Does “Transgender” Mean Anything?

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19th Century Egg Diagram (unknown artist)

“It’s possible to name everything and to destroy the world.”
― Kathy Acker

*I’m trying out edgier titles. I felt like “The Tyranny of Categories” sounded a little stiff and unwelcoming.

**Also, this is a little delayed, but I’ve been busy and it’s still important.

I have deleted Facebook from my devices, save for my laptop. There is so much shitty stuff that comes up that I just don’t need in my life. Whenever I log on I’m inundated by news of all the horrible things that are happening to our community; it’s overwhelming. I don’t use other social media, so it’s not a problem. Nevertheless, I was on Facebook on my laptop, five minutes ago, and I saw something which made me reflect on a topic I’ve been ruminating over lately: ever since the last attack on Contrapoints. The specific motivation for this most current rumination is a reposting by Sophie Labelle (Quebecois artists and activist, I think she is great FYI). It was a comic someone else had drawn and posted to the Facebook group “Transgender Shitposting.” It depicted two trans masculine guys. One had dysphoria and hated all trans people who don’t have it and who don’t want medical treatment (screen captures of the comic below). And the other character was in the opposing camp, happy with himself and unaffected by dysphoria or transphobia. I assume that these two characterizations are stand-ins for the recent Contrapoints truscum incident. If you don’t know what “truscum” is, it means trans people who think you need to be a medicalized trans body to be transgender, i.e. a transsexual. Recently, a Contrapoints video featured a long-time “trans” activist who was accused of being truscum. I am not sure if this is a fair characterization based on his offending tweets (maybe it is?). He seems to be more like a person who does not identify as transgender, as it does not reflect his experience, which is more in line with transsexuality. This is okay, as long as the person in question doesn’t try to exclude people who don’t have this medicalized experience from claiming the label “transgender.” My point here is that “transgender” is such a broad category, that we must be accommodating of difference, but never exclusionary.

To be trans you do not need to have “classic transsexual experiences,” that is, needing to medically transition, generally have dysphoria, and usually, seeking sex/gender reassignment surgery (SRS/GRS). The etymology of “transgender” has changed and mutated over the decades spanning from the mid 20th century. Its current form comes from Leslie Feinberg’s pamphlet “Transgender Liberation.” This ur trans text included most forms of gender fuckery in its definition for “trans” and “transgender.” It is what we might now call “trans*,” the asterisk standing for “whatever.” The whatever applies to you if you don’t identify with what the doctor who spanked your ass into life assigned you: if you don’t, then you’re trans, yay! And on this, I agree. This is what the word means. “Trans” is a prepositional prefix that means to be on the other side of — on the other side of the gender you were assigned. If you come out as non-binary at 45, and this means having she/they pronoun, and you were assigned she/her at birth, then you qualify as trans. No dysphoria required, or medical interventions.

However, there are many divisions within this category; ones that delineate some pretty different ideas about subjectivity and corporeality: how we experience the world and ourselves, and how we feel and live through our body. Some people do feel dysphoria. And that’s okay. As long as that’s not used as a gatekeeping criterion. Let’s be clear, “dysphoria,” as defined by the DSM V, as a conflict between assigned gender and identified gender, is a pathology. By this, I mean a form of negative medical classification (a disease!). It is essentially a rebranding of “transsexual” which is a 20th-century medical term that denotes a certain type of medically constructed understanding of being transgender. Thus, let’s not celebrate this term. Yet, many people do feel this distress. I do — acutely. But the term and condition it describes is a constructed and politicized category. So, having it is not a badge of honour or something we should celebrate or elevate. But we also have to accept that people have dysphoria, and that’s valid too; it is indicative of a different trans experience, not better, or more real, just different.

