Why I prefer “transgendered”

The “transgender/transgendered” debate popped up tonight, first on a Q&A by Zinnia Jones (aka Lauren McNamara):

Point: The structure of “transgendered” suggests action, as if it were something you were subject to – that you are a person who has been “transgendered” and that is the reason why you exist in your present state. We wouldn’t say “gayed” or “lesbianed”.

Counter-point: Other words of similar construction, like “gifted” or “left-handed”, do not imply action, or that you’re only this way because you were subjected to something.

Meta-point: “Transgendered” bothers some people and use of it will lead to this coming up and distracting from whatever you were originally talking about. “Transgender” does not pose this issue. Therefore, use of “transgender” is preferred.

Ali Edwards expanded on it for her transgenderscience Tumblr:

All excellent points. To add a linguistic angle:

Adjectives with -ed endings tend to express emotions and feelings. “I am frightened,” “That is amazing,” etc. Adjectives with -ed were also almost always originally verbs (to frighten, to amaze). In fact, that’s why “gifted” has the -ed — it’s built of the old verb form of to gift.  

Transgender is not a verb. You can’t “transgender” something. A lot of transphobes believe you can, (“These durn libbruls are gonna transgender my boy if we don’t stop ‘em!”), but you can’t. 

Transgender is an adjective, though, and as Lauren pointed out it describes a “state.” Like most adjectives that describe qualities of a noun, it doesn’t take a suffix. The sky is not “blued,” it’s “blue.” The glass is not “half-fulled,” it’s “half-full”. My mom isn’t “femaled,” she’s “female.” And I am not “transgendered,” I am “transgender.”

For a real linguistic angle, let me as a linguist endorse the explanation of my friend Pauline Park (who is not a linguist):

Adding an ‘ed’ to a verb to create an adjective is in fact a very common construction in English, and the fact that an adjective is created from a verb doesn’t mean that it isn’t an adjective. Similarly with ‘transgendered.’ When we talk about people, we ordinarily say that they are ‘gendered,’ using an adjective created by adding ‘ed’ to ‘gender.’ It would be both grammatically incorrect as well as bizarre to say that a child is ‘gender,’ while it makes perfect sense to say that a child is ‘gendered.’

Now, I do use ‘transgender’ as an adjective to describe certain entities that are abstract, such as ‘transgender law,’ ‘transgender studies,’ and ‘transgender community,’ because it is the people — not the law, the studies, or the community — that are transgendered. So it is not at all inconsistent when I refer to myself as a ‘transgendered woman’ and also as a ‘transgender activist,’ because in the latter case, it is I who am transgendered, not my activism. Similarly, NYAGRA is a transgender organization, not a ‘transgendered’ organization, because an organization itself cannot be transgendered, only its members.

Trousered, not pantsed.
Trousered, not pantsed. And yes, this spot in my apartment has good lighting.

Expanding on Pauline’s perspective, and on Jones’s counter-point, there are lots of nouns that get “verbed” (Calvin and Hobbes, 1993) and then have -ed added to make them adjectives, like “armored, varicolored, half-timbered, leisured, trousered.” There’s no implication of action. You can’t transgender someone, but neither can you leisure, varicolor or trouser them. (You can pants them, but that’s something else.)

To Jones’s meta-point: Yeah, people are ignorant about language. Sometimes it’s a distraction, and you use the terms they want and move on. Sometimes (especially on Tumblr) language is the focus of discussion, and that’s the time to bring the science.

Two points: (1) Note that both Jones and Edwards use the passive (“is preferred”) and similar constructions in their prescriptions, to deflect attention away from their roles and onto the wishes of the amorphous community. (2) Note that Edwards (who is not a linguist) cites no linguistic papers for her “linguistic angle.” I don’t either, and neither does Jones, but there’s a huge contrast between this post and her heavily-linked posts on biology and psychology.

In fact, it would be nice to get the perspective of an actual trained morphologist on this. Anybody want to go there?

Finally, anyone who thinks that these “-ed” adjectives are an insult? Well, they sound like very gifted and cultured people.

