December 16, 2013

Truscum and the Transgender War of Words

While "classic" male to female transsexual women reject the word "transgender", the female to male transsexual separatists are claiming ownership. What is a crossdreamer to do?
Separatism divides and weakens us (photo: Ken Lloyd)

There are many wars on terminology going on in the spheres of gender and sexuality. The common denominator seems to be a need to uphold some kind of cultural and natural purity.

Accusations about appropriation and mislabeling are launched with varying precision, in gay as well as trans communities.

In the case of the transsexual separatists, this is a fight to end all doubts about them being real women or real men, as any association with crossdreamers and crossdressers is seen as a threat to their legitimacy.

The narrative of the classic transexual

The male to female transsexual separatists  argue that real  transsexual women suffer from a medical condition, and that they have nothing in common with crossdreamers, crossdressers, drag queens,  and gender queer, who  -- according to them -- are not suffering from such a medical condition.

Since they mistakenly believe the word "transgender" was coined by the infamous male to female crossdresser Virginia Prince (it wasn't!), they become insulted if you try to include them under this umbrella term for gender variant people.

According to them they have never been part of the Transgender Continent. Calling them "separatist" is therefore also insulting. They live on an island of their own.

The bizarre reversal of the female to male separatists

In my recent ventures into the female to male side of the Trans Continent, I have found the brother tribe of the MTF classical transsexual.  On tumblr, which has become an important arena for trans debate, they are know as "truscum".

(No, I have not been able to find the origin of the term truscum, although it seems clear that it was originally meant as a slur against the separatists.)

The truscum argue that transsexuality is a medical condition and that transsexuality is defined by the symptom of physical sex dysphoria (i.e. severe suffering from a misalignment between sex identity and body). They accuse non-transsexual people of "transtrending", i.e. appropriating real transsexual identities.

But here's the kicker: The FTM truscum trans men call themselves transgender! 

Not only do they embrace the term; they are actually trying to achieve a monopoly on using it. According to them only dysphoric transsexual people should be allowed to use the word  "trans", as well.

Imagine my surprise when I met  female to male trans teenagers on tumblr who explained to me that I am not allowed to call myself transgender, since I clearly am a crossdresser and not dysphoric. The fact that I am dysphoric and not a crossdresser, made no impression. I had been caught defending crossdreamers and girlfags. That was enough.

Transgender double bind

I am now finding myself in the bizarre position of having female to male transsexuals telling me that I cannot "appropriate" the term transgender, because I am a creepy male crossdresser.

At the same time there are female to male transsexuals who tell me that I am not to call them transgender, as this is offensive, again because I am a crossdresser.

On the word transgender

I am not going to repeat the debate with the male to female transsexual separatists here. You can read about how the crossdresser activist Virginia Prince helped generate the split here, and about the more extremist male to female separatists here.

This time I would like to focus on the truscum, and one thing is clear: The new generation of separatist trans men  have no right to claim exclusive ownership of the words trans or transgender. Both words have been commonly understood as all-embracing terms for gender variant people for several decades.

Cristan Williams has written a thorough historical review of the use of the transgender concept. She has found that the term was indeed used as a synonym for what we today would call transsexual in the early 1970s. Gradually however, the term transgender became the preferred  umbrella term for all gender variant people. In the 1990s this had become common usage.

In 1992, for instance,  the International Transgender Law Conference (ICLEPT) defined “transgender’ in the following way:

"Transgendered persons include transsexuals, transgenderists [a term referring to trans people living as their target sex, but choosing not to undergo genital surgery], and other crossdressers of both sexes, transitioning in either direction (male to female or female to male), of any sexual orientation, and of all races, creeds, religions, ages and degrees of physical impediment."

As regards the word "trans", Williams makes the following observation:

"The trans community had been using 'trans' as a simple umbrella term since the mid 1970s. Whether it called itself the 'gender community,' the 'TV/TS community,' the 'paraculture' or the 'transgender community' the intent has always been the same: the recognition of the various types of trans groups who share some common issues and who could work together for common cause. Examples of efforts to cultivate unity (not uniformity) abound throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s from practically all aspects of the trans community."

