrella term used to include transsexual people, transvestites and cross-dressers, as in “the transgender community.”

    I think there’s a difference worth acknowledging between omitting identities and defining them as not included. If you say an umbrella term “includes” x, y and z, you’re not actually saying it doesn’t include a, b and c as well. Logically, x, y and z are just example categories.

    Your framing of that phrase put it in the context of if your definition forces all transgender people to identify as either transsexual, transvestite or a crossdresser. I think “force” is the wrong word here.

    I’m not saying at all that it was a wrong example to include – it’s a good example of putting the emphasis in a certain rather traditional place, and I agree the omission of other possibilities is problematic, and arguably misleading. But it’s not, I think, as problematic as literally defining the un-mentioned possibilities out of the scope of transgender.

    Not wanting this literary housekeeping to take away from your overall useful arguments, though. Go you 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks for the feedback, constructive criticism is always welcome!

      I prevaricated over ‘earned’, I used it with the intention that it would be loaded with the implication that all types of transgender people potentially experience prejudice, loss of status and threat of violence for their transgressive gender, be that gender identity, expression, bodies or medical history. It was meant to be loaded against transgender people/organisations who are intentionally excluding people who are ‘the wrong kind of trans’ or ‘not trans enough’, to say to them that there’s more than one way to ‘cross the line’ into transgressive gender in our society. I’m comfortable having used ‘earned’ within the context of the social model of transgender (versus the traditional medical model) I outlined in the first few sections. Essentially there are gender identities, bodies, histories, behaviours and expressions, they are potentially neutral, they become transgressive within the context of a society that enforces gender roles and policies bodies and legal status.

      However I do see your point and can see that others may well read it that way too. I would hope that the larger context of the article would make it clear that the social model of transgender described is considerably wider than the medical model.

      And regarding the singling out of that particular definition, I should really have done what I did with other examples given and reworded to an archetypal representation of a number of different organisations (there are others that have similar problems but they tend to be about crossdressing rather than claiming to be for all transgender people). I experienced such complete disbelief (bordering on outrage) over how that organisation’s materials as a whole were so very clearly aimed at binary MtF TS, TV and CD people with FtM TS people added as an afterthought that I took the exact wording out of context, only to then discuss it as if the context was there (in an earlier draft it was a full on name and shame).

      However, I would still argue that ‘used to include’ in this case is meant as ‘used to describe’, it’s not the same as ‘can include’ or ‘such as’, the ‘used to’ has a particular meaning. There is a strong implication that it’s listing the full set, it’s not just a list of examples with an omission. I would certainly find that definition extremely alienating even outside the context of the wider site, and feel ‘forced’ to adopt a very limited and misgendering transgender narrative in order to interact with the organisation (or at least do a lot of work to educate them, which I’m not sure others would be willing to do). And yes, a definition that defined transgender without reference to labels but said something like ‘people who express a desire to live as women or men through transition part or full time or by coping in other ways’ would be even worse, but then that’s paraphrasing another definition elsewhere on the same website…

      I’ll have a think about how that section can be rewritten to be clearer. It’s the part that went through the least rewriting from the original concept of the article and I think it shows.

      Thanks again for the excellent constructive feedback!

      Like

      1. Changed ‘Includes’ to ‘Covers’ and ‘forces’ to ‘requires’. I think that’s enough to make the point more clearly, especially when combined with our discussion in the comments. Thanks again!

        Like

  2. After several Tumblr users commented on the summary and recommendations posted there to express dislike of ‘trans*’ because defining ‘trans’ clearly should be enough, I wrote the following:

    ‘Trans’ is problematic because it’s used in ‘trans man’ and ‘trans woman’ to exclusively mean transsexual/gender dysphoric individuals with gender identities/roles different to those assigned at birth.

    There are many people who happily identify with their assigned gender of man/woman while being transgender in their gender expression or behaviour. By most people’s usage they could not be ‘trans men’ or ‘trans women’.

    Consider actor and comedian Eddie Izzard, a self identified transvestite man who experiences harassment for his gender expression. He is not a ‘trans man’ by most people’s usage (and by the usage of many major transgender organisations, especially in the UK), but he is a ‘transgender man’ or a ‘trans* man’.

