February 4, 2022

Why words like queer and trans make perfect sense

Yes, umbrella terms like queer and transgender make perfect sense, but maybe not for the reasons many think.

You have probably heard the questions: “Being gay is about sexuality and being trans is about gender identity, so why do the two belong to the same queer community?"

Or: “Trans men and women suffer from gender dysphoria, while drag queens and ‘crossdressers"‘ are just ‘performing’,” so why should being trans be a matter of gender expression instead of identity only?”

Setting the false premise of  “all crossdressers are just performing” aside, these questions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding, namely that membership in the queer and trans communities need to be based on some kind of easy definable common “essence”. 

In the case of “queer” some would argue that that would be sexual orientation, I suppose, and in the case of "transgender," gender identity or gender dysphoria.

I am not denying that there may be biological components to the development of queer and trans identities. In fact, I think it is hard to explain the existence of queer and trans people without such components, given the severe social conditioning found in societies where the cis/het (cisgender and heterosexual) ideal is the norm. Why would anyone chose to be queer or trans, given the kind of harassment we see?

 Yet, I do not think we – or science – have come to a point where such factors can be used to define social groups. Moreover, such litmus tests, if possible, would without doubt be used to invalidate some trans people, which is not a good thing.

In spite of this lack of reliable "DNA tests" for transness and queerness the existing LGBTQ+ and transgender communities represent meaningful alliances. Broad terms like queer and trans make sense at the moment we move from some kind of "objective" idea of what people essentially are over to the social scene. 

The terms queer and trans

The Wikipedia now states that "Queer is an umbrella term for people who are not heterosexual or are not cisgender." 

Some LGBTQA+ people do not like the term, as it represents an appropriation of a slur word once used by cis/het bigots.  I understand the argument, but given that I am queer myself, I believe I have the right to use it. We need an adjective to describe rainbow people, and this one has been accepted by many.

By the way: There is also a research discipline called "queer theory", which includes literary and cultural studies that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality. In other words: The term is being used in affirmative and supportive ways.

Transgender has been an umbrella term for all kinds of gender variant people since the early 1990s. I do understand that some trans people want to purify the term, and leave out all the trans people who are not gender dysphoric and/or are nonbinary and/or do not live up to some other standard put up by them, but I, for one, do not think this kind of separatism is helpful, constructive or even possible. More about that here.

Defined by social exclusion

The members of the LGBT+  or queer community have all one thing in common: They are all struggling to be accepted  in a word where the dominant narrative about sexuality and gender that says that "normal" women are attracted to men, that they want to appear feminine, and they have an unquestionable female gender identity. "Real men" are masculine, loves women exclusively and would never dream of being a woman. 

Moreover, the same narrative is based on the premise that your genitals or chromosomes are destiny. They, and not people, ultimately decide if you are a man or a woman and how you should feel and behave. And there are no in-betweens. Intersex people are considered statistical outliers of no relevance to the dictates of Nature or God.

This narrative is underpinning social and cultural institutions like courtship, marriage, family creation and – to a lesser degree these days – the division of work and duties. Because this way of thinking is cultural, it also becomes political, as reflected in the current anti-trans activism and in the long history of anti-gay/lesbian/bisexual activism. 

Since this cis/het narrative does not distinguish clearly between sexuality and gender, the people who are oppressed by it will include both those who are oppressed because of their sexual orientation and those who struggle with their gender identity. The two also often overlap as far as gender expression and gender roles are concerned.

In one way you could argue both trans and queer are completely relative terms. Queer are those who are excluded from cis/het “normalcy”. Trans people are those who are not accepted as “real” men or “women” and who do not feel at home in the assigned gender given to them by their community.

The cis/het toleration of this gender and sexuality diversity will vary from epoch to epoch and from community to community, which is why it is not possible to come up with a water tight definitions of queer or trans that fits all regardless of social and cultural context.

Self-identification and the trans and queer umbrellas

I know that some will argue that being trans or queer is a matter of self-identification. Trans people are those who say they are trans, and queer people are those who say they are members of the LGBTQ+ community.

I fully respect people’s right to self-identify as well as their chosen pronouns. But when we discuss queer and trans issues as social, cultural, political and historical issues, we actually do need terms that are a little more coherent than that. 

So from an analytical point of view it makes sense to talk about queer and transgender umbrella, even if not all of those we find under that umbrellas think of themselves as queer or trans per se. Their conscious identity may, after all, be based on different definitions of the terms. Many are on  journeys of self-discovery where words and concepts may shift. 

Broad umbrellas leave more room for such exploration, room where queer and trans people can get help from other queer and trans people, even if they are not all in the same place as far as their own self-understanding or identity go. They have a lot in common, regardless.

