I and others are going to be talking about the medicalization and pathologization of trans* gender identities here at FWD/Forward in the coming weeks and months, so I wanted to put up a definitions post so that we can all get familiar with the kind of language we will be using. I want to note that, uhm, people write entire books about this issue. So, obviously, I can’t cover all the ground in a single post. This is a starter to lay out the basics, not a definitive dictionary.
I also want to note that this terminology differs within the social justice movement, and in various areas of the world. This means that you may disagree with some of my word use/definitions here because they are coming from a specific perspective. Remember: This is a starting point, not an ending point. If I really flub up, please let me know; I’ve tried to be very meticulous about the structure of this post, but I do mess up, and I would like to have my attention drawn to it if I have mischaracterized something (or someone).
The gender binary is a construct of gender which views gender as falling into one of two camps: male or female. Under the gender binary, these are the only options. Gender essentialists believe that assigned sex at birth is also one’s gender for life. Other folks believe that it is possible for one’s binary gender identity to differ from one’s assigned sex; e.g. someone may be assigned male at birth and later realize that she is a woman. Take, for example, a person with a gender identity which differs from assigned sex in the sense that she was assigned male at birth and knows she is female or in the sense that he was assigned female at birth and knows that he is male. This individual may be referred to as a trans person or said to be trans gendered, and as a transsexual person if he or she pursues medical treatment such as hormone therapy, top and bottom surgery, etc. These trans folks still fall within the binary, however: They have a gender identity which is male or female. (Though they may not necessarily subscribe to the idea that gender is a binary, it’s just that their gender identity happens to be on the binary!)
It’s important to note that intersex individuals (more information on intersex folks) are a problem for the gender binary. Under the rules of the binary, they should not exist, which means that being intersex is treated as a pathology which must be corrected. Historically, intersex people have been subjected to invasive surgical procedures at birth in which a gender is medically assigned. In some instances, these individuals later turn out to be trans gendered, as in the case of someone who is assigned male who later turns out to be a woman. These individuals may also later realize that they actually have a nonbinary gender identity.
The nonbinary view of gender recognizes that humans actually express and experience gender along a spectrum. Gender identity, in other words, is not as simple as “male” or “female” although these are points on the spectrum. This view does not pathologize intersex people and makes room for people who do not identify with a male or female gender. The umbrella term trans is sometimes used to refer to these individuals (and sometimes not, depending on where you are), and they may also be referred to as nonbinary. In this case, “trans” refers to someone with a gender identity which differs from assigned sex at birth, as discussed above, but in these instances, that gender identity does not fall along the gender binary. I tend to use “nonbinary” rather than “trans” when talking about people who are not on the gender binary to avoid confusion between binary trans and nonbinary trans people. Nonbinary trans folks people may self identify as genderqueer, androgyne, neuter, third gender, intergender, genderfuck, etc, but none of these terms is an appropriate umbrella term for nonbinary people. Some individuals identify as nongendered or agendered, which is yet another facet of the gender identity spectrum.
The umbrella term trans* is sometimes used to refer to the entire trans spectrum. I may use this term when I want to discuss all people on the trans* spectrum, including binary and nonbinary people. I do want to briefly note that not all intersex individuals identify as trans*; while they are outside the binary, this does not necessarily make them trans*. We need to avoid making the mistake of lumping intersex folks under the “trans*” umbrella.
Above all, self labeling is important. However someone identifies is how that person should be identified by others. On the flip side of this, it’s important to try to avoid automatic gendering; don’t assume someone’s gender identity on the basis of appearance, in other words.
Obviously, as a nonbinary, I subscribe to the nonbinary view of gender. And because we live in a society which is structured around the binary and which tends to center the experiences of cis (more information on the term “cis”) people who have a gender identity which conforms with their assigned sex, living as a trans* person is incredibly difficult. We are assaulted because of our gender identity and expression. We are reduced to our genitals (or lack thereof). We are policed. Seeking medical treatment can be frustrating and dangerous. We may be denied medical services on the basis of our gender identity, as seen, for example, among trans men who are not given screenings for cancers of the breast, cervix, and ovaries.
Part of the way to address this is to start breaking down barriers, to get people thinking about experiences which differ from their own. Deconstructing the binary and decentering cis people doesn’t threaten or hurt anyone’s gender identity, but it would make the world a lot safer for us. And for trans* folks with disabilities, talking about these issues is literally the difference between life and death.
Here are some other terms which may come up: transphobia (discrimination/prejudice against trans* people), transmisogyny (specifically, prejudice and discrimination aimed at trans women), binarism (prejudice rooted in a rejection of the gender spectrum), cissexism (discrimination which stems from gender essentialism), gendering as a verb (referring to describing gender identity, as in “I try to avoid gendering people until I know how they prefer to be gendered.”).
Some examples of terminology that is not acceptable to use and will not be tolerated in comments here: a transgender (“transgender” is not a noun, and it should also be “trans gender”), a trans (“trans” also isn’t a noun), tranny (unless it is being used in a reclamatory sense by a trans person), woman born woman/women born women (cissesexist and often used in a transmisogynistic sense), biowomen/biowoman, biomen/bioman, biological sex (everyone’s biological, folks–if you’re thinking “assigned sex at birth,” then please use “assigned sex”). It’s also not appropriate to say “transwomen” “transmen” etc–please put a space in, as in “trans woman” and “trans man.” We use a space because we want to avoid creating a new gender; we are using “trans” as a modifier. A trans woman is a woman. A transwoman is…something else.
Here are some links on this topic to get you started with some more material: Questioning Transphobia, bird of paradox, Holly at Feministe, TransGriot, and Julia Serano. I encourage you to do some seeking on your own to learn more about gender identification and the complex terminology which surrounds it, because there’s some very diverse thinking on the issue. Please be aware that comments on this post are being carefully moderated.