In other words: the truscum are free to embrace the words "transgender" and "trans", but they have no right to deny other gender variant people the right to use them.

The solution

There is a simple solution to all of this.

Keep the transgender term for all gender variant people, and use the word transsexual for those who identify  with their target sex, who suffer from gender dysphoria and who have transitioned or would like to transition.

Believe me, non-dysphoric crossdressers and crossdreamers are not going  to "appropriate" the term transsexual.


I actually think the "classical" trans women and the truscum trans men are right about there being a biological component to the complex set of variables that make people dysphoric. I have no problem with that. In my view trans men and trans women are really the men and women they claim to be, no "buts" and no small print footnotes involved.

Nor do I think of transsexual people who  identify completely with their target sex as "traitors identifying with the binary". The poles of masculine and feminine are real to me. (But then again, so are the areas in between.)

Still, I do find the simplistic way separatist draw up borders between their condition and the gender variance of others to be misleading, to say the least.

In their search for gender purity the separatists have unfortunately ended up invalidating other transgender people who at heart are as transsexual as they are. Moreover, some of them have even ended up mislabeling other transgender people as perverts. That is unacceptable.

About crossdreamers and girlfags/guydykes

If you have never heard the word "crossdreamer" before: 

This is a term that refers to transgender people who get aroused by the idea of being their target sex. This is not a new tribe, it is not a separate syndrome, and it is not a pathological condition. It is simply a term used to describe  natural sexual fantasies of many transgender persons, transsexual or not transsexual.

For pre-op trans women and men it is very hard to have sexual fantasies without imagining yourself having the body of your target sex. For gender queer people, who may oscillate between male and female, imagining yourself as the other (or neither) sex is just another way of exploring your sexuality.

In other words: For me crossdreaming is only one of many ways a transgender personality can express itself. The only reason we need a separate term for this phenomenon, is that crossdreaming so often is used to invalidate the identities of transgender people, transsexual men and women included.

The terms girlfag and guydyke overlap with the terms female to male and male to female crossdreamers, but are not synonymous. Most girlfags feel a strong affinity for the feminine side of gay male culture, mainly because it presents a scenario where they may explore fantasies of being the male partner in a male same-sex relationship. Many, but not all, girlfags are  transgender, with a strong masculine identity. In many ways these girlfags are similar to lesbian butches, the main difference being the fact that they are attracted to feminine men instead of "femme" women. Some girlfags (also called transfags) are transsexual.

Further reading:

The "Real" Truscum (blog set up by an opponent of the truscum, documenting truscum posts and arguments)

Susan Schmitt: Checking Our Privilege, Working Together: Notes on Virtual Trans* Communities, Truscum Blogs, and the Politics of Transgender Health Care (Great post. Read it!)

Rant Against the Underminers (pro-truscum blog)

Hate Within The Community, Trans* vs Transsexual, and Truscum (videoblogpost by xymrn, FTM trans man)

Tracking Transgender: The Historical Truth (Cristan William's historical review of the use of the term)


From "transgenderist" to "transgender" - on Virginia Prince and crossdresser separatism

"You are not one of us!" said the separatist transsexual

On the Harry Benjamin Syndrome male to female transsexual separatist tribe.

The Yaoi Culture and the Female to Male Crossdreamers

This post has also been published over at tumblr.


  1. "In their search for gender purity the separatists have unfortunately ended up invalidating other transgender people who at heart are as transsexual as they are. Moreover, some of them have even ended up mislabeling other transgender people as perverts. That is unacceptable"

    I do believe that crossdreaming that one cannot get rid of and has an origin in one's youngest years is more than likely somehow rooted in biology. But I am only as certain as my own personal experience tells me because we have not yet found a trans gene.

    To the people who say that their transsexualism is a pre-existing condition and everyone else who has not transitioned is a pretender I would say simply "prove it".