Colonizing ontologies

Brin pointed me to a great blog post about how we relate to other people’s categories, especially the categorical systems used by other cultures. (The author, posting as “Boldly Go,”* calls them “epistemologies,” but they seem to be what I’ve heard called “ontologies” or “taxonomies.” I think “categories” is the most straightforward term. And yes, I do recognize the irony there.) Boldly Go also makes the point that these categories are referred to as “social constructs,” which mean that they’re not essential and can vary from culture to culture – and, critically, that they change over time, even in a single individual.

Boldly Go argues persuasively that abolishing gender is not a realistic approach. We all have a basic need to categorize people: who is a potential ally, sex partner, life partner, co-parent, leader, friend, collaborator? Who is a potential attacker, rival, rapist, burden? Figuring all those things out based on the individual characteristics of everyone we encounter would be exhausting and time-consuming, so we use roles and spaces based on gender and other categories as shortcuts. This becomes truly problematic when we forget that these categories are only shortcuts, when we essentialize them.

Here’s my favorite part of Boldly Go’s post:

Hidras of Panscheel Park II, New Delhi, India, 1994. Photo: R. Barrez D'Lucca / Flickr.
Hidras of Panscheel Park II, New Delhi, India, 1994. Photo: R. Barrez D’Lucca / Flickr.

For example, a great many people familiar with the trans* community may have heard of hijras, a concept of gender that exists within South Asia. A great many usually white trans* people have called hijra’s “trans*” or put them under the trans* label. Regardless of their intention, to take the epistemology of “trans*” and apply it to something like the hijra can be seen as an oppressive or colonising act. The hijra are hijra. That is their name. Unless a hijra specifically identifies as transgender or trans*, applying our own concepts of gender and sexuality constructed within white supremacist cultures to people outside of our epistemological framework is redefining them on our own terms for our own benefit.

They (that’s Boldly Go’s preferred pronoun) go on to talk about two-spirits and quote their friend Tiara’s thoughts about gender in Malaysia and Bangladesh, and to argue that gender abolitionism is colonization in the same way.

Much as I agree that it’s not realistic to abolish gender, I think it’s not realistic to ignore our own gender categories when trying to understand people from other cultures. We may say, “that’s kind of like our idea of ‘transgender,'” but it becomes problematic when we ignore the way others categorize themselves. It becomes colonization when we seek to replace their categories with our own. And it’s downright offensive when we act as though our way is the One True Way of categorizing the world.

This is not to say that it’s all relative, and all categorization systems are equal. Some may have particular virtues relative to others. But we can’t just assume that our own categorization system is superior. We have to make a coherent argument for it.

I’m less concerned with borrowing another culture’s categories. If it’s done respectfully and with full credit and an open mind, it isn’t appropriation. It’s just recognizing that other people may have come up with a better way of doing it than we did.

I’ll have more to say on this in the future.

* Boldly Go seems to have let her domain expire, so I’ve changed the link to point to a copy she posted on Medium under the name Lola Phoenix.

Not because she was a trans woman

Pronouns matter. A few months ago I lost a friend over pronouns. There were other factors, but the breaking point happened when this former friend was complaining about a neighbor of ours, a trans woman. I agreed that it sounded like the woman was being a jerk, but after my former friend told me the story, she called her “it.” I asked her not to dehumanize our neighbor that way, things escalated, and I haven’t talked to her since. I had to change a number of regular routines to avoid my former friend, and the whole experience was very upsetting, but I would do it again in an instant. All for a neighbor who’s never said a word to me. Sometimes pronouns are a big deal.

I mention this now because there’s another case that’s a lot less clear-cut. Last week I went to the vigil for Islan Nettles, who was murdered in Harlem. I’ve been trying to figure out how lives like hers could be saved in the future, but Janet Mock is worried about pronouns, and her post has been going around the net, so I want to respond to it.

My heart dropped each time I watched your face cringe with each misgendering. This is more than semantics, more than a family issue, this is our lives. We all know Islan was beaten to death because she fought hard to be Islan, to be she, to be her.

We don’t all know that. I didn’t know that at the time, so I asked.

Jen Richards was angry:

Laverne Cox told the Huffington Post:

I know as a trans woman, and I think so many trans women in the audience understand, that when we’re misgendered, that is an act of violence for us. It’s a part of the violence that lead to Islan’s death.

No. Misgendering can be a whole range of things, from an honest mistake to incitement to violence, but in itself it is not an act of violence. It’s not part of the cause of Islan Nettles’ death. Nettles was not murdered because she was a trans woman. Here’s what the New York Post reported:

Paris Wilson, 20, is said to have made a pass at Nettles and was shocked to learn she was not born a woman, sources said.

