August 18, 2020

Zagria on Transgender History, Part 2: Key Concepts and Terms

Zagria is the researcher, writer and editor behind “A Gender Variance Who’s Who”, the most extensive repository for transgender history on the web. In part 1 of our interview we talked about how she does her research. In this part we ask her about her understanding of key concepts like transgender and gender variance.

Part 1 of the interview can be found here.
Transgender historian Zagira (private photo)

The word "transgender"


Your site is very inclusive. You explicitly refer to gender variance in the name of the blog, instead of transgender people. 

Could you say something about how you see and understand the transgender community, and the development of the terms used to describe it?

I wrote an extensive discussion of the history of the word Transgender and pointed out five distinct meanings of the word:


1. To change gender full time, but without surgery.

2. As a synonym of transsexual, e.g. in the expression ‘transgender surgery’ (which turns out to be an early usage). Given that transsexuality is not a sexual orientation and that it is more a matter of gender.

3. Rejection of the gender binary. This has a definite history, and was articulated by Gay Lib, etc. and encompasses gender queer, non-binary, street queens etc. Such persons were generally rejected both by gays concerned to be gender normative and by people such as Virginia Prince with their false-consciousness concepts of respectability.

4. At least as far back as Magnus Hirschfeld there has been a need for an umbrella term for all who do not conform to the expectations of their birth gender. Harry Benjamin designed a scale. Leslie Feinberg and others proposed the term ‘transgender’ as an umbrella term, and it has been generally accepted since.

5. As a rejection of the medical pathologization implicit in ‘transsexualism’ and ‘gender dysphoria’. As an articulated usage, this is associated with queer theory, but the implicit attitude goes back to the early days of Gay Lib. Some of the anti-transgender people, especially those who identify with HBS or Truscum [i.e. communities of transsexual separatists], actually affirm themselves as having a medical condition.

In some ways Trangender is a good word because it is polyvalent, it has a richness of meanings. However – particularly when discussing pre-1950 and more so previous centuries – the term has baggage that is better avoided.

It is also damaged by boundary disputes. Some of the people are said by other people not to be transgender: drag performers, femmiphilics, cross-dreamers, gay transvestites, ‘female husbands’, butch women, non-binaries etc.

The context of time


I still find it difficult to use ‘transgender’ for earlier decades – to retroject the term. The French persons who walked, talked, worked and dressed like (trans) men but never took a male name – should they be called ‘transgender’?

I have done articles on prominent men, apparently cis-het, before 1950, who liked to do female impersonation: Baden-Powell, Winslow Taylor, Charles Lowman. Were they transgender? They certainly would not have said yes to the label.

Before 1950, and even more so in earlier centuries gender variant persons did not follow our models, our social constructions. Christine Jorgensen, April Ashley, Coccinelle established a model, a way to be trans. But that model did not exist previously. 

 On the other hand, some of the biographies in Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon are quite different from what modern readers would expect.

Christine Jorgensen became a media sensation back in the 1950s.


So are we not also retrojecting the term ‘gender variant’? 

 Well, yes. We are. But the term is less definite, carries less baggage, and does not have the same history of people objecting to it.

I wrote an essay on Cis Gender Variance. An essay on Cis Transgender is conceivable but would not cover the same material. 

 I mention “the mistaken idea that gender variance is a synonym for transgender, that trans persons are at variance in not being cis”. 

 I identified 18 variants within the cis spectrum, and commented “When we attempt to distinguish different types of cis, it becomes clearer that the distinction between cis and trans is a) socially constructed b) we can make arguments to move some types across the line”.

"Sex Change"


What about terms like “Sex-Change”, “Transsexual” or “Transexual”, “GID” or “Gender Dysphoria”?

Sex-Change = transsexual was in common usage in the 1950s and 1960s, first for the operation, and then by metonymy to persons who had had it. This made trans persons uncomfortable in the same way as other patients don’t like to be categorised by their operations.

However, as our enemies like to say that no-one can change sex (the chromosomal fallacy), it is important to assert that millions of people have indeed “changed gender,” and a goodly portion of us have also changed sex.

