This is the third in a series of posts about gender categories. In the first post I discussed the categorization theories of Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff. In the second I took on the question of whether transgender people are men, women, some combination, or neither men or women, and discarded the idea that transgender people form some kind of “third gender.” In this post I will examine the idea that all transgender people are either men or women, and that there is no overlap.

There are two ways separating transgender people into men and women. One is to assert that each of us is either a man or a woman forever, and that this is determined before birth and unchangeable. The other is that our gender is dependent on a specific feature, and if that feature changes then our gender changes. I dislike the first approach intensely, and I find the second approach problematic.

In the first of these posts I discussed how there are two categories (man and woman), and it’s natural that people would prefer to be able to sort every person in the world into one of those two. The categories are so complex, it’s also understandable that people would prefer to have a single criterion for sorting. Sadly, the natural world eludes any attempt to pin down a single criterion. The most popular criterion is genitals, followed by chromosomes, since they’re the areas with the least overlap, but there are plenty of intersex cases that defy categorization on both criteria. There is also the difficulty that chromosomes are uncategorizable without special equipment, and genitals are also commonly kept hidden. Secondary sex characteristics like breasts and hip width are subject to a lot of overlap, and breasts can be developed with hormones.

Continue reading “Either/Or”

The Sixteenth Gender

In my recent post about gender categories, I focused on describing the way people tend to view gender categories, and why. In my last post I discussed the empirical basis for Eleanor Rosch’s theories of categorization. In this post I’m going to be prescriptive. Unlike cranky prescriptivists, I’m going to justify my positions in terms of my personal agenda and priorities. You will probably agree with my prescriptions to the extent that you share my priorities.

One of my priorities is honesty: honesty with yourself and honesty with others. Other priorities are freedom, fairness, safety, respect and caring. I also like consistency, but not foolish consistency. I dislike and distrust innatism (also called nativism). A good set of gender categories will balance these priorities, giving people the freedom to live their lives as they wish, while being fair and honest to others. It will be reasonably consistent and avoid innatist assumptions.

There are really three possibilities for the gender assignment of “gender-non-conforming” people, which would include not just transgender people, but also intersex people and other people who are hard to put into one category or another. A given person is either in one gender (a man or a woman), both, or neither. I’ll take up these possibilities in order of how I feel about them.

In this post I’ll start with the possibility I like the least: “neither.” Continue reading “The Sixteenth Gender”

The Scientific Basis of Categorization Studies

In my previous post, I quoted some work by George Lakoff about the category mother, and extrapolated it to the case of gender categories. I have a scientific caveat to make. Lakoff was trained by Noam Chomsky, and although he broke publicly with Chomsky in the 1970s, he still uses Chomsky’s methods of introspection and grammaticality judgments. When Chomsky wants to prove a grammatical point, he invents sentences in English and classifies them as “grammatical” or “ungrammatical,” and builds his arguments on those judgments. When Chomsky’s students study languages that they’re not native speakers of, they invent sentences in those languages, find a native speaker and ask that person for grammaticality judgments. This method assumes that grammaticality judgments (a) are valid and unbiased, and (b) hold for every other speaker of the language, assumptions that are not justified.

Lakoff does something similar with his list of “but tests” that are judged as “normal” or “strange,” and I repeated this in my discussion. These informal judgments are useful for speculation, but they have the same problems as Chomsky’s grammaticality judgments. However, the notions of radial categories and prototype effects are based on more than this. Eleanor Rosch herself did reproducible psycholinguistic laboratory tests, and most of the Lakoff work that I’ve described can be accounted for with tests like these.

Continue reading “The Scientific Basis of Categorization Studies”

Describing gender categories: clusters and radii, Rosch and Lakoff

A while ago on the My Husband Betty message boards I posted an analysis of the category “woman” in contemporary American culture, and where transgender people fit into it. A couple of months ago there was another discussion about this issue, and since then I’ve wanted to rework my original post and make it available here. In my view, a lot of discrimination against transgender people has its origins in overly rigid views of gender. I have no illusion that posting my analysis here will suddenly enlighten bigots around the world, but I hope it will be helpful to some people. On the other hand, it’s not quite as helpful to the transgender movement as some might like.