    Equally if you’ve chosen to subvert or expand your assigned gender role to express your genderqueerness, rather than tell the world you’re a different gender, it’s hardly a stretch to feel you don’t qualify to call yourself trans or to worry about appropriation. Which is why many transgender identified people would call themselves genderqueer or gender non-conforming rather than a ‘trans person’.

    I’ve spoken to enough transgender identified people who do not consider themselves ‘trans’ because of the community’s usage of ‘trans man’ and ‘trans woman’, that I’m convinced that ‘trans’ and ‘trans person’ are potentially problematic when used as umbrella terms in the place of ‘transgender’ or ‘transgender person’.

    So be wary of using ‘trans’ when you mean all transgender people, because in common usage ‘trans’ is clearly associated with gender identity and transition (although I can see how this might be hard for some people to see when they’re in the position of being clearly and unambiguously covered by ‘trans’).

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    1. More Tumblr follow up:

      I should stress that the ‘trans*’ point was included for when orgs are considering using something short and snappy in their name, in headlines or in length restricted mediums such as Twitter.

      My message all along was to avoid erasure through simplification, and shortening down to a single abbreviation is likely to do that. But if there’s limited space, organisations should consider using ‘trans*’ over ‘trans’ to at least signify that they are inclusive of all transgender identities.

      As with all points, this has to be within a wider context of actually demonstrating real inclusivity, otherwise it’s no different to LGB groups adding a T but making no changes to accommodate, welcome or represent transgender people.

      pigblog:

      The thing with “trans/*” in any form is that it implies physical transition, and some trans/* people aren’t going to make any sort of physical transition, including myself. And of course with this is the exclusion of those people who don’t physically transition, again the “not trans enough” thing comes in, and folks used to the binary are utterly uneducated about it because still to them being a woman means having a vagina and so on (in general).

      Yes some people will always see it as that way, although I’d say linguistically it isn’t true – the word was chosen because of the difference between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ and also arguably because of the similarity between transsexual and transvestite.

      Ironically ‘transgender’ was originally coined to be exclusively for people who didn’t take or were prevented from taking the ‘transsexual path’. It was only later repurposed to be a unifying umbrella term for all. It seems the voices of those who do ‘physically transition’ are so dominant in online transgender communities that it’s now approaching the opposite to its original meaning (not helped by the Harry Benjamin committee taking on the word).

      But semantics/etymology aside, there are enough people out there who have transgender identities but don’t feel included in ‘transgender’ because of the perceived emphasis on transition, so there is reason in practical terms to make it clear what you’re taking ‘trans*’ or ‘transgender’ to mean.

      In addition to giving a wide, inclusive definition of transgender and supporting materials that make it clear that all forms of gender transgression are included, the least ambiguous way to make it clear your organisation is fully inclusive of all transgender identities is to separately list genderqueer, gender variant and gender non-conforming people as included within your transgender umbrella. If some people have individual identities that they may not necessarily see as included, list them prominently in your organisation’s description. (But take care not to imply they’re actually separate from transgender).

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    2. Yet more Tumblr follow up, specifically in reply to the April 30, 2011 at 2:05 am comment above:

      voxevidence said:

      I am not unaware of these issues – I did consider using ‘trans*’, but first wanted to investigate the term, because I had been under the impression that when ‘trans’ is used in its umbrella sense, it was meant to refer to all identities covered by ‘trans*’. I decided not to adopt the term after discussing the issues behind it with trans friends and acquaintances of various identities, binary and non-binary. We concluded, in short, that ‘trans’ as an umbrella term SHOULD be used to encompass all identities covered by ‘trans*’, and that if someone uses it to mean something less inclusive, they are using it incorrectly. Some of the people engaged in this discussion help run the UK organisation Gendered Intelligence, an organisation by and for trans people which defines ‘trans’ in the broadly inclusive sense.

      When used as an umbrella term, ‘trans’ is a pars pro toto synecdoche: where part of a concept is used to refer to the whole. Not everyone covered by the umbrella term ‘trans’ must self-identify as a trans person. You are correct: describing Eddie Izzard as a ‘trans man’ would be misleading, given the common understanding of ‘trans man’, but he does fall under the trans umbrella, so technically he is a man who is trans. That doesn’t mean colloquial usage must always reflect this.

