I first posted this on May 6, 2006, and I’m surprised I haven’t reposted it here. Thanks to various people from the My Husband Betty Message Boards for helpful feedback.
In linguistics, there are many who frown on the idea of conscious control of language use, individual or collective, such as in the book published in 1950 called Leave Your Language Alone. People who try to control language are sometimes called prescriptivists, a term that conjures up images of stuffy grammarians writing pedantic articles about punctuation. However, in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene, Deborah Cameron argued that there are all kinds of reasons to advocate or attempt language change, and some are good (eliminating sexist generic statements like “A good doctor talks to his patients”) and some are bad (using natural variations as shibboleths to discriminate against people from stigmatized ethnic groups). Cameron’s point is that the important thing is to be aware of the reasons and to subject them to an open decision-making process.
With that in mind, I have some things to say about the use of the word transgender. I am not doing this to discriminate or belittle people, or out of blind deference to tradition. I’m also not out to demonize anyone or blame anyone else for these problems. I have specific reasons for arguing against a current change in usage, and for a specific way of thinking about the term. I also want people to be aware of the effects of the language that they use, and the consequences of their choices. I’m going to be drawing on the field of lexical semantics, which itself draws on psychology, artificial intelligence, computer science and philosophy.
The word transgender and its intended and actual usage
It’s easy to find a definition of transgender on the web or in recent books. The original use was a shortened form of transgenderist, a term coined by Virginia Prince to refer to someone who transitions to a new gender without surgery. That one usually isn’t mentioned; instead, you’ll find either the “umbrella” definition where transgender is a collective term including transsexuals, cross-dressers, drag queens, people who present androgynously and others. Another common definition links transgenderism to gender identity disorder, the psychiatric diagnosis for someone who believes that they’re a gender different from the one assigned to them.
In fact, it is now common for transgender to be used as a synonym for transsexual. More specifically, a euphemism for transsexual. Many transsexuals have stated, both in public and in private, that they have used it because they are uncomfortable with the fact that transsexual contains the word sex. Even though it refers to sexual differentiation and not sexual intercourse, some people are afraid that they will be stigmatized as perverts if they are too closely associated with the word sex.
Significantly, there is even recently widespread use of the term transgender surgery or gender reassignment surgery to describe surgical operations that have in the past been called sex changes, sexual reassignment surgery or genital reassignment surgery.
This change in usage is a problem for me and other part-time cross-dressers, but it is very difficult to explain why. The reasons are fairly complicated and relate to mental categories, prototype effects, peer pressure and the difference between feelings and actions. I hope you’ll stick with me through the explanation.
Feelings versus actions
The first point is that feelings and actions are different. There are many different cross-gender feelings. Some people feel that they are really a different gender. Some feel that they were born into the wrong body. Some feel a desire to be a different gender, sometimes or all the time. Some want to pretend to be a different gender, sometimes or all the time. Some want to get away from their assigned gender. Some want to wear certain clothes, or to act a certain way, or to have a certain job, or to relate to other people in a certain way, and feel that presenting as another gender makes it easier. Some are content with their gender, all the time or maybe just sometimes. Many of these feelings contradict each other, and many people feel several contradictory feelings, either at the same time, over the course of a day, or throughout their lifetime.
Based on one or more of the feelings I listed above, or other feelings, people may be motivated to do one or more of the following: act in a way that doesn’t conform to gender expectations; wear clothes assigned to a different gender, sometimes or all the time, visibly or not; groom themselves in ways associated with a different gender; present as a different gender, sometimes or all the time; present androgynously; change their name to an androgynous one or one associated with a different gender; take the hormones assigned to a different sex; surgically modify their body to resemble a different sex; take legal steps to change their name or assigned gender. Some may not take any actions at all, but simply imagine themselves as a different gender or with a different body.
