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’.
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.”
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.
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.
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