    100 years ago no one transitioned. Who was the true transsexual then? is the only barometer for this condition whether one actually transitions? I don't for believe it does.

    Some don't transition due to religious convictions, family situations, etc. In other words, everyone is different and everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do or don't do.

    Ultimately it's about what makes you be able to live as a balanced human being.

    I don't actually agree that transsexual exceptionalists want to label other transgender people as perverts. That's been more the work of Blanchard. They are more interested in saying:

    "would I actually do something so extreme to my body that there wasn't some sort of complete psycho sexual inversion going on here?"

    To which I would again say: "prove why yours is exceptional compared to other trans people"

    The litmus test for legitimacy should not be transition. After all, there are people who have transitioned such as Renee Richards or Walt Heyer who now regret it or have completely de transitioned. Were they not "true" women? how were they able to do something so drastic and then come to regret it?

    What about Philip Porter who lived successfully as a female for 32 years only to de transition?

    Ultimately there is no true barometer for true legitimacy for transsexualism because we understand so little about it and the science is woefully inadequate at this stage.

    Better to support each other in our human struggles rather than divide.

  2. ...I would add that separatists are all but gone now anyway. The new generation of transgender people draw no such battle lines. They do what they must and live as best they can with their condition whether they transition or not.

    Some fortunate young heterosexual transsexuals are even finding accepting female partners or holding on to their existing partners and moving on with their lives. They have little interest in gender politics or fighting old battles as they have grown up with far less inhibitions and social taboos.


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  6. @Mitchell

    You write:

    "The term "transgendered" as defined by the "ICLEPT" seems to be about "living as target sex", or "transitioning", or "crossdressing", and all of that, but what does that mean, exactly? "

    I messed this one up, I am sorry. You see the quote from ICLEPT contains both the term transgender and transgenderist. The term transgender is the umbrella term I am talking about and which ICLEPT used as such.

    The term "transgenderist" is another term entirely. This was the term coined by Virginia Prince, the notorious crossdresser activist who would have nothing to do with transsexuals and homosexuals. ICLEPT is including the term in its list of various transgender identities, as it was used by some at the time.

    I added the text in brackets to help the reader understand what "transgenderist" means, but ended up making the whole quote unintelligible.

    Prince used the word transgenderist to describe trans people like herself: male bodied persons who lived like women, dressed like women, transformed their bodies to look like women, but who nevertheless identified as men.

    Prince herself took hormones, grew breasts, legally changed her name and was for all practical purposes a transsexual woman. But she did not undergo genital surgery, and probably believed her whole crossdresser movement would fall apart if she transitioned fully. She gained some respect for American crossdressers by insisting they were regular men with a strong "second self".

    The price we all pay for this, is the split between crossdreamers on the one hand and "true transsexuals" on the other.

  7. @Mitchell

    "I know this begs the question, that if I don't want those things (...), then why do I think of myself as a woman at all... and to be completely honest, I don't know the answer to that question."

    I am beginning to think that the whole essentialist vs constructivist dichotomy is false.

    There may be an inborn component to sex identity formation,even if your desire for shopping is not inborn.

    Think about language: All kids are clearly wired for learning language. They start babbling at an early age, preparing their brain and mouth for speaking. But the language they learn is cultural.

    They are also wired for playing, but what they play is very much culturally defined.

    (Apart from "hide and seek", probably, which looks very much like inborn hunter and prey training to me. Even my cat play hide and seek.).

    It could simply be that we are wired for male/female interactions, and that we are driven to find our role as one or the other.

    In most people there is some correlation between the biological sex and this driver towards identity formation. In others the driver is unclear or undefined, in which case most of them adapt to the role defined to them by culture (non-binary or androgynous). And then, in some there is some kind of reversal.

    The urge to dress as a woman and behave like a woman (as defined by your culture) is the psyches way of trying to bridge the mismatch. It is the same drive that impels young girls to imitate the women around them, trying to find expressions that fit.