It’s important to note here that this is a descriptive analysis. I think it’s a waste of time to present the way you want things to be before you figure out how they are. I am trying to describe the way that people understand gender, and after that I will talk about how it could be different. Please don’t take my description of an attitude or belief as an endorsement of it.

My analysis is based on the categorization theories of Eleanor Rosch, as presented in George Lakoff’s excellent book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. In Chapter 4, Lakoff shows how it is more useful to describe the category of mother with a “cluster model” than with the classical categorization model that uses necessary and sufficient conditions. For example, Dr. Johnson defined a mother as a woman that has borne a child; Lakoff calls this the “birth model” of motherhood. But Lakoff identifies four other models that are in wide use: a genetic model, a nurturance model, a marital model and a genealogical model. He invents a series of more or less plausible sentences with the phrase “real mother” in them, each one affirming one of the five models and rejecting the others.

Critically, mother includes mutually exclusive subcategories like surrogate mother and foster mother. Some people may try to be fundamentalist and dogmatic about the birth criterion, but most agree that both of these kinds of mothers are still mothers in the end. Continue reading “Describing gender categories: clusters and radii, Rosch and Lakoff”

What We Do Know

Principle One of transgender-ness is “Nobody really knows what’s going on.” I figured that out a long time ago, and it’s still true. I’ve written an article about how hard it is to find out about transgender issues, and the difference between saying “there are people who are like this” (scientifically justifiable), and saying “everyone who’s this way is also that way” (not scientifically justifiable without representative sampling). Maybe some day we’ll find out some Big New Discoveries, and then it won’t be as true. But there are limits to how much we can know about people, so we’ll never completely understand what’s going on, any more than we understand love or ham radio.

But. It’s not that we don’t know anything. We can make a lot of “some” statements, a lot of existential observations. I’ve made some complicated ones in Principles Two through Seven, and even ventured to make a categorical statement (about people in general, not just transgender people) in Principle Eight. Now I’m going to make a bunch of other “some” statements that I think are relatively uncontroversial, within the trans movement and outside it. This is pretty much Trans 101 stuff, that I hope everyone can agree on, even anti-trans bigots (although they might choose different words).

I’m not going to talk about feelings or beliefs here, or sexual activity, or relationships, because those areas are much trickier. I’m also going to try and stay within a reference frame that’s accessible to outsiders, and avoid doing framing tricks like “I was never cross-dressing, because I was always really a woman inside.”

  1. Most people can be unambiguously classified as male or female based on their physical sex characteristics.
  2. Some people cannot be unambiguously classified as male or female, and some people who were thought to be unambiguously one sex are later discovered to have characteristics of the other sex.
  3. People assign each other to genders, sometimes on the basis of sex characteristics, but often on the basis of social cues that signal membership in one gender or another.
  4. Some people cross-dress. By this I mean that some people who are assigned to one gender sometimes intentionally present social cues signaling that they’re a member of another gender. This usually involves clothing, but can also involve other forms of grooming, and modification of voice and body language.
  5. Some people pass, at least some of the time. They were assigned to one gender, but sometimes other people categorize them as a member of a different gender. This may be the intention of the person passing, or not. It may be true for any length of time, from a split second to an entire lifetime.
  6. Some people cross-live. They were assigned to one gender, but they intentionally present the cues of another gender, and are accepted as that gender, to a greater or lesser degree, all the time, for a long time.
  7. Observations 1 through 6 have been recorded throughout history.
  8. Some people modify their bodies, or arrange to have their bodies modified, to have less of the sex characteristics of one gender, and more of the characteristics of a different gender. This has been going on for a long time, but in the past hundred years technology has advanced and now people can achieve a greater resemblance, often with more comfort and less danger, than before.

I think at this point that this is pretty much all that can be said about transgenderism without getting into the problematic areas of feelings, beliefs, sexuality and relationships. If you think there’s something I’ve gotten wrong, or left something out, please feel free to email me or post a comment.

You may notice that I’ve left out things like the stria terminalis; I’ll probably have to address that at some point, but right now I’ll just say it hasn’t been proven.

I’m not completely sure what the point of this is, but I felt it would help me to have as “theory-neutral” a description of transgender phenomena as possible.

