On Being Transgender

TransGriot Note: Guest post from trans community builder Denise Norris  

The Origin of Transgender

In the early 1990s,
‘transgender’ was repurposed by a various groups of transsexuals in the US to
basically include anyone whose gender expression was non-conforming with
society’s expectations. There were several reasons for this and one of them was
because people with atypical gender identities do not always identify as

As we searched for our collective identity, we asked ourselves: “Who are
we to judge another’s gender identity solely on the basis of how they choose to
express it? How can we know what is in the heart of another without knowing the
person behind the presentation? Would we not achieve the height of hypocrisy to
comment the same sins upon others to which we so strenuously object when others
deny our gender identity and our desire to express it?

To us, the answer was obvious and expanded our associations to include
crossdressers, drag, butch and every other non-conforming gender expression
under the rainbow.

We understood that to be transgender is to have a non-conforming gender
expression regardless of one’s gender identity. Transgender therefore is a
meta-group consisting of many distinct groups, each sharing common causes but
each also having unique challenges. Together we are stronger then we are when
we are alone.

At that moment in time, we took up the reins of our own fate into our own hands
by crystallizing the dissatisfaction with our lives into a global movement that
has been fighting for right to safely express our gender identities without
fear of harassment, discrimination or violence.

As to the choice of
the word ‘Transgender’ to represent the meme of equality for all gender
expressions, I have to admit that honestly it was not my first choice as I felt
that residual definitions from its use by Virginia Price would haunt the new
re-purposed use. If you read the Charter of the Transexual Menace from 1993 (http://tinyurl.com/Menace-Charter) you can see that
the concept of equality for all gender expression is represented, but it
substitutes term ‘Gender people’ or ‘Gender community’ for the use of the word
‘transgender’. But bowing to public will and the necessity to get the meme
adopted, I accepted the use of transgender as the label for the meme.

In 1994, the Advocate published an article that examined our struggle for
acceptance within the Lesbian and Gay community and in society at large (http://tinyurl.com/83v2nyc).  It
is worth reading by anyone with an interest in the thoughts of some of the
major players in the creation of transgender.

Why do people identify as Transgender and not some specific label?

The real problem is
that the labels we have all SUCK.  They have been recycled too many times
and no one can agree on the meanings anymore.  However, recycled as
it may be, transgender represents a comfortable space where there is little
need to tightly confine oneself with labels like Crossdresser or Transsexual.

An atypical gender
identity (aka GID) is an invisible condition.  There is no test for
it.  Doctors can’t prove someone has it.  It is simply a persistent
claim made by the individual for a reasonable amount of time.  But NO ONE
external to the individual can absolutely know for sure that the individual has
an atypical gender identity.  At this point in time, it is impossible to
prove anyone’s gender identity.   Since we can’t prove it, we can’t
protect it legally.

However, we can
observe gender expression.  It is a palatable component of a person’s
presentation. We only start seeing discrimination when gender expression
conflicts with society’s expectations.

In fact, all of the
labels we use for ourselves are derivative from gender expression, not from
gender identity. This is true even
though gender expression may be the result of an atypical gender identity.

There are three
basic forms of gender expression.  Consistent Gender Expression vs.
Inconsistent.  Conforming Gender Expression vs. Non-Conforming. 
Congruent Gender Expression vs. Incongruent.  Put them in a blender and
you can have an Inconsistent Non-Conforming Congruent Gender Expression.  Quite a mouthful.

This all gets very
messy and no one actually agrees on any of the meanings behind the
labels.   Here are two examples that I have no doubt will cause some
to disagree loudly.  This is more or less how the labels are defined in
2011.  I readily admit that 30 years ago, under the clinic model for
treating transsexualism, the terms had different meanings.  As I said,
recycled too many times.


describes someone who professes an atypical gender identity and seeks a
consistent gender expression that is congruent with their gender
identity.  However, not everyone with an atypical gender identity seeks to
have a consistent congruent gender expression and therefore, they are not
considered transsexual.   If they do decide to have a consistent
congruent gender expression, then they are suddenly  become transsexual.
Transsexual is a label of convenience based on the having or desiring a
consistent gender expression.


describes someone who presents an inconsistent gender expression that
incongruent with their socially perceived gender identity.  Crossdressers
can have atypical gender identity and may present an inconsistent gender
expression that is congruent with their gender identity and incongruent with
society’s perceptions of their gender identity.  The opposite pattern
occurs when the individual has a typical gender identity.  Crossdresser is
a label of convenience applied to people who have an inconsistent gender

Transgender allows
everyone to unite under one meta-group with having to worry about the
ridiculous debate over who is real or who belongs in what group.  This is
why many people simply identify as transgender when asked.