The one-S spelling , ‘transexual’ was preferred by Cauldwell, Money and the Rocky Horror Show. It was later preferred by some such as Riki Wilchins who claimed that the one-S spelling avoided medical implications, but that is to prefer David Cauldwell over Harry Benjamin – which is hardly non-medical. The best way to avoid medical implications is to say Transsexuality rather than Transsexualism.

Transsexual is only one type of transgender, so one cannot say transgender if intending to mean those who go for completion surgery – except by adding adjectives. However people, particularly those who are younger, are insisting that Transsexual not be used because it contains ‘sex’. 

 However the term ‘sex’ was a category before it was an activity. One is transsexual because one has altered physically; one is transgender because one has changed in respect to the social construction of male and female. The original feminist distinction between sex and gender, biological and social construction, was valid, heuristic and useful. It is still so.

In addition no replacement term has evolved to refer to those of us who have undergone the physical changes.

As for GID = 'Gender Identity Disorder': Any term with ‘disorder’ in it is objectionable. Even worse the acronym was used as a noun: Do you have GID?

Gender Dysphoria (logically distinct but taken as a synonym for GID) seems to be increasingly used to refer to those previously termed Transsexuals as the latter term is to be prohibited. 

 However Gender Dysphoria was proposed by Norman Fisk in 1973 explicitly because Transsexualism – not to mention Transsexuality – had lost its medical connotations. To use Gender Dysphoria is to remedicalize us.

Until a better term comes along, I am sticking with Transsexual (two esses).


Is Transgender a noun?



Is Transgender a noun?

Some say that Transgender is an adjective, and never a noun. E.g. I am a transgender person’ or ‘I am transgender’ but not ‘I am a transgender’. Certainly Transsexual, Transvestite and Trannie all were used as both adjective and noun, as is Crossdreamer. Trans* does not seem to work as well as a noun.

Gore Vidal famously argued that Homosexual was an adjective, not a noun: that there was no such thing as a homosexual person, only homosexual acts. Christine Burns has become the major advocate that Transgender is an adjective only. However as language evolves nouns became adjectives become verbs etc. This is a natural process.

Note also that Rose White uses HBS [“Harry Benjamin Syndrome”, History, a diagnosis made up by transssexual separatists] as a noun, and Dana Bevan used TSTG [a diagnosis made up for her book - see my review] as a noun. Richard Ekins used transgendering as a verb.

Language evolves, and ignores those who prescribe. Vidal and Burns are like those who would prohibit the tide coming in.

I would also mention the usage of LGBT as a noun or adjective. Are you an LGBT woman? Are you an LGBT? Many are L or G or B or T. Some are two of these. Nobody is all four. What is a G woman as opposed to a L woman? What is an L man? This is not a good usage, but as I said language prescriptions usually fail. 

Trans and intersex


Do you regard transgender as a type of Intersex?

Intersex can be defined as inclusive of transgender; it can be defined as exclusive of transgender.

Some trans persons feel that being Intersex is less stigmatizing and have sought to be included in the Intersex umbrella.

I think that the major points are:

  • The Intersex struggle has been to avoid non-consensual surgery, especially on young children, while the transsexual struggle has been to obtain the right to surgery.
  • Most, if not all, Intersex conditions can be identified at birth if the doctors do the right tests; this is not true of Transgender.
  • The word Intersex is owned by Intersex activists. They will include or exclude us according to what matters from their perspective. It is not for Trans persons to demand to be included.

The ISNA site says: “these two groups should not be and cannot be thought of as one. The truth is that the vast majority of people with intersex conditions identify as male or female rather than transgender or transsexual. Thus, where all people who identify as transgender or transsexual experience problems with their gender identity, only a small portion of intersex people experience these problems.”

IHRA/OII Australia says: “A conflation of intersex with being transgender or gender diverse fails to recognise that most intersex people identify with sex assigned at birth. Assuming that we are all the same, or that we pursue the same goals, obscures the specific goals of the intersex human rights movement.”

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