Humiliated in front of his crew, Wilson then got into a heated argument with Nettles and the other women, hurling derogatory slurs at the group.

The two eventually came to blows, but Wilson eventually overpowered Nettles, beating her to a pulp, sources said.

The problem with Richards’s argument – and with Mock’s – is that you don’t have to use female pronouns for this to happen to you. It happened to B. Scott in 2009:

I was just called a faggot by Lewis Dix Jr. of the Jamie Foxx @Foxxhole radio show because he saw me and was confused/attracted.
people don’t know what gays like me go thru. he came from across the room to speak to me cuz he was attracted and then I said I was a man.

If this had been at a different kind of party – if it had happened on the corner of 148th and Bradhurst, with a violent enough person – B. Scott might have been killed that night. It wouldn’t have been because he was a trans woman, because Scott called himself a man right then. It wouldn’t have been because of pronouns, because Scott doesn’t reject “he” pronouns.

Scott has recently begun identifying as trans, and a few weeks ago I gave props to Mock for accepting him as such, even when Monica Roberts wouldn’t. But she stopped short of identifying him as a “trans woman.”

My wife pointed out that this happens to non-trans women as well. If a man finds out that a woman he’s attracted to is lesbian or that she not interested in him, or if she responds in the “wrong” way, he can feel humiliated and take it out on her.

There’s a whole range between B. Scott’s 2009 presentation and pronouns and Janet Mock’s current presentation and pronouns. Ultimately, the “right” pronouns are not the matter of faith that Mock makes them out to be. It’s not “trans woman” = “she” pronouns. It’s what the person wants. It’s respectful to use “she” pronouns for Chelsea Manning because Chelsea Manning told her lawyer to tell everyone to use “she” pronouns.

Some people want one set of pronouns, some want another, some don’t care. When I present as a woman I prefer “she” pronouns, but if I were killed in a dress I would expect (and prefer) that my family and most of my friends would use “he” pronouns, because that’s how they’ve known me.

From what I’ve heard it sounds like Nettles’ pronoun preference was closer to Mock’s, but it’s not obvious that she would have objected to anyone using “he” pronouns, especially not her family, and maybe not even a certain well-meaning but clueless Gay Man of African Descent. That’s why I asked for some evidence that she cared.

Here we have someone who wasn’t murdered for pronouns and didn’t necessarily object to her family using “he” pronouns. We have a family who says they’re ready to fight for justice and community leaders who say they want safety for all.

The intent of the pronoun user matters as well. When my former friend referred to our neighbor as “it,” I could hear the hate in her voice. In Delores Nettles we have a woman who has shown she is ready to fight for justice for her child, and we tell her that she’s not doing it right because she said “he was a beautiful woman,” instead of “she was a beautiful woman”?

Those of you who are putting the focus on pronouns: I want to know how you think pronouns are the solution. You’ve already schooled Vaughn Taylor. Suppose that tomorrow you could get everyone on that stage, in that park, to switch to “she” pronouns forever, just the way you want. Suppose you could do that for everyone in Harlem, in New York, in the whole country. What would that accomplish?

Please tell me how “she” pronouns would have saved Islan Nettles’ life, when so many unquestioned “shes” have been killed in Harlem. I’m looking forward to your evidence. I’ve got a Ph.D. in language change, and I’d be happy to help guide your research if you need it.

I completely understand if Mock, Richards and a lot of other trans people were carried away by the anger and frustration they felt at the moment. But if we want to actually solve this problem and save lives in the future, we have to put the pronoun issue in perspective. This is not about pronouns, or about being accepted as women.

This is a danger for transitioned trans women like Nettles, but not for trans women alone. Trans women don’t own Islan Nettles’ murder, they don’t own murders of gender-non-conforming people, and they don’t own murders of women. Transitioned trans women don’t know how to make Harlem safe, and they don’t have the right to dictate other people’s response to this tragic killing.

I hope that Mock and Cox will back off the pronoun agenda and refocus their efforts on building safe, welcoming communities for all women and gender-non-conforming people. And I hope that everyone who’s reblogged and linked Mock’s post will now re-read the New York Post‘s description of the events leading up to the murder of Islan Nettles – or any other detailed account – and try to think of one thing that might have prevented it. And write that up, too. Thanks.