My Story

Guest article by Jean-Fran├žois de Lafayette

This page tells a little about me. I’m Jean-Fran├žois de Lafayette, and I’m transnational. Transnational people are people who are assigned citizenship in one country at birth, but who later discover that they belong in another country. There are millions of transnational people living in the United States alone. There have been many famous transnational people in the past, including Ernest Hemingway and the Chevalier d’Eon. I was born in the United States and have American citizenship, but I feel most at home in France.

I am at the beginning of a big transition in my life. In a few months I will get my name legally changed to reflect the Frenchman inside, but unfortunately New York State does not allow me to change my birth certificate, so people will still be able to see my Scottish-American birth identification. However, I’m currently saving up money and some day soon I will buy a house in France and get French citizenship. Then I will be French on the outside, just like I am on the inside. Continue reading “My Story”

Transgender Verbal Hygiene: Feelings or Actions?

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. Continue reading “Transgender Verbal Hygiene: Feelings or Actions?”

Why regret matters

I was hoping not to have to write this post, but recently I’ve noticed a tendency for some transpeople to dismiss stories of transgender regret. I’ve seen a couple of blog posts that attribute regret concerns primarily to “people who think transition is bad,” and criticize regretters who claim they were deceived. I don’t think there’s any malice intended, but it’s not a good thing.

A lot of transgender politics is based on the idea that MTF transpeople are women, and FTM transpeople are men, and thus that anything that interferes with transition is thwarting their destinies, and amounts to a crime against nature. Figuring out which gender-variant people are “really trans” and thus deserving of this categorizational boost is tricky, and the subject of endless flamewars, but what seems to matter most are action and intention: if you live full-time or have concrete plans to do so in the near future, a lot of transpeople will admit you to the club.

(As an aside, I have a fairly fluid, Roschian definition of “man” and “woman” that seems to please nobody but me: I believe that everyone is a woman in some ways and a man in others, and everyone’s balance varies. It’s not even the same for a single person from day to day. I just want to go on record that I am not interested in denying anyone’s claim to be either a man or a woman. What bothers some transpeople is that I’m also not interested in helping them to repudiate their categorization in the other gender.)

What causes a bit of a problem for the transgender worldview is that there are people who were once considered “really trans,” went all or partway through transition and became dissatisfied and regretted transitioning. There is a range of actions in response to this regret, just as there is a wide range of actions in response to transgender feelings. If they can manage and/or afford it, some will have surgery to undo or reconstruct as many of the body modifications they’ve done. Others will quietly share their feelings with their loved ones. Most people seem to be somewhere in the middle. No one knows how many cases of regret there are (Principle One), but I personally know of at least five, and there have been others documented by David Batty of the Guardian. Five people have recently come forward to accuse English gender psychiatrist Russell Reid of encouraging them to transition and have body modifications that they later regretted. (For balance, you can read testimonials from some of Dr. Reid’s satisfied patients.) Continue reading “Why regret matters”

Some Transgender Principles

As I have time, I’m going to gradually migrate my writings from my old transvestite website to this new blog, revising and updating them in the process. I’ll also write new articles as the muse strikes me. Many of them will relate to this list of principles that I developed in 2005 and have been expanding since.

For the past two and a half years I’ve been participating on the (en)gender Message Boards, moderated by Helen Boyd, author of My Husband Betty, and her husband Betty Crow. It’s a really good group of people, with lots of interesting ideas about transgender phenomena, but over that time I’ve found myself saying a few things over and over again. This page is written in part to save myself some typing on this message board; the next time one of these comes up I can just link to Principle 3. Kind of like the joke about the comedians’ club.

Right now I’ll just write a little blurb for each principle. As time goes on I may expand them into full-fledged articles.

1. No one really knows what’s going on
Discussions about transgenderism are often full of generalizations: “Transgender individuals are like this,” or “Transsexuals are like this, but cross-dressers are like that.” The fact of the matter is that nobody’s done enough research to prove this, so everyone’s going on hunches. Unfortunately, hunches can often be wrong. The bottom line is that nobody has information beyond the people that they’ve talked to. Except in Sweden. Continue reading “Some Transgender Principles”