Articles / Categorization / Verbal Hygiene

How “transsexual” eclipsed “transgender”

In December I wrote about a phenomenon I call eclipsing, where a subset of a category can come to be thought of as equivalent to the entire category. This usually happens when the subcategory is particularly salient, or discussed much more frequently, than other members of the category. The example I gave was concentration camp, where the extermination camps of the Nazis eclipsed the camps used by the Spanish to isolate civilians in Cuba and by the US to incarcerate Japanese-Americans in California.

This eclipsing can be an effect of greater salience, which is a big factor in stereotypes. Assimilated immigrants routinely complain about being eclipsed by more recent arrivals. Not all Indian-Americans eat curry, not all Mexican-Americans listen to accordion music, and not all Dominican-Americans are good dancers. These notable examples don’t even need to be in the majority; they just need to be so memorable that we forget all the others.

There is an example of eclipsing that particularly upsets me, and it is the eclipsing of the transgender category by people that we used to call transsexuals. When I first encountered the term transgender, most of the people claiming it were cross-dressers. There were several transsexuals who considered themselves outside of, and sometimes superior to, transgender people. (There are a few who still do.)

In 2016 transgender is still used in the “umbrella” sense that includes cross-dressers, but many people explicitly reject that sense, insisting on transition (or a credible commitment to a future transition) as a necessary condition for trans status. How did this new, exclusionary sense arise? Through eclipsing.

Of all the subgroups of the broader definition of transgender, two groups are the least salient: cross-dressers and detransitioned transsexuals. We are the most likely to be closeted, and we spend the least amount of time being noticeable. Transitioned transsexuals who are “stealth,” or who have simply gotten on with their lives and been socialized in their new gender, are the next least noticeable group.

The most salient group under the “trans umbrella” are the transsexuals who are currently transitioning. They are not only among the most visible – trying out all the outfits they’ve wanted to wear in their entire life, and learning how to groom themselves in their new gender – but they are constantly thinking about their gender and their transition, and many of them are constantly talking about it. If you ask people about the trans people they’ve known, you’ll hear lots of transition stories before you hear about post-transition people or cross-dressers.

The second most salient subgroup of trans people is drag queens, which explains why a group of transitioners tried so hard a few years ago to get the drag queens kicked out of the transgender category.

So why does this eclipsing bother me so much? That’ll have to wait for another post.

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1 Comment

  1. I look forward to your next post. This eclipsing had also bothered me because having a label like transgender has helped me achieve some acceptance and comfort for myself. But there were so many times that when talking to others (notably my wife) that they assumed I was just using another term for transsexual.

    But what is the new term for transsexual? I wasn’t aware that there is one. Perhaps it’s “trans man” or “trans woman”? But to me, the second one applies to me even though I have no plans to transition.

    The language is confusing which doesn’t help our case in the non-trans community. I wrote elsewhere that I would prefer it if we had a label like “gay” that is distinct but also connotes happiness and pride. Why not? There is no reason for us not to be proud of ourselves too.

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