Breaking down the binary/non-binary binary

Side-by-side close-up images of the author presenting as feminine and masculine.

Sometimes I’ll ask self-appointed trans “community leaders” – who act like they’re speaking for all trans people – to let the world know that non-transitioners exist, and we have needs, and they’ll bust out something like, “oh yes, and nonbinary people too!” (Last year it was “genderqueer people too!” Sometimes now they add “genderfluid.”) It makes me feel like Elwood Blues when the bartender tells him, “We’ve got both kinds! We’ve got Country and Western!”


The thing is, I’m not really nonbinary – at least not in the sense that “my spirit truly lies somewhere in between,” as B. Scott so eloquently put it. My ideas of “guy” and “woman” are fairly non-traditional: I’m a guy who cries and cooks and earns less than my wife and stays home with the kid. When I want to be a woman, I want to be a smart, thoughtful woman.

But I don’t want to be in between. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It just doesn’t capture how I personally feel about myself. I want to be a guy, except when I want to be a woman. I want to look like a woman, except when I want to look like a guy.

Do I look non-binary to you?
Do I look non-binary to you?

I’m not genderqueer: my performance of either gender is not intended to provoke or challenge. I’m not agender. I’m not a “closeted trans woman” in ciscritical-not-cisphobic’s attempt to pigeonhole us. I’m not a member of a “third sex,” and I don’t want to be. And no, “genderfluid” doesn’t work for me, either. (Updated 2020: I’ve made my peace with “genderfluid.”)

I am transgender. I have the same feelings and beliefs as a lot of trans people who have successfully transitioned. There is one difference: I chose not to transition. Trans, but not transitioning. Why can’t they say that?

Hands off my umbrella!

I was first referred to Monica Roberts for her explanations of why RuPaul doesn’t count as trans. A few months later I asked a gay black man about trans self-identification in black communities, and he pointed me to Roberts.

I was, honestly, more convinced by the assertion (I don’t know if it’s true or not) that RuPaul rejects the term “transgender” for himself. Whether or not he counts as trans, I think Roberts made a strong case that he is not a prototypical black trans person, or an appropriate community spokesperson. It seems like she wasn’t content with that, and insisted on excluding RuPaul completely from the category of trans. She has now taken it upon herself to do the same for another person who is not even claiming to speak for trans people, B. Scott.

I first heard of Scott last night when someone reposted a blog post of his on Tumblr; apparently he’s an entertainment journalist who does news, commentary and interviews on his blog, as well as a YouTube channel and podcast, but has branched out into more established media.

Scott identifies as a “proud gay man,” but his public persona is so high-glam femme that he is often perceived as a beautiful woman. At least one man felt embarrassed after trying to flirt with Scott, and lashed out in an immature way.

The current controversy started in June when Scott had been invited to appear at the 2013 BET Awards Pre-Show. He claims that at the last minute, after extensive wardrobe negotiations (people do this?) and interviewing one guest on camera, the BET staffers told him his outfit “wasn’t acceptable,” ordered him to change, and then told him he was being replaced for the rest of the pre-show.

Scott is now suing the network for “discrimination on the basis of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.” In yesterday’s blog post, he wrote,

Over the years my love muffins and strangers alike have questioned me about my gender identity. What IS B. Scott? As a society we’ve been conditioned to believe that a person has to be ‘exactly’ this or ‘exactly’ that. Biologically, I am male — as my sex was determined at birth by my reproductive organs.

However, my spirit truly lies somewhere in between. It is that same spirit that has allowed me to become so comfortable in my skin, choose how I express myself, and contributes to how I live my day-to-day life.

Transgender is the state of one’s gender identity (self-identification as woman, man, neither or both) not matching one’s assigned sex (identification by others as male, female or intersex based on physical/genetic sex). [source]

It is by that definition that I accept and welcome the ‘transgender’ label with open arms.