Some may act in sexual ways, including sexual fantasies, masturbation while cross-dressed, taking sexual roles traditionally associated with a different gender, imagining themselves as a different gender while having sex, imagining themselves with a different body while having sex, flirting while cross-dressed, having sex while cross-dressed, or transitioning to a new gender and having sex in ways associated with that new gender.
This list of feelings and actions is not meant to be exhaustive. I’m sure there are other cross-gender feelings, and plenty of other ways of expressing these feelings as well.
There is NOT one way to be transgender
The key here is that, to quote Jamison Green, there is NOT one way to be transgender. A person who feels any combination of the feelings described above may take any of the actions described above, or none of these actions. They may have any number of reasons for choosing the actions they do, and there is no way to know without asking them. The actions they take do not necessarily provide any clues to their feelings. They may not even be aware of their own reasons for their choices.
This is not to say that some ways of dealing with transgenderism aren’t preferable to others. There are all kinds of ways to be transgender: bold ways and timid ways, risky ways and safe ways, proud ways and shameful ways. It is reasonable to encourage some ways of dealing with transgender feelings and discourage others.
Whatever some may think, people have a right to live their lives as they choose, free from discrimination or harassment, as long as they are not hurting others. Furthermore, at this point there is very little known for sure about the causes and effects of various transgender feelings and actions, and any recommendations about the appropriate courses of action are just opinions.
The role of transgender dogma
There are certain ways of thinking about transgenderism that encourage particular actions and discourage others. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the ones I’m thinking of aren’t up front about it. Often the recommendations and encouragements aren’t explicitly labeled as such, but presented as fact. More often, and more insidiously, they are not presented at all, but simply implied. This has the effect of encouraging people to take drastic action without thinking carefully and explicitly about it, and without being aware of all their options.
I’m talking about a collection of beliefs that I call transgender dogma. Transgender dogma is the idea that there are some people who (to use male-to-female terms as an example) appear male, but are really female inside. They have always believed themselves to be female, and it is their destiny to realize this female self-image. The only way they can really be happy is to change their bodies to appear female and transition to a female identity. For female-to-male transpeople, they appear female but have always believed themselves to be male, and it is their destiny to transition to a male identity. The dogma usually also expects that the person will be attracted to, and romantically and sexually involved with, the “appropriate” gender: MTF transgendered people with men and FTM transgendered people with women.
Unfortunately, as described above, the reality is nowhere near as tidy. The “science” that is cited to support this dogma is nowhere near as reliable or conclusive as often claimed. Some MTF transpeople do not begin to believe that they are really women until they are nine, twelve or seventeen years old. Some transpeople have a strong desire to be the other gender without actually believing they are the other gender. Some have an equally strong desire to remain in their assigned gender. Some just want to get away from their assigned gender. Some people’s feelings change from day to day, from month to month, or over their lifetime.
The claims for destiny and happiness are also problematic. There are a significant number of transgender regret cases, people who have taken particular actions in accordance with the dogma, and not been satisfied with the results. Some have continued with more and more extreme actions and body modifications, believing that they’re just not (again, in the MTF direction) pretty or feminine enough, or living the right lifestyle. Some have de-transitioned, changed their hormone dosages, or had surgery to reverse the effects of earlier hormones or surgery. Some have simply made the best of the situation they wound up in. Others have changed their minds before they took certain actions.
Conversely, there are some transgendered people who are able to build a satisfactory life for themselves without following the recommendations in the dogma. Some have certain body modifications but not others. Some are content with transition without body modification, or body modification without transition. Some live androgynous lifestyles. Some present as one gender part of the time, and another gender the rest of the time. Some cross-dress at home or in other safe spaces. Some underdress, wearing the underwear assigned to one gender with the outer clothes of another, or make subtle cosmetic or clothing choices to satisfy their cross-gender desires. Some simply fantasize.
There are many people who would like to take certain actions but can’t because of issues related to job, family or passability issues. However, many of the people I mentioned in the preceding paragraph are doing exactly what they want to do. They’ve had the opportunity to take the dogma-recommended actions and have chosen not to, because it’s not what they want. They have not followed the transgender dogma, but are as satisfied as some of those who do.