  8. @Jack

    "The urge to dress as a woman and behave like a woman (as defined by your culture) is the psyches way of trying to bridge the mismatch. It is the same drive that impels young girls to imitate the women around them, trying to find expressions that fit"

    I like the way you put this. The idea that the psyche is compelled to go to bridge a gap in the mental gender identity of the person through acts such as cross dressing. I believe this is how my own mind has always worked and imitating my mother was something natural and innate to me from day one.

    We don't understand what makes us this way but we do what we can to grapple with the feelings we have and cross dressing is one such way to do it and bring it to the level of physical expression.

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  10. We keep seeing this same thing over and over--that the idea of a person wanting to be the opposite sex is such a vile, abominable thing, that a person in such a desperate position grasps at some imagined legitimacy by differentiating his- or herself from "the bad ones." As though that makes any difference to an outsider! Absolutely pathetic.

    Here's a parody of how blacks sometimes do the same thing:
    Uncle Ruckus sings!

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  13. I guess I am the 'classic' male to female transsexual, complete with gender dysphoria and in the process of transition. Two yrs on hormones, almost 2 yrs since the legal name change and over a year and a half since the legal gender marker change on my license and passport. The final step, Gender Corrective Surgery, is planned for the fall.

    Of course I believe that I've always been a woman, or had a woman's brain, but a man's body.

    I see the term transgender similar to the term British as it applies to the citizens of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. As I see the term transgender to be inadequate to truly identify my roots, British fails in the same way. I lived in England for 2 yrs in the mid 2000's. While no English citizens that I met would deny that they were British, many were quick to note that they were also English and even preferred to be referred to that way. So, similarly, I am transgender, but more specifically, I am transsexual, and prefer the later term.

  14. @Laura,

    Yes, what you say makes perfect sense to me.

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  17. I know I'm commenting after almost five years, but I wanted to thank you for pointing me to Cristan Williams' research on the origins of the word 'transgender' (and others). Having started my own journey of exploration around 1995, when the Internet was still young (but already had lots of valuable information!), a time when it was still felt that 'trans people' was a much wider, inclusive term, I was lead to believe that 'transgender' was a word mostly used in the mid-1980s to describe a community of (mostly) males who felt they had a feminine persona 'inside them' and who needed to manifest that persona through attire and behaviour; such manifestation was not necessarily sexually arousing, but the urge/need/desire to do that as frequently and regularly as possible was as important as breathing. Such community rejected the simple label 'crossdresser' as this was being more and more connected with the notion of sexual arousal (either object fetishism or behaviour fetishism); while clearly these people were not 'transexual' in the current usage of the term. They were therefore somewhere in-between. Because transexuals technically changed their sexual attributes to march their gender, the choice of the word transgender meant people who did not change any sexual attributes but, instead, crossed from one gender to the other and back again (which gender they actually 'preferred' was another story). In simple terms: transexual people did not change gender (but their sex); while transgender people did not change their sex (just their gender).
    Interestingly enough, Cristan Williams does not present any information on the source or origin of popularity of that usage of 'transgender'. The issue I current have is that this particular group, once very vocal and active (unlike fetishist crossdressers, they tended to band together in groups to go out in public crossdressed, and created whole organisations around that purpose — a typical example being the Beaumont Society in the UK, although they have changed their usage of terminology since then) is slowly fading away in importance and being replaced by a more black-and-white approach to the whole 'trans' community: either you are a crossdresser (a fetishist), transgender (meaning that transition is your goal), or simply 'gender non-conforming'. That later definition, gender non-conforming, seems to be today what 'transgender' meant two decades or so ago, or what 'transexual' meant for Harry Benjamin: an umbrella term being used to describe a vast group of people which do not 'fit' easily in any classification...

  18. The terminology is in a constant flux, it seems. The most popular term for those falling outside the binary right now, seems to be "non-binary". The term "gender queer" is out of fashion, probably because people fear it is offensive. The term "gender non-conforming" is used, but probably sounds too clinical to become very popular, as does the term "gender variant".

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