In other words: These umbrella alliances make sense because the people belonging under these umbrellas are facing similar kinds of invalidation, oppression and harassment. Homophobes and transphobes are using the same kind of arguments and the same kind of tactics to force all queer people back into the closet and out of public spaces, so that – over time – they may create societies without visible diversity as regards sexuality and gender.

We have been there before, so don't think that they cannot succeed in this. For some queer and trans people to pull up the ladder and leave other queer people behind in an attempt to please the bigots is not only unethical. It won't work.

Right now, in 2022, we see a resurgence of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred, and both TERFs and right wing extremists try to split the queer community. Now, more than ever, queer people have to stand together and help each other.

See also: Why we need a broad umbrella definition of the word "transgender"

Appendix 1: Examples of different definitions of the word "transgender"

The modern usage of the word transgender as an umbrella term for people with all kinds of gender variance was established in the early 1990s. 

The American Psychological Association presents a clear umbrella definition:

"Transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth."

The American Psychiatric Association in its psychiatric manual, the DSM-5, also gives us an umbrella definition, although this one is more loosely associated with identity:

"Transgender refers to the broad spectrum of individuals who transiently or persistently identify with a gender different from their natal gender." 

Note that the DSM-5 still uses the more narrow term  "transsexual", defined as "an individual who seeks, or has undergone, a social transition from male to female or female to male, which in many, but not all, cases also involves a somatic transition by cross-sex hormone treatment and genital surgery (sex reassignment surgery)." Note also that you do not need to experience an alienation from your own body or desire to be another gender to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria. 

There are also sites that gives a much narrower definition of "transgender", making it sound much more like the older term "transsexual".

Merriam Websters states, for instance, that transgender means "of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth; especially : of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity is opposite the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth."

For more definitions, see my post "What transgender really means."

Appendix 2: Julia Serano on the term transgender

Transgender activist and thinker, Julia Serano, has written an interesting entry on the term "transgender" which are aligned with some of my arguments:

Transgender: the most commonly accepted umbrella term for people who transgress gender norms or defy traditional gender categories in some way. Activists in the 1990s forwarded this term to unite transsexuals, crossdressers, drag artists, butch women, feminine men, and people who are androgynous, intersex, non-binary, and possibly others (as discussed in Outspoken, pp. 257-268; see also here). 
While the word was intended to be inclusive of all gender-variant people (in the hopes of organizing the largest possible coalition to challenge the gender binary), some individuals or subgroups have objected to being included under the label (see e.g., Whipping Girl, p. 26; Outspoken, pp. 179-188, also here), while some who identify with the term have attempted to exclude other subgroups from using or being included under the label (e.g., some have objected to the inclusion of drag performers and other non-transsexual gender non-conforming people). 
Unfortunately, many people in the cis mainstream are unaware of the broad coalition of identities that exist under the transgender umbrella, leading them to mistakenly equate the word “transgender” with transsexuals (even though the latter are merely one subgroup). For this reason, I sometimes use the phrase “transgender-spectrum” in my writings to stress this gender diversity, even though it is arguably redundant. 
Contemporary activists typically claim that “transgender” should only be used as an adjective (not a noun or a verb), and that individuals should not be referred to as “transgenders” or “transgendered,” even though these variants were routinely used by trans activists up through the mid-’00s (e.g., see Outspoken, pp. 322-323, note 31).

Appendix 3: The Crossdreamer Survey

The Crossdreamer Survey of Gender Variance shows that a great majority of gender variant people support broader transgender, queer and LGBT alliances.

This post is based on responses I published in two threads over at CDL:

Advice for my worst experience with LGBTQ community? Told I'm not allowed as X-dresser/femboy, appropriating queerness.

Are we just protecting cis people and the binary again? 

Photo: kamisoka


  1. Can I just ask you an honest question? Do you believe that men and women (all 7 billion of them) are simply incapable of feeling, thinking, saying and doing the things queer and trans people feel, think, say and do? Because if they are, than none of those things will ever be things that makes queer and trans people different from men and women.

    1. the difference is the degree to which they do. All people inherently have masculine and feminine energies however in the case of trans people there is a very much stronger identification with the other gender to the point (in cases of transsexualism) where the identification is entirely reversed to the point of psycho-sexual inversion. This has been known and studied for decades now and no one working in this field questions it. It is, however, a perfectly fair question to ask.

    2. Nonsense. For any feeling, thought or act to be by definition a male or female feeling, thought or act requires only one male or female to actually do it. That's it. How common or rare it is is completely irrelevant.