Makes sense, right? Scott self-identifies as “somewhere in between,” which counts as “neither or both,” and doesn’t match his assigned male sex. But that’s not enough for Monica Roberts:

Roberts’ reaction is really problematic. What bothers me the most is that she is prescribing and delineating appropriate transgender actions. It’s not enough for Scott to appear in heavy makeup, long hair and women’s clothes and shoes every time he is in front of a camera. He has to take hormones, declare a transition, and adopt a name that Roberts approves as feminine enough.
tg definitions1
As I wrote back in April, there are at least three conflicting definitions of transgender. Roberts is saying that in order for her to consider him trans, Scott has to follow her prescriptions.

Another thing that bothers me is that Roberts is not only claiming the right to define transgender, but the right to define the umbrella. The “umbrella” definition of transgender is an inclusive one that brings in drag queens and anyone else who’s remotely gender-variant. As umbrella proponent Jamison Green famously said, “There is NOT one way to be trans.” Many prescriptive trans advocates explicitly reject the umbrella, many (like GLAAD) switch between the umbrella and their prescriptions, but Roberts claims that the umbrella is her prescriptions.

In a subsequent blog post, Roberts clarified that she worried that this identification was purely a legal strategy, and that Scott was only “embracing the transgender umbrella after resisting it for years.” “Until I get and see more evidence that B.Scott’s embrace of the transgender umbrella is genuine, permanent and not just related to this legal case, call me skeptical.”

Roberts knows a lot more about American black culture’s attitudes towards transness than I do, but I would be surprised if a gay black man who grooms himself like a woman and is often perceived as a woman would face very much less discrimination and harassment than a transitioning black trans woman. How often is Scott really able to draw on his male privilege?

Based on her reactions to RuPaul, my guess is that Roberts is worried that with his large following, Scott could emerge as a powerful trans leader and spokesperson without transitioning, eclipsing her own influence and those of other transitioned black trans people like Janet Mock* and Laverne Cox. Personally, I would welcome an influential non-transitioning trans person of any race to the cause. Any creative responses to trans feelings would be a relief from the relentless hormones-surgery-name-change drumbeat put out by Roberts, Mock and other trans spokespeople. And the transition buy-in that Roberts values so much doesn’t stop her from being divisive and exclusionary.

But regardless of whether you trust Scott to be true to the trans community, Roberts’ heavy-handed prescriptivism should alarm not just advocates of transgender inclusivity, but also feminists of all stripes. And her claiming the right to not just define transgender but to take the transgender umbrella away from us is just uncalled for.

(*Update: In this sympathetic interview, Janet Mock makes it clear that she’s not into that kind of boundary policing.)

“Trans women” and the erasure of transvestites

Transgender politics is notoriously full of terminological arguments. It’s an age-old expression of power: the right to decide which categories people get put in, who belongs and who doesn’t, who is condemned and who is spared, who is mocked and who is praised.

These arguments are compounded by the problems that we humans have in categorizing anything in a way that we can agree on. Last week I had a chance to talk with George Lakoff, who has done a lot to raise awareness of the problems with traditional definitions of categories, and he agreed that these problems have a greater impact when it comes to categorizing people.

Because of this, I generally try to avoid talking about transgender people, and instead focus on trans feelings, beliefs and actions. Unfortunately, the rest of the trans world hasn’t seen the value in this, and keeps arguing about how to categorize people. One of the worst things people do is to apply their categories uncritically to people from other cultures at other times, without their approval or consent.

This came up a few days ago when someone called Nat tweeted this:

As Nat explained to me, the target of this tweet was the organization Stonewall UK, which is apparently run by a bunch of rich white dudes in suits. I agree that it’s problematic for an organization called Stonewall to be run by people who don’t look anything like the people who started the Stonewall Riots, but I objected to Nat’s use of “trans women” to describe the actual rioters.

The people who started the Stonewall Riots did not call themselves “trans women of color.” “Trans women” is a recent coinage, from the past ten years, and “of color” is only slightly older. If they wanted to categorize themselves by race they were “black” (maybe “Negro”) and “Puerto Rican,” and if they categorized themselves by gender expression they were “transvestites” and “queens.” After the riots, the organization that Sylvia Rivera founded was called the Street Transvestites Action Network. (She later changed it to Street Transgender Action Network, but never to anything containing the term “trans women.”)

Rioters at the Stonewall Inn, 1969.
Rioters at the Stonewall Inn, 1969.
The problem with referring to the Stonewall activists as “trans women” is that that category is reserved for transitioners. Some of the Stonewall veterans had partly transitioned, and some transitioned later (including Rivera), but many lived part time and never transitioned. Would they transition if they were in their teens and twenties today? Maybe, maybe not.

