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Transidentity - Definition of Terms

The term "transgender" covers a broad range of persons and experiences. It was originally used to indicate people who lived "opposite" gender to their assigned birth sex without surgeries (but sometimes using hormones to accomplish cross living). However, recently it has become an umbrella term. As such, it encompasses many different types of trans people. This includes:

Often included in the umbrella definition are (female birth assigned) women with masculine characteristics and (male birth assigned) men with feminine characteristics. [Nota bene: Some definitions exclude cross dressers and drag queens that do not identify as the "opposite sex/gender," except in terms of the clothes they sometimes wear.]

The above categories are broad, general, and perpetually changing. Because of the complexities involved in labeling trans people (either self-identification or externally imposed), it is difficult to access the general trans population and more difficult to place those members into an intelligible category for analysis. Hence, there is a necessary "violence" done to the heterogeneity of the population when reduced to a survey format sampling. While we cannot say that our sample represents the general trans population, such analysis would be impossible since the population is in its formative stages and has yet to be determined; consequently, partiality is not a flaw of the survey per se.

Following this, appropriate services, education and research will require thoughtful consideration of how these terms are being used and by whom. Rigid classification can be misleading and is a major pitfall of analysis alone. It may result in the use of artificial categorical distinctions, which do not match how individuals describe themselves, their experiences, their gender identities and sexual practices.

This field of trans manifestations includes those individuals who take sex hormones and undergo realignment surgeries. Some take hormones but because of exhorbitant cost or poor surgical results, do not have medical procedures done. Still others chose neither options and may define themselves as bi-gendered or "sometimes male and sometimes female, both or neither." This range of trans bodily states and gender expressions is not meant to be hierarchical. Instead, together they represent a spectrum of physical states and gender expressions which trans people have available to use and define themselves.

The distinction between gender-identity (or expression) and sexual orientation is crucial to understanding the problems unique to self-identified trans people, or those who appear trans to others. While biological sex can be determined in any number of ways - chromosomal (XX-female, XY Male, XXY-Intersexed), hormonal, genital and judicial/legal - "gender identity" is the manner in which we think of ourselves, our internal conviction about being men or women, male or female, masculine or feminine (and both or neither). Difficulties arise for trans people when our gender identity (and expression) is different than what our culture mandates our body should be; for example, when a woman-identified person has a biologically male body. In this case, social sex/gender - the way we are viewed by others in a culture - works against our intra subjective self-image of sex and gender.

While gender-identity (and expression) is about who we are as sexed subjects, sexual orientation, on the other hand, is about who we choose as objects of our sexual desires. all too often, trans people are falsely identified by their objects of desire combined with how others perceive their outward appearance as sexed/gendered individuals. For example, before medical transition a male-to-female transsexual who is attracted to women is often labeled a heterosexual man, even though she knows herself to be a lesbian.

Consequently, the most important components of trans identity are change-as-process and self-identification. The following example is designed to illustrate the above:

Two individuals formed a couple when they met in the lesbian community over 10 years ago. At the time, they both identified as "butch." Seven years later, one of the members of the couple medically transitioned as a female-to-male transsexual. They were, according to outward appearances, a heterosexual couple; although given both of their queer gender-variant appearances, they could also be read as a dyke and a fag together. If, in the future, the second member of the couple also transitioned, they might then be viewed as a gay male couple; and if people were aware they were FtMs they could be referred to a "tranfags" (a term of self-identification for queer FtMs).

The point here is that trans identity is often in process, and greatly affected by what others impose on the individual. However, for the above couple, even though their outward appearance changed over time, the couple's own internal relationship dynamic remained consistent as between two male-identified beings. (Many times, however, relationships between trans people and those they are involved with change irrevocably; when gender identity - and sexuality - shifts, so too does the definition, dynamic and nature of interpersonal relationships, often with tragic results such as familial rejection and estrangement.)

The important thing is to be aware of self-identification as a process that can involve changing experiences or practices, and to be alert to how individuals describe themselves versus how we think we see them. In addition, many more individuals describe experiences which resonate with the term "transgender," but do not like to use the word or do not have it in their vocabulary. The point is to pay great atention to how individuals name themselves, and be aware that the terms used in self-description must be understood carefully within the subjects' cultural context. the term "gay," for instance, may be used to describe all of the following different experiences:

Finally, trans identity must be defined by trans people themselves. we are currently in the process of culture building through defining our own experiences and identity categories. The lesbian, gay and bisexual communities have been doing this for the last few decades, and while dialogues around issues of identity have not always reached consensus, it has led to widespread, publicly available terminology and definitions used by members of those culturally specific languages. As we develop more nuanced vocabularies, those inside and outside our tran world should use our words and concerns.

©1977 Ben Singer
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