Problems with dogmatic expectations
Looking back at the opening discussion of the use of the word transgender and other descriptions of transgenderism, the people who don’t follow the transgender dogma are often invisible and ignored. If someone hasn’t had “the surgery,” it is assumed to be because of financial or other difficulties beyond their control. If someone has clearly chosen not to follow the dogmatic route, it may be assumed that they are not “really” transgendered. There are specific problems caused by these assumptions, related to invisibility, discrimination and pressure.
Over the past several years, a number of service providers have broadened their services from the gay and lesbian communities to include bisexual and transgendered people. Often, the only services offered for transpeople are related to transition, body modification, or promiscuous sex. There are various campaigns for “transgender rights” or “transgender equality,” and many focus on transition-related and body-modification-related rights, without addressing rights that may be important to other transpeople. Organizations like The Straight Spouse Network have included all bisexual and transgender people even though many bisexual and transgender people do not bring up the issues of divorce, infidelity and sexual unavailability that are raised by gay and lesbian spouses.
When transgendered people take non-approved actions, they can be discriminated against. Because I have decided against transition and body modifications, and because I acknowledge the sexual actions I take in response to my transgender feelings, I have been told at more than one transgender group, “You’re not really transgendered. What are you doing here?” Other people have reported the same thing.
There is significant pressure on transgender people to follow the approved program. I and other transpeople have often been asked “so when are you going to start taking hormones?” or offered the number of a good surgeon. Compliments like “you could totally pass,” or “you’d look great if you just …” are a subtle form of pressure. Most disturbingly, several transpeople I know have described medical and psychological professionals recommending particular courses of action without even consulting their patients about what they want to do.
What’s wrong with a little pressure? The main thing is that no one knows for sure what would work for a given transgendered person. Some may be satisfied following the standard transition-and-body-modification path, but others may not. Allowing a person enough information to contemplate all their options without pressure is likely to minimize the cases of regret, and maximize the number of transgendered people who are satisfied with their lives. A person who has not made up their mind what to do with their life may be pressured to make irreversible changes to their body or their relationships, and possibly regret those changes later. A person who has made up their mind is likely to feel annoyed or unwelcome under pressure.
The role of gender euphoria
What’s the big deal about a little pressure? People can take care of themselves, right? Not always. I’m not even talking about complex issues such as a recommendation from an authority figure like a doctor, or a parent making a decision for a young child.
It’s not well known that transpeople aren’t always mentally competent. Believe me, this isn’t an insult to transpeople, because it’s something I’ve felt many times myself. There’s a phenomenon sometimes known as gender euphoria that really messes with a transperson’s ability to make rational decisions. When a transgender person takes a particular step, such as going out in public cross-dressed, he or she feels intense excitement and pleasure that can last for days. This sounds like a good thing, but it is often accompanied by impulses to do actions that the person later regrets.
It’s not clear exactly where gender euphoria comes from, but we can speculate that it has to do with the feeling of finally getting some affirmation for a person’s sense of gender, transgender status, appearance or sex appeal. It may be an “equal and opposite reaction” to the shame and restriction felt when in the closet.
To give a personal example, I once was so excited about going out in public in Manhattan that I went home cross-dressed to my apartment in the notoriously homophobic and transphobic South Bronx, where I was recognized by three of my neighbors. Fortunately, there were no negative consequences of this action, but I could have been attacked if the wrong person had seen me. What disturbed me more than the action itself was the fact that my decision was so impulsive, and so dismissive of the potential consequences. It really felt, in retrospect, like I was drunk or otherwise under the influence.
I’ve heard similar stories, some more extreme, from and about many other transpeople. Some people have left their spouses and families, some have come out to the wrong people, some have engaged in sexual conduct that they later regretted. Not all of the rash decisions have been pro-transgender: some people “purge” their cross-dressing clothing or supplies right after these heady experiences, only to regret their purges later.