Nevertheless, the comic I mentioned at the opening of this rumination seems to me to represent a kind of exclusion in reverse. The comic seems to imply that the non-dysphoric trans character is somehow better off. You will observe in the comic cells I have captured below, that Nikolai (truscum) is first drawn to look like an awkward, moody, incel, where Noah looks more non-binary and bright. Nikolai, in the last strip of the comic, has copied Noah’s aesthetic and is happier after taking his advice (which is good advice, find an outlet for your pain). However, you can’t help but read this as a progress narrative; Nikolai is better off now because he has emulated Noah. This is problematic. The series of images represents a positionality of a subset of trans people trying to carve out their own corner of the trans category (which is good): people who are non-dysphoric, or not interested in medical interventions. However, the comic implies that the non-dysphoric trans person is happier and healthier. My issue with this is that when we represent being trans as progressing towards something, as Nikolai does with Noah, we replicate similar teleological frameworks created by medicalized transsexual narrative. A “telos,” if you don’t know, means an end, a thing you are moving towards. This is a very much a clinical trope. One that suggests there is an end to transitioning, and by extension gender (at least a correct side to be on). One that maps to neoliberal ideas about progress, linearity, and self-affirmation (the latter being the opposite and replacement for a community ). To me, this seems at odds with “transgender,” that it is an inherently complex category that exceeds simplified narratives.

For example, some trans people who experience gender dysphoria will never truly progress away from it (sorry). Those feeling may be less inherently somatic (bodily), and more about being constantly inculcated by transphobia and negative messages about our body. Perhaps like in the comic, we can deal with this and accept it, but maybe we won’t. Many cis women will never stop feeling distressed about their bodies. And if we reduce this to an issue of personal perspective, body positivity, then we strip these pressures of their historical and sociocultural origins by making them about you and not wider forces. This is also neoliberal, something that the whole self-care industry is built around — but that is another story. But to suggest that we must heal, or move towards a certain understanding of gender, replicates the medical narratives “transgender” was coined to counter and rebuff.

What I would like to see from all camps in this argument are narratives that do justice to the complexity of trans experience, that do not force us into simple binaries like this: dysphoric and not dysphoric; trans-med and non-med; binary and non-binary. I see transgender as the area of the Venn diagram where our needs and experiences overlap. Between non-binary, trans, cross-dressers, genderqueers, etc. This overlap is where we can draw solidarity from. However, the category of transgender, being so expansive, does include people with vastly different experiences. And we have to be sensitive to this. This should not be grounds for tribalism or antipathy, or to invalidate any one’s gender identity.

That said, for me, transgender is complicated. I like plain old “trans” because it just stands for whatever. I have what can be called a more traditional transsexual narrative. Even though I do not accept the premise this identity category was constructed on. Because I have agency to upset the boundaries delineating that category. By writing and performing my story, I break the institutional conventions of “transsexual” — I can reclaim it if indeed I want it (I don’t). I speak back to the system which produces me and thus exceed it. Additionally, I will never be rid of my dysphoria. I have my first meeting with my surgeon in a few weeks, that surgery is not going to cure me of something. But acknowledging this does not subordinate me. Nor does it do so for anyone who doesn’t share this identity. We are all trans.

I think it is hard for people who do not desire medical interventions or perhaps do at first but then decide it’s not for them, to break away from this course — perhaps that feels oppressive (being involved in that process feels oppressive). The medicalization of transgender is a dominate narrative because it is often still the primary lens that we view transness through. Our cultural fetishization of transsexual women has been bequeathed to transgender. We can overcome this by sharing our own stories and experiences—redefine the narrative. However, we cannot escape gender, all we can do is act in ways that reveal its seemingly innate binarism as false and constructed. There is nothing natural about that. This is what Judith Butler is saying, not that you can just throw on a dress and annihilate gender. Gender is a framework that is inescapable in its totality. But, by throwing on that dress (or whatever), we can redefine — at great pains — the parameters of that framework.

Let’s stop all this fighting then. If we, transgender-identified people, don’t find common cause to ally together, then we are doomed. Because there are real and serious threats to us in the world. Transgender as a category is good for this type of strategic alliance — which is not insignificant. Transgender might not be good for much more. It certainly confuses cis people, let alone the panoply of people who use the term to define themselves. Categories are difficult. Especially when they include complex notions about identity, the body, sociality, and much more.



I’m trans, a grad student in gender studies, and a legal researcher.

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