Nat tweeted to me, “I was under the impression that trans* included -vestite?” Yes, trans* includes -vestite. “Trans woman” does not – except when they’re co-opting us to get money or political support.

When have you ever heard “trans woman” used to describe someone who’s not transitioning? RuPaul has been explicitly excluded from the category – and apart from being wealthy she probably bears the greatest resemblance to the Stonewall rioters of any celebrity today. If you can find a non-transitioner in any list of contemporary “trans women,” I’d love to see it. I’ve never seen Eddie Izzard or Rye Silverman in one. And in the few tweets I’ve read from @theNatFantastic, I’ve never seen a contemporary non-transitioner as a trans woman.

So no, you don’t get to go around talking about “trans women” never mentioning a non-transitioner, and then turn around and claim non-transitioning heroes as “trans women.” The Stonewall rioters were not trans women. They were transvestites. They’re my heroes, not yours.

Here’s the kicker, which prompted Nat to tell me to “chill the fuck out”: there is a systematic exclusion of non-transitioners from the “trans community,” and “trans women” leaders are actively involved in this exclusion. “Trans women” are doing exactly the same thing as Nat’s “rich white dudes in suits.” Nat’s tweet was part of this exclusion.

Maybe it’s because I sometimes look like a white dude in a suit, but I’ve found a lot more acceptance and support from rich white dudes in suits than I ever have from “trans women,” many of whom are rich and white and wear suits.

Let’s all remember that the Stonewall Riots were started by Black and Puerto Rican transvestites. Their legacy belongs to the world, but more to Black people, Puerto Ricans and transvestites than to the rest of us. And most of all to Black and Puerto Rican transvestites, who still flock to Greenwich Village to this day. Maybe we should let them decide what to do with it.

The kind of coming out we need

Last month I highlighted some good research done by Lal Zimman at the University of Colorado, where he found two conceptions of coming out among trans people that were very different from the way the term is used by lesbians and gay men. In the comments, my friend Caprice Bellefleur hit on the next point that I was going to make: that there’s a fourth way that coming out is used.

There is a further complication about the use of the term “coming out” among trans people. Many, especially those who identify as crossdressers, use it to mean the first time they appeared in public in their alternate gender. They may not have disclosed anything to anyone.


In keeping with Zimman’s use of the letter “d,” with declaring a gender transition and disclosing a transgender history, I’ll talk about non-transitioning trans people displaying non-normative gender expression.

Zimman explicitly excluded crossdressers from his definition of “transgender,” acknowledging its use as a euphemism for “transsexual,” but when I met him in February I was there to advocate rejecting that sense of the word, based in part on the fact that there’s so much overlap. Many of his “transgender people,” particularly on the feminine spectrum, identify for years as crossdressers, and in fact the “declaration” he described is a performative speech act that, in the eyes of many trans people, is enough to allow someone to pass from “umbrella trans” (or even “just a cross-dresser” or “just a lesbian”) into “really trans.”

(I honestly don’t know much about coming out for queens and butch lesbians. I do know that for some gay men, coming out allows some feminine self-expression, and similarly allows some masculine expression for lesbians, but I’ve heard that that is still stigmatized by many people, gay and straight.)

As I said before, I’m not really happy with these three uses of “coming out.” To put this in perspective, there are several advantages that the “gay” kind of being out confers on the individual and the community:

  1. The dishonesty and self-denial necessary to be closeted tend to be habit-forming and have a corrosive effect on character
  2. The same habits of dishonesty and self-denial have a corrosive effect on the tenor of group interactions.
  3. Large numbers of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals being out contribute to safety in numbers.
  4. It’s easy to dehumanize people when you can pretend they’re not there, but it’s a lot harder when you know someone.
  5. It’s easy to hate people when they feel ashamed of themselves, but it’s harder when they have self-respect.

The two forms of “coming out” that Zimman describes (declaring and disclosing) fulfill all these characteristics, but they are only available to people who choose to transition and genderqueer or genderfluid people. Someone who has the exact same thoughts, beliefs and feelings but decides not to transition or change their primary gender expression has only the display form of coming out available to them. When people display they are visible in public as trans people, but in clothing and accessories that they normally don’t wear, and with makeup that changes their appearance. They may not be recognized by people who know them in their primary identity. Most importantly, they don’t use the same name. How is anyone supposed to know that the Tiffany Sparkle that they met at the dance club last Friday is the same person as Bob from Accounting?