      I have a number of friends and acquaintances who would never personally self-identify as ‘a trans person’, but still consider themselves to fall under the trans umbrella. To give some examples of this: a genderqueer male-bodied person who is contentedly perceived as a male crossdresser, but is comfortable with male pronouns; a female-bodied genderqueer person whose gender presentation is completely feminine and prefers female pronouns, but self-identifies as being a mix of male and female; myself – I’d identify as a cisgender transvestite and not as a trans person, but understand transvestism as being included under ‘trans’ as an umbrella term; et cetera.

      In sum, I feel that using ‘trans’ narrowly is inaccurate, and that rather than bowing to that inaccurate use and creating a new term, it would be better to simply use the existing term as it should be used.

      To be absolutely clear, I am not in any way saying that ‘trans’ should be defined narrowly. Transgender is a wide and welcoming umbrella term and anyone who falls under that umbrella should have the right to call themself trans if they feel comfortable with that.

      The point the article was making is that a large and significant group of people with transgender identities do not believe they qualify for being called ‘trans’ specifically because of the ‘trans people’ usage and the dichotomy many sites/resources make between ‘trans vs cis’ (not recognising that people can be both ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ at the same time or not consider themself to fit either). In fact the definition and usage of ‘cisgender’ itself erases many transgender people due to the implication that it’s the opposite of ‘transgender’ while simultaneously solely defined in terms of gender identity and/or dysphoria.

      The article was suggesting that when space is limited and a single short word is required, such as in an organisation’s name, when writing headlines or on character limited sites like Twitter, organisations should considering using ‘trans*’ as that single word as it is universally recognised as including all transgender/gender variant identities.

      In a limited space, how are people to know that you’re using the umbrella term or the exclusive ‘trans people’ usage? The fact that there are two different usages of the word, one of which excludes many transgender people is demonstrably problematic.

      In practical terms, using ‘trans’ without a verbose inclusive definition right next to it absolutely will alienate some transgender people, regardless of whether it *should* or not. So it is sensible to use it with caution and sensitivity, and be aware of its potential implications if you’re trying to appear inclusive even when taken out of context.

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  3. Wow, I am awed by your knowledge and sensitivity to the issues in this post.

    One thing I might add: Don’t imply that identities are always discrete, mutually exclusive entities. Personally I find all sorts of labels describe me in bits and pieces, and not necessarily only at different points in time. I think that relates to your points that, say, a trans man might identify with the lesbian community or a trans woman might reject being called feminine. But also someone might be an agendered FTM high-femme cross dresser–and then some.

    Again, you hit close to this several times in your post (like pointing out that someone might be trans* and also identify with their assigned gender), but I’d say to explicitly include mention of or examples of people with multiple simultaneous contrasting identities, or an identity that can’t be captured in any specific terminology.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad you appreciate the article.

      You have a very valid point, I think lots of non-binary people have transgender identities that can’t be neatly described in less than a long conversation, and even then contain contradictions due to the differing narratives used to explain different aspects of gender.

      I’d go so far as to say I’m generally cautious about simple one word identities that have the implication of a neat package where social role, bodily changes and surgical outcomes all follow naturally from choosing one label. It encourages people questioning their identity to jump to easy answers or feel pressured to want other things because one part of the package is necessary for them. I know I felt that pressure myself and almost made some bad, irreversable decisions because of it (and several ultimately incorrect reversible decisions, but I think that sort of experimentation is healthy for everyone).

      I myself overlap several different trans* identities to varying degrees, or depending on context, and yet the way they’re often described makes them sound discrete and mutually exclusive. I was gender dysphoric for my body before I transitioned, I often feel dysphoria from social roles and yet in many ways feel like I don’t have a gender identity, but simultaneously feel that my gender is a complicated changing concept. I could explain myself as agender but classically transsexual for my body only, but I also found myself extremely comfortable with the androgynous body I ended up with by chance and actually worry that if I gained more pronounced secondary sexual characteristics I might get physical or social dysphoria from those. I enjoy gender play, I’m comfortable with different pronouns from different people and in different contexts, I reject gender roles and terms like masculine and feminine, and I also want to expand gender roles to allow wider degrees of gender expression for everyone. So you could quite easily describe my identity/expression in various different ways depending on your narrative, or find reason to exclude me from many of the identities I’ve used for convenience.

