Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Regarding the issue of nomenclature and labels, there are MANY opinions on this particular subject. Invariably, few agree. I suggest a compromise, based on the acceptance that we have differences, as well as similarities and shared experiences.

Confusion abounds in many minds regarding the words transgender, transsexual and intersex. All too often they are used interchangeably by journalists, bloggers and others. Doing so is inaccurate and not only leads to misconceptions, but ends up fracturing the fragile alliance that exists between members of these communities.

The word transgender was coined by Virginia Prince; the original intent was to contrast those who wanted surgery from those who didn’t. As defined by Dr. Harry Benjamin, a true transsexual was someone who identified as a member of the opposite sex and was desirous of surgery for congruence. In recent times, the use of “transgender” has gradually and consistently been enlarged for the sake of inclusivity. Consider that the word used most frequently by clinicians and society up until the last ten or fifteen years (and today, still, some places in the world) was transvestite, a word generally carrying a pejorative connotation. That wasn’t Magnus Hirschfeld’s intent when he coined it. In today’s world, the term transgender seemed far less judgmental.

Sadly, when transgender came to be used consistently as an umbrella for all persons whose gender identity and/or expression were perceived to be non-normative, individual experience became homogenized. The fallout is that many have rebelled against the use of the word transgender. Rather than uniting themselves, gender variant people have become utterly factionalized, each group attempting to express a rationale for its self validation and self determination. Perhaps we’d have been better served if the metaphorical umbrella had never been used. No one should be forced to amend their understanding of themselves merely to accommodate convenience.

Different persons eschew the umbrella concept and the word transgender, with many and varied reasons. Some consider themselves to be transsexual. Here are several commonly heard rationales: Those living full time feel their lives to be different from persons living part time. Or, some who have had surgery (ies) feel they have a greater congruence and/or commitment than those who desire no surgery. Others assert that they have a birth defect which can be fixed and that they are not transgender. Some individuals who consider themselves to be transsexual embrace a gender binary. Some trangender persons eschew binaries in favor of gender fluidity. Some are in the middle…some don’t know…some don’t care. Most of these viewpoints are autonomous expressions meant to explore an individual’s individuality and authenticity. Too often, however, semantics and rhetoric rule; too often some establish arbitrary rules and hierarchies and force others to conform. This is where self validation crosses a line and becomes elitist and separatist.

I fail to see why anyone would insist on value judgments; all that’s needed is to accept that there are differences and similarities. The reason we find ourselves treated similarly is that transgender and transsexual individuals often receive similar treatment….jobs, health care, discrimination and violence. We are minorities who society has relegated to being “different” because of what it perceives to be gender anomalies. Yes, we are individuals who share some common experiences, and, yes, I believe each person alone has the responsibility for their own self definition. But I would hope that there’d be more of an emphasis on being one’s genuine and authentic self, rather than establishing a gender caste system.

There seem to be “two sides” here…so called inclusionists and exclusionists. In reality, neither has a paradigmatic mandate. Both can be useful and/or detrimental. It depends on our ability to see the other side and compromise….and a little common sense.

As is often the case, when we try to understand and define ourselves, it may imply delimiting someone else vis a vis how they are and are not similar or dissimilar to us. I suspect that our intersections in this regard are both the cause and the solution for our lack of a common understanding; this and the fact that society has pre-conceived notions about gender variance and has lumped us together as “different”. These impasses give us starting points to honestly discuss our differences and similarities. Questions that need to be asked are:

• How can we reframe the issues? Is this possible?
• What are the values, detriments and limits of labels?
• If there is a reason for using the word transgender, what is it? And,
• If there is a better way, what is that?

Misunderstandings between trans and intersex are even more contentious…often with good reason. Intersex has traditionally referred to anatomical conditions; there can be a variety of etiologies: genetic and/or chromosomal, for example, or as a result of prenatal conditions, such as the administration of DES to the mother. Transsexuals have traditionally not been diagnosed with intersex conditions in cases where there appears to be no anatomical evidence. Many trans persons, however, make the case that there ARE, conceivably, intersex factors in play which do not necessarily show up in anatomy. They may be genetic, hormonal or both. There may be other prenatal factors. Science may be getting closer to being able to substantiate these claims. It would seem prudent, however, to only accept “intersex” to be defined by anatomical structure until we have further evidence that conclusively makes the case for hormonal, neurological and/or genetic intersex conditions. Yet, it would be premature and mistaken to exclude the possibility that one day intersex may mean more than anatomy.

Disagreement appears when transgender, transsexual and intersex issues intersect. There is no inherent mutual exclusivity here, but given the evident divisiveness, it’d be easy to assume that some actually believe there is cause for militant separatism. Again…I think some kind of compromise is necessary. Can we not agree that these points of intersection are where we must set differences aside and work together?

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