Based on these stories and on my own experience of gender euphoria, I’ve come to the conclusion that I will not make any decision that affects my life long-term within a week after a public cross-dressing excursion, and I discourage other transpeople from doing anything like that. (Transpeople who have gone out in public frequently for a significant length of time have probably habituated themselves, so the effect of gender euphoria is small enough for them to make unimpaired decisions.)
The next piece of the puzzle is that many people are exposed to pressure at support group meetings, transgender-oriented bars and parties and transgender conventions, which are times when they may be feeling the effects of gender euphoria. To put pressure on someone to make a major life decision when they are under the influence of gender euphoria is dangerous. If the person bringing the pressure is aware of gender euphoria, it is irresponsible and manipulative.
Pressure through semantic frames
Interestingly, many of the semantic frames used in transgender discussions can themselves be a form of pressure. Frame theory was first developed in the 1970s by Charles Fillmore, Marvin Minsky and Roger Schank, and recently popularized in the political field by George Lakoff. Frames are common scenarios that people extract from their experience, and can then “activate” or “evoke” by the use of certain words or combinations of words.
A common example of a semantic frame is the “restaurant frame” that can be evoked by the use of the words “waiter,” or “chef,” or the combination of the words “table,” “dish” and “check” (none of which may be sufficient to evoke the frame by itself). It is possible to make metaphorical or humorous points by juxtaposing two frames, as in the classic joke, “A guy walks into a bar and says ‘ow!'” You can read about Lakoff’s application of frame theory to politics in this Berkeley press release.
The relevance of frame theory to this issue is to explain some very subtle forms of pressure. Many frames have expected or recommended actions built into them, so just as in Lakoff’s example when conservatives call voting against Democratic candiates “voter revolt” they are encouraging people to do it, when some transgender people refer to transition or body modification as “being true to yourself,” they are making an implicit recommendation for these actions, and an implicit condemnation of transgendered people who don’t choose these actions.
Pressure, prototype effects and the transgender hierarchy
Another phenomenon that creates pressure is the transgender hierarchy, where some transgender people are seen as better, more accomplished or more deserving of respect or attention. Sometimes the hierarchy is quite explicitly set up, and I’ve seen this done both by transsexuals claiming higher status than cross-dressers, and by cross-dressers encouraging each other to grant transsexuals higher status. However, cross-dressers and transsexuals are not the only members of the hierarchy: transvestite prostitutes are considered to be higher-status than panty fetishists, for example. Often the hierarchy is set up very implicitly, and sometimes quite unconsciously. It is frequently done by the use of phrases like “I realized I was more than just a cross-dresser.” It can even be done by simply invoking a frame, such as mentioning a transsexual or drag queen’s “courage,” without acknowledging that transvestites can be courageous as well.
The most subtle form of the transgender hierarchy is a prototype effect, an idea developed by Eleanor Rosch and also popularized by Lakoff, where one member of a category comes to be seen as a better example of that category. It is probably not intentional that transsexuals have come to be seen as the prototype transgendered people, but this has likely happened because they are the most dramatic examples. It is also a way that the transgender hierarchy perpetuates itself, and here we come back to the problem I put forward at the beginning, where transgender is seen as a synonym or euphemism for transsexual.
This difference in status can act as a form of pressure. It is natural to want to be a member of a higher-status category and to be seen as more courageous, more central and a better example. Many people also want more attention paid to themselves, their peers and their problems.