      I’d argue that this is covered under the point of not oversimplifying things into neat concepts and labels at the expense of erasing real people’s experiences and identities, but there would certainly be no harm in spelling it out explicitly.

      I could also say that some people are comfortable with different identities/treatment with different people and in different social contexts. Some people are happy to have different pronouns or gendered names around family, friends or loved ones or even in the bedroom but would be unhappy with the same treatment from strangers. For some first impressions from strangers must match their gender and family can call them whatever they like, for others the opposite may be true. I covered this under fluid gender, but I actually think it’s more like ‘contextual gender’, or differing types of dysphoria.

      I’m actually planning on an article in future that talks about different types of ‘passing’/affirmation/blending for differing types of dysphoria/aspects of gender and how these can interact or even potentially cancel each other out.

      Thanks again for your feedback!

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  4. Thanks for this. There are a few things I hadn’t thought of that seem obvious once you mentioned them. The need to say a group or venue welcomes people of all genders *and also people without a gender* was a very good one. I sometimes forget that it is possible to live without a gender of some sort coming into play during social interaction, but that’s just because it does for me. I know other people live more consistantly as nongendered and it’s useful to be reminded.

    The point about not appropriating intersexed identity is not a new one for me, but it’s one I always struggle with because I only “appropriate” it to the same extent that any postoperative transsexual “appropriated” the gender they have to (at least say they) “live as” to get the surgery. I do make the sex/gender definition, and I would always use terms like “ambiguous” or “hermaphrodite” to describe myself because it’s the obvious physical description of my current state. Which is largely due to how I had myself surgically remodelled, which was largely due to my gender identity. I suppose I could use trans-hermaphrodite or something like that, but like many transsexuals I get pissed off with being judged to be “really” the gender they labelled me at birth and so I don’t necessarily want out myself as not-born-this-way to everyone when I make reference to my sex.

    What sort of language would you suggest as being more respectful to people born intersexed while avoiding having my gender/sex dismissed as not “real” but “just” a binary-sexed person who goes in for body modification? I’m not trying to be argumentative here, by the way, I’m interested in what you have to say. I bet if anyone has a useful and well thought out response to this question it will be you!

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    1. Hi Ash, thanks for your feedback on the inclusivity article, I’m glad you found it useful.

      Regarding your wish to avoid appropriating or erasing intersex experiences, I think you might find this Privilege Denying Non-Binary Person macro relevant to why dyadic by birth people should not use intersex terms. It illustrates the point of privilege that non-binary people who consensually transition in adulthood have over intersex people who are subjected to non-consensual surgeries and “treatment” throughout their childhood and adolescence.

      The majority of people of intersex experience consider themselves to be binary gendered in adulthood, and consider their intersexual bodies or histories a physical or medical issue rather than a matter of identity. Most intersex people would consider the term ‘hermaphrodite’ to be a slur. Those intersex people who hold non-binary gender identities tend to consider themselves intersex and transgender (or genderqueer) rather than simply intersex. At least in the past, the intersex community used the term ‘intergender’ to talk about the experience of feeling one’s identity to be between the binary options, as they recognised that the majority of intersex people do not have that experience.

      With the intersex appropriation issue aside, I also would be very nervous about an identity defined and policed on the basis of whether a person was able to obtain surgery. I consider it harmful and problematic to conflate identities and ‘transition goals’ in that way. Non-binary people have our gender identities (or lack of gender identities) regardless of whether we feel the need to ‘transition’ in any part. I find it most helpful to take every aspect of ‘transition’ as a separate decision and not assume that our identities come as a ‘package deal’. I recommend the same of binary identified trans people as well.

      I think that for most transsexual people the configuration of their genitals is something private and not directly connected to the identities they present to the world. The majority of trans men do not undergo genital reconstructive surgery but still consider themselves to be men (and are likely to consider their genitals to be male regardless of how society defines them) and an increasingly large proportion of trans women are also opting to be ‘non-operative’ without feeling that they are any less female.

      So to conclude, I would recommend referring to yourself as being ‘physically androgynous’, or if you wish to be more specific, ‘genitally androgynous’. You may also find it appropriate to talk about your identity as ‘intergender’ or describe yourself as an ‘androgyne’, which in its earliest recorded usage in the 1500s was used as a synonym for hermaphrodite but which has no intersexual slur word connotations.