This means that displaying has only one of the four advantages of coming out, the “safety in numbers” advantage, and that only when people are actively cross-dressing. There may be some feeling of liberation in this, but it is fleeting, and at all other times they still have to hide and to deny their true feelings. And while they hide, others are unaware that people they know are “one of those” and know that all these people are so ashamed of themselves they don’t want their true names known.

I seem to be the exception here. I decided not to transition in 1995, and I decided to come out in 1996. I came out “gay style,” by putting up a website and telling my co-workers. I didn’t start wearing dresses to work; I just told people. And when a trans-related topic came up, I came out again as necessary.

I’ve reaped three of the four benefits of coming out. I’ve felt hugely better being able to talk about this important part of my life, and knowing that all these people know and are still treating me with respect. I’ve used it to build bridges in my community and break down walls of hatred and mistrust. But I don’t get the benefit of strength in numbers.

I don’t know any other non-transitioning trans people who’ve come out the way I did, and that’s a shame. Because there are a lot of closeted trans people out there who don’t seem to know that it’s possible to come out this way. The only way they see out of the closet is to disclose a gender transition. That’s not right.

Who owns “transvestite”?

Courtney O’Donnell blogs about media representation of trans people, and serves a useful watchdog role. It’s possible to go overboard with that, and normally she recognizes it. Last September she wrote, “As for ‘transvestite’, some have made it know they find this word offensive, too, however, I’m also aware that it’s usage as an umbrella term is rather widespread — particularly in the United Kingdom. I’d be curious to hear what trans people from the other side of the pond feel about the term.” Last week in a post about Rosalinda Rebolledo, she asked whether Rebolledo’s story counted as “transgender news.”


In a post today, O’Donnell goes overboard. The actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s actually less silly than a lot of Hollywood people, was asked by USA Today, “But seriously, how can she look so fresh the day after partying until near-sunrise for the Met Gala?” Paltrow replied, “Are you crazy? I’m like RuPaul! I have so much makeup on. Foundation! Last night, I was literally a transvestite.”

(Don’t even start on the “literally.” That battle is lost, people. We’ve got plenty of words that mean “in the real world, not metaphorically or metonymically.” Use them, and forget this one.)

O’Donnell created an image saying that Paltrow “Ridicules Trans People,” and writes, “Trans people are not objects to ridicule. While it may appear to be a thoughtless comment by an ignorant person, however, a celebrity of her stature yields quite a bit of influence among her fans, so she’s going to have to own up to committing this very public blunder. I wouldn’t go so far to say Paltrow is transphobic, but she in dire need of education. If we can get her to apologize, she can redeem herself and send a bit of good PR our way.”

A lot of O’Donnell’s commenters said she was making too big a deal of it, to which O’Donnell replied, “Remember, those that do violence against trans people do not check for labels — crossdressers, transvestites, transsexuals — trans people are all one and the same to them. Being mocked in the media by a celebrity, no matter how slight, normalizes this behavior. While readers are free to give Paltrow a pass, I’d like to think I’m helping ensure that mocking trans people isn’t so easily blurted out during interviews anymore.”

I’m not really sure what ignorance Paltrow is exhibiting, let alone mockery, and what kind of “education” O’Donnell has in mind for her. Beyond that, though, where does O’Donnell get off policing the word “transvestite”? It’s clear from her September post that she doesn’t identify as one, and doesn’t understand the nuances of the word. Why not leave it to someone who does?
IMG_0535When I was a cute young thing I didn’t need to wear any makeup at all. But at 41, I’m not just a transvestite but an aging transvestite. I have to spend an hour slathering the stuff on just so that I don’t see my beard shadow in the mirror. It’s a pain in the ass, and it’s kind of nice to know that People‘s “Most Beautiful Woman” has to put up with it much more often than I do.

I don’t feel at all ridiculed by the comparison. I don’t feel mocked by someone who wears a lot of makeup pointing out that we do too. I don’t see how it could encourage people to violently attack us. In fact, I feel sympathy and validation from Paltrow.