Pressure and coercion
In the past I have referred to these subtle kinds of pressure as coercion, which is a technical term used in lexical semantics and ultimately borrowed from computer science. In this specialized case, type coercion refers to the act of implicitly changing a thing from one category to another by using it in a different context. It’s kind of like shoehorning. In computer science, some languages (like Perl) allow a programmer to coerce a text string to a number by simply using it in a number context. The following example Perl code coerces the text string “2” into the integer 2, adds it to the number 3 to make 5, and then coerces the 5 back into the text string “5” and prints it:
print "2" + 3;
Without coercion, we would have to do each of the conversions explicitly, and the code would be significantly longer and more tedious:
print ( sprintf ( '%0d' , ( int ( '2' ) + 3 ) ) );
My use of the word coercion was intended to convey the idea that by evoking certain frames of transgender dogma, some authors implicitly force non-conforming transgenders to chose between conforming or being excluded from the category transgender. As discussed above, this is a form of pressure.
Unfortunately, the terms coercion and coercive language have well-established uses outside of lexical semantics, where they refer to people persuading each other by using threats. Great linguist that I am, I did not consider this usage, and failed to anticipate that when I used the term coercive language, some people would think I was accusing them of threatening and bullying people.
Pressure and prescriptivism
I searched for another term to convey the concept I was trying to get at with coercion, and I finally found one: prescriptivism. In conflating feelings and actions, transgender dogma prescribes a set of actions for everyone who wants to bear the label transgender and be entitled to “transgender” rights and services. It doesn’t matter how you feel about yourself, if you haven’t committed to the program and made progress (or provided a good excuse), then you must not be “really” transgender, just a cross-dresser.
Coming back to the term prescriptivism brings us back to Deborah Cameron and her concept of verbal hygiene. Verbal hygiene is a more up-front and rational version of prescriptivism. The reasons for prescriptivism are usually implicit or even unconscious, and based on unthinking conservatism and prejudice. By contrast, the reasons for verbal hygiene can be almost anything, and are usually openly discussed and debated. I don’t believe that a term like “gender hygiene” is appropriate here, but I do believe in a more open and explicit discussion of the reasons for recommending various actions in response to transgender feelings.
So what should people do about the issues of language I’ve discussed here? I’ll lay out my desires and recommendations here. I’ll be explicit about my agenda. I’m a transvestite who has many of the transgender feelings I described above. I’ve made the choice not to pursue transition or body modification. I want to see that choice respected in the community, and I want to have access to the “transgender services” and rights appropriate to my feelings and actions. I want to have the status of a full, equal member of the transgender community, not marginal status, I want my voice to be heard, and I want to see people who look like me as examples of the category transgender.
I also have concerns about people who come after me, about people who reach the stages in their lives that I did, at whatever ages they reach them: exploration, shame, fear, anger, loneliness, reaching out, coming out, more exploration, and various decisions about what actions to take in response to their feelings. I want people like me, whose desire to be the opposite gender is balanced by other desires, to be able to decide freely to spend most of the rest of their lives in their assigned gender and not be shamed, humiliated, belittled or marginalized for it.
Here are some changes I want to see towards those ends.
- Separate feelings from actions. Keep the definition of transgender one based on feelings, and use other words to describe the actions taken in response to those feelings.
- Acknowledge different ways of being transgender. Don’t confine all your examples of transgender actions to one subgroup. If you do, avoid using the unmodified word transgender and instead use phrases like transitioning transgender or body-modifying transgender.
- Respect different ways of being transgender. Don’t pressure people. Recognize that everyone has their own life to live. What works for one may not work for another. No one has all the answers, far from it.
- Avoid implicitly prescriptive language. If you’re advocating a particular action, be up front about it. Don’t hide behind framing and exclusion.
- Acknowledge and respect gender euphoria. Be aware of when someone may be under the influence of gender euphoria, and avoid encouraging any drastic or dangerous actions. Encourage them to take time to think through their choices.
In closing, I want to make it clear that this article is not meant as an attack on any person or group of people, transgendered or otherwise. Although some of the most extreme pressure and dogma I’ve encountered has come from transsexuals, I know plenty of transsexuals who avoid them, and treat all other transgender people with respect due equals. I also ascribe no malice to any of these prescriptive actions; as far as I can tell, they arise from ignorance at best and incompetence or indifference at worst.