      I hope you found this response useful and well thought out 🙂

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      1. I did, thank you for taking the time to write it 🙂

        The main problem I have with following what you say, which is not new to me in terms of it’s ideas but certainly a very usefully summed up record of the main arguments used against confusing intergender with intersexed experiences, comes from the everyday need that I have as a sexworker to have an easily understandable description of my current physical sex. Without doing this effectively there would be too many misunderstandings and FAQ-answering sessions with every person who might be interested in buying my time or my porn and those who were the most interested might totally fail to find me.

        I suppose that while most people’s genitals aren’t so publically on display (and perhaps, therefore, not so fundimental in conveying or failing to convey gender identity to the mainstream viewer who hasn’t learned the sex/gender distinction) the feeling that one sometimes has to simplify their identity to get a bit closer to being understood by people who are several steps away from grasping it’s entirety, is one that a lot of people can relate to in one context or another. Finding the best compromise between “feels accurate” and “is generally understood” can be difficult and is a constantly evolving path.

        You’re right, people will never be able to agree on what terms are or aren’t perjorative. This is a big reason that I a) use a term that a lot of intersexed people don’t want rather than actually use the word “intersexed” about myself and b) only use it about myself and other people who self-identify that way. This, along with “queer” and “tranny” and a host of other words are certainly best used only about oneself and/or one’s loved and well-understood friends rather than entire groups of people who might not want the label.

        Arguing about what labels other people should (be allowed to) have is a sure-fire way to offend. I think this is the main reason why I still think the logic involved in debating privilidge and granting identity rights in inverse proportion to it becomes very shaky.

        If you can say “intersexed people are more of a minority and have fewer privilidges than transgendered people, therefore the latter should not appropriate the former identity” then it seems logically almost inevitable you would then accept what most of us see as the obviously transphobic and hateful argument that “female-born people have fewer privilidges than male-born people, therefore the latter should not appropriate the former identity” which a few of the feminists I have the least respect for still like to bang on about. I keep coming back to this and trying to see the logical difference between these two statements that so many transgender people I respect can clearly see. I hope this will one day “click” so that I can understand if not agree with the argument being made but at the moment I’m still not quite understanding why those two ideas are not directly parallel, and hence if one is false then the other will be also (although I do recognise that there are different types and degrees of discrimination, and that the invisbility and opression of intersexed people as a group is different to, often more severe than, and also often experienced in addition to, the type of opressive sexism one might face because of being percieved as a woman. So I can definitely agree that it is vitally important to try to educate people -first and foremost myself!- about intersexed people and their many different needs and identities with a view to helping this end.)

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      2. ..oh, and this intersexed-activism guide for allies pdf you’re pointing me in the general direction of looks like a fantastic resource for continuing to educate myself and others about some of the experiences people have had with this issue. many thanks!

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      3. Thanks for explaining your situation more clearly. An earlier draft of my reply actually mentioned that ‘hermaphrodite’ is seen as a slur in part because it’s perpetuated by the adult industry and is associated with a fetishisation of intersex bodies. It’s similar to ‘shemale’ and ‘tranny’ which has recently been declared a no go slur word by some trans activists.

        As a sex worker, it may well need be the de facto ‘industry standard’ to use when describing yourself to potential clients. I recognise that you can’t rely solely on the ethical queer audience. I’d recommend that you be aware of the ethical issues (as you are being by having this discussion), use the words that are necessary to give clients the appropriate image but work to incorporate less problematic language into your more detailed explanations and more personal interactions.

        I don’t agree with the argument that it’s equivalent to saying AMAB trans women are appropriating women’s identities. As my previous reply outlined, intersex issues are those of systematic mistreatment and erasure, and are seen by most affected as medical in nature, not a matter of identity. Their issues stem from having the choice to remain unaltered taken from them. Few consider intersex to be a matter of gender.

        I agree though, educating people is vital, but I’m wary of speaking for intersex people, just as I’d be wary of anyone speaking for me without first hand experience. I’d recommend getting in contact with intersex people, especially those who are sex workers or otherwise involved in the adult industry and asking how they deal with these issues and what they’d suggest. These might be a good place to start: http://www.ukia.co.uk/ http://www.isna.org/

        Good luck, and it’s good to hear from you again, if you’re the Ash I think you are 🙂

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