How Transsexuals Became Transgender

I think that
everyone agrees that transsexuals have atypical gender identities.  This
condition, whatever the cause, has been called by various names: Transsexualism
in the 1960s gave way to Gender Identity Dysphoria in the 1970 and now it is
Gender Identity Disorder (DSM IV).  Each time they changed the name, the
method of treatment has changed.  Until the late 1970s, the object of the
reassignment clinic model was to only select candidates who would be able to
present a gender expression acceptable to the clinic in order to assure that
the patient would be able to pass as cis-gender woman and assume a cis-gender
life after receiving Sex Reassignment Surgery.  For many people suffering
transsexualism, this approach left them outside the clinic and without
help.  Many of the individuals even lied to therapists and doctors so that
they would be selected for reassignment which contributed to the failure rate
of post-reassignment patient.   It was the high suicide-rate that
finally caused the clinics to close.

In the meantime, the
people left outside the clinics began to explore other paths to reassignment
where patriarchal standards of acceptable gender expression were no longer used
to judge the viability of reassignment candidates.  Lesbian transsexuals
began to emerge in the 1980s who had completely bypassed the clinics finding
doctors like Stanley Biber or Arnold Melman would perform SRS based solely on
the word of psychologists who made the determination if the patient had Gender
Identity Disorder.

With the near
complete collapse of the clinic model, it was now up to the patient and the
therapist to determine if the patient would be able to assimilate into society
using a Real Life Test.  If the patient could find a path for themselves
during the RLT, they would be recommended as surgery candidates.  It was
this shift away from the clinics and the patriarchal model of proper gender
expression that opened the door for transsexuals to consider alternatives to a
life in pursuit of passing as cis-gender in order to avoid discrimination.

As the early 90s
rolled in, more and more people with GID were in RLT and moving on to Gender
Reassignment Surgery without the need to pass as cis-gender.  In fact,
they began to seriously question the need to pass at all.  Many
individuals opted to be ‘out’ and dispense with passing altogether. 
Others began to simply blend and if asked would admit to being
transsexual.  It was at this point, the need for people who fought for
trans-privileges rather than passed to obtain cis-privileges became
apparent.  Rather than avoid discrimination by passing and pretending to
be cis-gender, the out transsexuals stood up to discrimination and fought
back.  It was about this time that Brandon Teena was raped and murdered
for being transsexual.  This outraged the activist transsexuals and
accelerated the consolidation various groups under a single meme of broad
inclusivity.  That meme became the Transgender meta-group.

The 20-year period
between the 1970s and the 1990s represents a movement away from assuming
identities as cis-gender individuals in order to assimilate into society.  By the 1990s, transsexuals began to actively
fight discrimination and participate in society on our own terms.  We went
from seeking cis- privileges to creating trans-privileges.  The 20-years
from 1990s to 2010s saw an explosion in trans-privileges nationally and
globally.  The next 20-years will see us achieving full equality without
having to pass as cis-gender ever again.

Transsexual separatists seek
to stand apart
Like any progressive movement, there are always reactionary elements who yearn
for the good old days with a nostalgia that is not exactly representative of
actual history.    There is a small population of transsexuals that
considers themselves ‘true’ transsexuals (a term they have chosen for
themselves) who reject the notion that the real fight against discrimination is
about gender expression and that since they have had surgery (and I know a few
who lie about that status) or intend to have it, they should no longer face
discrimination due to their gender expression.  Perfect stealth!  They consider themselves Transsexual
Separatists, True Transsexuals or Harry Benjamin Transsexuals (forgetting that
Dr. Benjamin himself said that within transsexualism (GID), there was a gradual
scale of gender expression from crossdressing to surgical conformity).

There is a strong
desire to pass as cis-gender in order to enjoy cis-gender privileges and more
importantly avoid discrimination in many people with atypical gender
identities, especially baby boomers and Gen X. I don’t blame anyone for trying
to avoid discrimination, but passing prevents actively fighting discrimination because
the passing individual has to sacrifice the safety of passing to confront and
fight discrimination.   If too many
people choose to pass, then there is no one to fight for equality.

But for some reason,
the Transsexual Separatists fear and loath that people collectively are
fighting for the right to have a non-conforming gender expression and
continually make attacks against those who align themselves in a common cause.
In my opinion, they do this because they feel their fragile truce with society
and their conviction that surgery makes them the same as cis-gender are
threatened by the efforts to bring equality to all people regardless of gender

In my experience, it
has always been best to allow them to go their own way without interference. I
wish these reactionaries nothing but the best of luck in their quest for
cis-gender privileges.  Hopefully they will find what they are seeking and
leave the rest of us alone.  And if they find the reality is not as sweet
as the memories, we will always welcome them into our movement.

1 thought on “On Being Transgender”

  1. If an umbrella term such as transgender didn't exist, writers (and the media) would invent one or repurpose a term for it. Among other things, writers can't (or shouldn't have to) do a pants check to get terminology correct. And finally, especially on the net, there's the issue of tags — "transgender" yields better/more results.
    While I understand the position of many transsexuals, but from a practical standpoint, accomplishing this task would be difficult even if everyone was on board with it.

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