In almost thirty years of participating in transgender communities, I’ve noticed a common theme: trying to figure out who’s trans and who isn’t. Within and around the category of transgender, there’s also a quest to decide who’s nonbinary, genderfluid, agender, gender non-conforming and more. People talk a lot about whether other people are trans, but the biggest question is probably “am I trans?”
Categorizing people is problematic
It’s pretty clear where this comes from. For decades, laws around the world have empowered medical practitioners to determine who is and isn’t entitled to purchase hormones, undergo surgery and change their names and gender markers on legal documents. The main criterion they’ve used is whether or not that person has a specific diagnosis. That diagnosis is ostensibly a description of the person’s mental state, but it has always been connected to named categories for the people with that diagnosis: in years past it was “transsexual” and now it’s “transgender.”
This medical criterion meant that the category of “transgender” has also been a key to membership in gender categories. One of the first transgender category fights I remember was in the alt.transgendered newsgroup in 1993, over whether someone who was assigned male at birth and “transgendered” (that’s the word we all used at the time) was entitled to be called a woman. Several members of the newsgroup felt that only people who were “transsexual” were women.
There are other benefits to being in one of these categories. Many support and affinity groups are restricted to members of particular categories. It’s also often preferred for someone who represents members of a category to belong to the category themselves, whether that representation involves speaking on their behalf, portraying them as an actor or being included as a token.
The problem is that categorizing people is notoriously problematic. Humans are complex systems of complex systems. As Walt Whitman said, we contain multitudes. The rise of nonbinary identities and genderfluid practices is an illustration of how difficult it is to capture a person’s gender in a single category.
Let’s step back a bit and remember why we started categorizing people as transgender (or transsexual, or whatever) in the first place: because people were acting in ways that transgressed social gender norms (for example, wearing the “wrong” clothing), or expressing beliefs that ran counter to social conventions (for example, a belief that they are a different gender than they were assigned at birth), or reporting distressing feelings (for example, discomfort with particular social gender norms) and wanted help dealing with them.
I’ve found that it’s much easier to understand, identify and categorize these transgender feelings, beliefs and actions than it is to categorize people as a whole. In my personal experience, focusing on my feelings, beliefs and actions instead of trying to categorize myself is much more helpful in deciding what steps to take next in my life. Other people in my local trans support group and beyond have said that they also find it a more productive way to think about things.
Examples of feelings, beliefs and actions
So what are transgender feelings? They’re strong feelings that are brought on by gender-related experiences: gender dysphoria is a feeling of unhappiness or discomfort connected to currently assigned gender roles, and body dysphoria is unhappiness or discomfort connected to awareness of the current state of our bodies, often in comparison with a body image derived from societal expectations. Transgender desire is desire or longing connected to thoughts about particular genders, and gender fog is excitement connected to an anticipated or recent gender-related event.
Transgender beliefs are beliefs about our own gender that transgress some societal gender norm, like the classic “I am a man (even though I was assigned female at birth).” They can be beliefs about being bigender, agender or third-gender, or about having a “female brain” or “the soul of a man” or a “strong feminine side.” Any belief about gender that conflicts with gender norms and is not based directly on observation is a transgender belief.
Transgender actions are any actions that transgress societal gender norms: wearing clothes, taking jobs, practicing hobbies, speaking, dancing or even walking, claiming gender-restricted roles, identities and memberships, entering gender-restricted spaces in conflict with the gender identity that we have been assigned. Modifying our bodies to obtain or accentuate gendered features that conflict with our assigned gender identities is a transgender action; this can include hormones and surgery to produce, remove or modify secondary sex characteristics like breasts and facial features. We can also do long-term “soft body mods” (as Helen Boyd called them) like piercings, hairstyles, shaving, nail polish and bodybuilding. There are actions that we can take with the aim of preventing certain biological processes from happening, such as taking hormone blockers and using electrolysis or lasers to prevent hair growth. Sexual activities with partners whose gender is considered inappropriate under societal gender norms are also transgender actions.
How it helps to think in terms of feelings, beliefs and actions
As you can see, it’s a lot easier to identify transgender feelings, beliefs and actions than to decide whether an entire person fits one definition of transgender or another. Many of these feelings are felt, these beliefs are had, and these actions are taken by people who would not be considered transgender under any of the current definitions.
It’s also easier to think about how to deal with transgender problems when we separate them out like this. Feelings problems are when transgender feelings interfere with our lives. Belief problems occur when our beliefs are not welcomed by society, or when the world does not fit with the way we believe it should be. Action problems are when actions we take are resisted by other people, or when those actions cause problems for us, or when they are difficult in other ways.
This is an essay that I’ve rewritten multiple times – this version is more or less the fourth one. Here are the first, second and third versions.