December 18, 2013

What does transgender really mean? On Wikipedia's misleading article.

The recent discussion on what a girlfag is or isn't has made me realize that there is a lot of confusion about the meaning of the word "transgender", and the main reason for this uncertainty is found in the current version of the relevant Wikipedia article.
Wikipedia is trying to amputate the transgender rainbow.
(Photo:  PinkSherbetPhotography)

The Wikipedia definition

The article starts out with the following sentence:

"Transgender is the state of one's gender identity (self-identification as woman, man, neither or both) not matching one's assigned sex."

No wonder many of my crossdreamer and girlfag/guydyke friends do not want to call themselves transgender! If they feel at home in their own bodies and/or identify with their birth sex this definition will not describe their sense of self.

This definition reflects, however, in no way the common usage of the term "transgender". You can find traces of this fact in the rest of the Wikipedia text.

The article states, for instance:

"While people self-identify as transgender, the transgender identity umbrella includes sometimes-overlapping categories. These include transsexual; transvestite or cross-dresser; genderqueer; androgyne; and bigender."

The inclusion of crossdressers alone is enough to undermine the first definition given above, given that many crossdressers identify with their birth sex.

(Please note that other parts of the Wikipedia article allows for the inclusion of those who are transgender not because their gender idendity is at stake, but because they like to express themselves in way that are in violation of expected gender behavior. In other words: The text does not stop people who identify as their birth sex to call themselves transgender. Still, since the main parts is about gender identity, the text is not normally read this way.*)

So what does transgender really mean?

Julia Serano on transgender

In her book Whipping Girl, trans activist Julia Serano listss transsexuals, crossdressers, genderqueers, drag artists under the term. (p. 2) Her discussion is well worth reading:
Julia Serano

"While the word originally had a more narrow definition, since the 1990s it has been used primarily as an umbrella term to describe those who defy societal expectations and assumptions regarding femaleness and maleness; this includes people who are transsexual (those who live as members of the sex other than the one they were assigned at birth), intersex (those who are born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions of female or male), and genderqueer (those whose identity outside of the male/female binary), as well as those whose gender expression differs from their anatomical or perceived sex (including crossdressers, drag performers, masculine women, feminine men, and so on)." (p. 25)

Julia Serano adds that she sometimes also use the synonymous term "gender-variant":

" describe all people who are considered by others to deviate from societal norms of femaleness and maleness."

Julia Serano does not hide the fact that the term transgender may be problematic, and that some of those included under the umbrella may distance themselves from it (this particularly applies to intersex people), but this is how she understands its common usage.

And yes, she knows the transgender movement quite well.

Susan Stryker and Transgender History

Professor Susan Stryker discusses the term thoroughly in her book Transgender History, which covers the historical development of the transgender movement. Her description of the term does in no way limit it to people who feel that their gender identity does not match their assigned sex:
Susan Stryker

"Because 'transgender' is a word that has come into widespread use only in the past couple of decades, its meanings are still under construction. I use it this book to refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. 

Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out towards some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon the. 

In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place -- rather than any particular destination or mode of transition -- that best characterizes the concept of 'transgender' that I want to develop here." (loc 50, her emphasis)

Cristan William's historical research

Transactivist Cristan Williams has done an enormous job tracking down the various usages of the term "transgender" throughout history.

Her own definition is the following:

"Anyone whose physical makeup, emotional, sexual and/or self-expression is in conflict with current cultural gender stereotypes."

Williams has documented that "transgender" was used as an umbrella term as early as in 1974, and that this became common usage during the 1990s.

Official definitions

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, WPATH, often uses the phrase "transsexual, transgender and gender nonconforming people" when presenting their area of responsibility. The definition given of transgender in their Standards of Care is taken from Bockting 1999:

"Adjective to describe a diverse group of individuals who cross or transcend culturally deļ¬ned categories of gender. The gender identity of transgender people differs to varying degrees from the sex they were assigned at birth"

I guess some would argue that this definition requires some kind of alternative gender identity, but I am not convinced. In any case this association, who has the word "transgender" in its name, also covers other "nonconforming" people.

Here is the American Medical Student Association:

“Transgender” is an umbrella term used by people in a number of different groups, including but not limited to cross-dressers (those who wear clothing of the other sex some of the time) to genderqueer people (those who feel that they belong to either both genders or neither gender) and transsexuals (an older term for people who take hormones and have sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) in order to transition to a different sex."

See also  the US National Center for Trangender Equality, which explicitly includes crossdressers and gender nonconforming people.

On my side of the Atlantic, the UK National Health Service (NHS) gives the following definition:

"Trans and transgender are terms that are used to describe people who don’t conform to the traditional division of male and female.

Trans embraces many different types of people and lifestyles, including:

  • People who cross-dress (transvestite people). These people sometimes wear the clothing of the opposite sex, but don't want to live full-time as a member of the opposite sex.
  • People who feel that they're both male and female, or neither male nor female.
  • Drag queens, drag kings and other people who don’t appear conventionally masculine or feminine.
  • Transsexual people. These are people who have a strong and constant desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex. Many transsexual people have gender reassignment treatment to make their appearance more consistent with their preferred gender. This often involves hormone therapy and surgery."

When Genny Beemyn and Sue Rankin refers to transgender people in their survey of American transgender, they include transsexuals, crossdressers, drag king and drag queens, genderqueers, bigenders and androgynes.


What about the major dictionaries?

Merriam-Webster can be interpreted both ways, as it defines transgender as

"of, relating to, or being a person (as a transsexual or transvestite) who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person's sex at birth."

But since it includes transvestites,and argues that it is enough to express (as opposed to "identify with") a different gender identity, it cannot be used to exclude non-transsexual gender variant people.

Oxford is equally inclusive:

"denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender."


The most common usage of the term "transgender" today is as an umbrella term that includes a wide variety of gender variant people. The term does not require that you identify with another sex or gender than the one you were assigned at birth.

As the Wikipedia article now stands, it defines "transgender" in a way that makes people believe it means the same as transsexual. Maybe this is why some of the separatist female to male "truscum" trans men I wrote about in my previous post, believe the term transgender is theirs and theirs alone. That is unfortunate.

Let us see if we can do something about that Wikipedia article.

*) Paragraph added December 20 2013.


"Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming People, Version 7", International Journal of Transgenderism, 13:165–232, 2011

Susan Stryker: Transgender History, Seal Press 2008

Julia Serano: Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Seal Press 2007

Genny Beemyn  and Susan Rankin: The Lives of Transgender People, Columbia University Press, 2011

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!