May 12, 2014

On the Various Shades of Transgender

Photo: anopdesignstock 
On why it is impossible to draw firm and unambigious borders between the different shades of transgender.

faekingit over at tumblr asked the following question:

"Though I’ve seen other people do this before, I’m curious to get my own responses.

Yes, I’m truscum, but I’m open to listening to answers without flipping out and threatening you with death or something. I probably won’t even reply unless there’s something I want to correct.

And the question is this - what exactly makes you another gender if you don’t experience sex/body dysphoria (not dysmorphia, keep in mind the difference)? How do you feel, say, in the case of a demiboy, “partially male”, without using gender roles and stereotypical expectations and gender expression to describe it? Answers are appreciated; ignore it if you want since I’m “disgusting true scum”.


The question forced me to try to simplify the complex matter of sex, gender and transgender in a way that makes sense, even for those who do not know all of the background. It is an impossible task really, but this was my attempt:

"I am gender dysphoric, so I can relate to your view of the world. But let me try to answer, anyway, as I believe much of the fighting going on in this area is caused by some basic misunderstandings.

People do not agree on what they mean by gender. In the social sciences it refers to culturally defined mores and ideas. In biology it refers to the end effect of a complex interplay of biological, environmental and social factors. Needless to say, your choice of point of view here makes a huge difference.

Blank slate vs. biology

Personally I find the "blank slate" idea of everything sex and gender being cultural or political hard to understand. We are also animals, with all the instincts and drives that this entails.

But it is equally clear that much of what people understand as typically male or female is cultural. Female liberation has shown us that there are few differences between the sexes as regards personality traits, abilities, temperaments and expressions.

Dimensions of gender

So none of the following dimensions alone determine whether you are a man or a woman. Nor can they be used to decide whether you feel like a man or a woman:

1. Personality traits, including abilities
2. Sexual orientation
3. Genitals and other bodily features
4. Femininity or masculinity, in the sense of a drive towards expressing whatever your culture defines as being such.


There are masculine women who loves women, and who feel like women. There are masculine female bodied persons who love women, and feel like men. There are people assigned female at birth who love men, and who feel like men... You catch my drift.

The in-betweeners

But there are also those that are unsure about their sex identity. Some feel that they are neither, or both, at the same time. These people are as real as you and I.

Others again move from one position to another as they grow older. They often find that they have repressed a side of themselves condemned by society. What they thought was depression was really dysphoria. This has been my experience.

And what is even more important: Some are truly identifying with the "other sex", but decide to live and present as their assigned sex, for both valid and not so valid reasons.

This diversity tells me that human nature is not exclusively binary, even though most people find themselves at home in their assigned sex.

The personal remix

If gender is, as the biologists claim, the end result of an interplay of genetic, epigenetic, hormonal, environmental, cultural and psychological factors, this diversity is exactly what you would expect.

Every single human being is a new remix of an eternal song. There may be a new beat or a different orchestration, and the new mashup does not necessarily lead to a clear cut feeling of being a man or a woman.

It is this that leads many to dismiss the truscum gospel. If they feel at home in the zone in between (or beyond) the traditional genders, that feeling is still a reflection of a gender mix. They are transgender in the sense that they transcend the traditional genders.

For them gender dysphoria is not necessarily an issue (although it may be). They may still suffer severely from being caught in this zone, however. The society around them demands allegiance to one of the two genders, and since they -- like all of us -- long for love and affirmation, they may experience much fear and loneliness.

Communication breakdown

Here is the problem: For many people living outside the binary, it may be hard to understand other transgender people who feel a painfully strong misalignment between mind and body, in the sense that they identify fully with their target sex.

The life experience of the non-binary transgender makes it easy for them to conclude that a clear binary sex identity must be an effect of social conditioning. After all: It is this social conditioning that has made their own lives such a living hell. In other words: They may believe that we should all be able to live outside the binary.

Inborn sex identity

Hadn't it been for my own dysphoria, I would most likely have believed them. But my own experience tells me that there is a fifth bullet point to add to the list above: An inborn sex identity that is not defined by its content, but that determines how you orient yourself in the world.

I often compare this inborn sex identity to hunger. We all feel hunger, but the hunger itself does not define your personal taste or your local cuisine. Another example would be disgust, which is clearly an inborn instinct, but it is social training that eventually determines what you feel disgust for. It takes some time before kids develop an aversion against eating flies, for example.

Such an inborn sex identity would compel a child to seek a role as a man or a woman when growing up, but that identity would not determine what that behavior should be. Culture fills the sex identity with content.

The suffering of gender dysphoria is an effect of the misalignment between this sex identity and the body (called "gender incongruence" by modern psychiatry). Gender dysphoria is not causing the misalignment.

This may sound like a trivial detail, but in the truscum debate it is essential. Because the truscum try to establish gender dysphoria as a kind of perfect litmus test for determining if you are transsexual (in the sense of identifying fully with your target sex).

(I am using the term transsexual here, as I resent the truscum attempts at taking over the word transgender.)

Beyond dysphoria

There are people who identify fully with their target sex who do not experience what the medical establishment has defined as dysphoria. There are non-binaries who suffer from dysphoria. Dysphoria can therefore not be used to determine who is transsexual and who is not.

At best it can be used as a proxy or an indicator for determining what kind of health services they should get. But to be honest with you: I find even that approach questionable.

But couldn't you use this inborn sex identity to divide the true truscum from the rest of the transgender community? After all, people like you and me clearly exist. There are those of us who would have been much better off had we been born with a body of the other biological sex.

But it is hard to do so. As I pointed out above: Even though you and I feel this way, not all people do. There are no clear borders. There are no impenetrable walls between the genders. Even the inborn sex identity may vary in intensity. If you live close to one of the ends of the spectrum, the binary makes sense. For others, it doesn't.

Nor can you put up a clear wall between the binaries and the non-binaries, again because reality is too complex, fluid and many-faceted.

And why should you put up such walls? There is no need to do so!

Unless, of course, you think it is a good idea to join the ranks of those who deny the diversity, and leave the rest of us behind. That is exactly what people think the truscum gospel is about, and that is exactly why you meet so much hostility."

Click here for the original XD Express post and links to the tumblr discussion

See also Gender Reloaded, my blog posts on the dimensions of sex, gender and gender identity.

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!