    3. "For any feeling, thought or act to be by definition a male or female feeling, thought or act requires only one male or female to actually do it."

      If that is the case, all feelings and acts are both male and female. And in one way they are.

      But as Joanna points out, the need or desire to express or embody femininity or masculinity is never about one single feeling or one single act. This is the case both for cis people and trans people.

      Indeed, I find your desire to identify what makes trans people's feelings different from cis people's emotions bewildering.

      Trans people's feelings are not different from cis people's feelings, with one exception: Cis people are not likely to experience gender incongruence or gender dysphoria. That's all.

    4. "If that is the case, all feelings and acts are both male and female. And in one way they are." Exactly! Remember, what we associate as male and female behaviour is statistical, not absolute. This is why the concept of gender doesn't work because if you're want to have real distinction between categories there has to be one thing about one category we won't find in another. Ergo, the distinction of that thing has to be absolute. Do you realize now why people experience gender dysphoria in the first place? Simple. Because the concept of gender itself cannot make distinctions in behaviour and therefore is nonsensical. No wonder people get messed up!

    5. And B.T.W. The concept of "Cis" people only make sense if genders exist. They don't. There are only biological males and females having all kinds of male like and female like behaviour in all kinds of combinations and varieties. That's it. There is nothing more to it than that. Everything else is distraction.

    6. Remember, The definition of the word Woman used to be: Adult biological female. It was never about behavior! Yes, they got it right the first time!

    7. Look, it all boils down to this one simple notion. Gender ideology is in essence about this: If you feel, think and act like a woman than you're not a man. WRONG! If you feel, think and act like a woman that means that that is also male behaviour!

  2. No, historically the terms "woman" and "man" were cultural and legal roles.

    The idea that you can reduce gender to biological sex is a 19th century invention. The main purpose was to reduce women to their "primary biological functions" - pleasing their man sexually and bearing his children. This was and is an ideology for the patriarchal subjugation of women.

    In premodern times "maleness" and "womanness" where matters of degrees, as explained by humorology and astrology. Indeed, doctors provided many examples of women being physically transformed to men when getting too much fire ("male energy"). At that time the oppression of women was defended on the basis of human and divine law, not biology.

  3. "WRONG! If you feel, think and act like a woman that means that that is also male behaviour!"

    Which would mean that all women are men. Interesting, but wrong.

    1. Nope! It means that both men and woman can produce both male and female behaviour. "The idea that you can reduce gender to biological sex is a 19th century invention." There is that word again. Gender. Why are you keep using that word when I explained to you why gender as a concept makes no sense? And B.T.W. how can you say that "The idea that you can reduce gender to biological sex is a 19th century invention." when the idea of gender didn't exist until 1955? it was first formulated by sexologist John Money.

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  5. it appears that this person is trying to convince us that we are not who we say we are and my lifelong dysphoria is entirely my own invention. It's why I have stopped arguing with people like this because I find it pointless however what I find most interesting is the degree of insistence in trying to convince you which makes me wonder about the psychology driving it :)

    1. I'm not saying that in the in the slightest. What I'm saying that the concept of gender itself is nonsensical. What kind of behaviour belongs to what gender? There is no correct answer to this question. That means that the concept of gender cannot differentiate between different kinds of behaviour. I'm not denying your experience. I'm simply saying that concept of gender is nonsensical and therefore it cannot explain it.

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    3. Ok I understand what you are saying and I think that the societal burdening of expectations related to it doesn't help. I've been trying to fully comprehend the subject all my life due to the disconnect I felt.

    4. This is why we really have to rethink the entire phenomenon of gender dysphoria. If the concept of gender is nonsensical them what are you dysphoric about? I know, it's a pickle and it will stir a lot of antagonism in a lot of people but if we really want to understand what's going on it really needs to be addressed.

    5. the conclusion I have come to is that gender is split into two distinct parts: one is genetic and one is societal. My dysphoria stems from the genetic component and there are millions of other people like me (approx 1% of the population). its easy to talk in concepts but dysphoria is real and I know because I have it. So talking about it all day long doesnt help. At almost 60 years of age I have read and tried everything and the only thing that helps me is living my truth. Its as simple and complex as that. If you arent dysphoric yourself you wont get it

    6. Once again, I'm not denying ANY of what you experience. Your dysphoria is a FACT. Just like an earthquake or gravity is a fact. It's just the theoretic framework that accounts for this fact that is dysfunctional for the reasons I explained earlier. That's all. I seriously hope you can cope as best as you can with whatever works for you.

    7. Remember, the scientific community owes you the TRUTH! Not MY truth or THEIR truth or anyone else's truth, but THE TRUTH! Demand nothing less!


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