I’d appreciate it if O’Donnell and (any other non-transvestite activists) could back off from the term “transvestite” and focus on whatever flavor of trans she identifies with. If we want her help, we can ask for it. And actually, if she wants to give a signal boost to this effort, that’d be nice.

(P.S. See also Jeremy Feist’s take.)

Three definitions of transgender

You may think you know what “transgender” means. But if you’ve been around the trans community for any length of time, you know that the word has been fought over before. There are at least three different ways that the word is used, and all apply to a somewhat different group of people.

First let’s take a look at one of the most widely circulated definitions, found in the GLAAD Media Reference Guide:

Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include, but is not limited to transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender non-conforming people.

This is the famous “transgender umbrella” that we see in promotional materials and statistics. Note the “gender identity and/or expression” part – that’s the inclusive, welcoming part.

Now there’s another definition of “transgender” that conflicts with it. The funny thing is that it’s on the exact same page of GLAAD’s media guide, in the definition of “gender identity”:

Gender identity is one’s internal, personal sense of their gender. For transgender people, their birth-assigned gender and their own internal sense of gender identity are not the same.

In this definition, note that for transgender people – all of them – the assigned gender and gender identity are not the same. Those are the exclusionary, rejecting parts.

These two definitions contradict each other. The first one includes people whose gender identity doesn’t differ from our assigned gender, while the second one does not. They don’t both belong in the same organization, let alone on the same page.

There’s a third one, which was noted by Lal Zimman in his 2009 paper (PDF, page 58):

my use of the term transgender is not intended in the ‘umbrella label’ sense often found in literature dealing with issues of gender and sexuality. Nor is it intended as a pancultural descriptor to be applied to any gender variant community. Rather, my usage mirrors the meaning this term has taken on in many English-speaking transgender communities in the United States, in which it can serve as a demedicalized substitute for the term transsexual.

The GLAAD media guide notes that many people are substituting the term “transgender” for “transsexual,” and that not everyone is comfortable with that: “Unlike transgender, transsexual is not an umbrella term, as many transgender people do not identify as transsexual.” But then they give up on defining transsexual beyond that. Zimman provides a definition: “those individuals whose sense of themselves as men or women runs contrary to the gender they were assigned at birth, and who have therefore decided to make a social transition from one gender role to another (regardless of what medical interventions, if any, are pursued).”

I want to modify Zimman’s definition here, because he is mixing something that is observable (a gender role transition) with something that is not observable (a gender identity mismatch). His “therefore,” although it is widely claimed by many, is also unjustified. There are a significant number of people who transition to a new gender and report having no clear feeling of a gender identity mismatch (or even a gender identity at all) before transition; Zinnia Jones is probably the best known: “For most of my childhood, I didn’t feel like I had a meaningful identity of any kind, gender or otherwise.”

This leaves us with three definitions of “transgender”: the umbrella, the gender identity mismatch, and the transitioner. There is a lot more overlap among these definitions than the diagram above would suggest, but it remains true that there are people who fit under the umbrella who do not transition or have a gender identity mismatch. There are people who have a gender identity mismatch and fit under the umbrella who do not transition. And there are people who transition but do not have a gender identity mismatch or fit under the umbrella.

This is important to me as someone who fits under the umbrella but is not planning to transition. I hope that GLAAD will revise its Media Reference Guide to be more consistent with its stated goals of inclusion.

Good research of the month: “coming out” in trans communities

As you could probably tell, I feel bad describing research like the Trans Mental Health Study in such strong negative terms. I know that the authors wanted to do something to help the trans community, and they thought that was what they were doing. I want to balance that out by highlighting examples of transgender research done right.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Lal Zimman, a fellow linguist who studies transgender language. In 2009, Zimman published a paper (PDF) summarizing his research into the concept of “coming out” in transgender communities.

A.C. Liang (1997) and Kathleen Wood (1997) reported on “coming out” stories of gay men and lesbians. In these stories, the term “coming out” is used to refer to the sharing of a sexual orientation. Because this orientation may not be visible, Zimman says, “Liang argues that reference to the ‘processual’ nature of coming out – in other words, the fact that coming out is not a single event but is rather reenacted time and again throughout an individual’s lifetime – is a crucial component of the coming out narrative.”

Zimman interviewed nine individuals who had completed a gender transition and found a pattern that will probably be familiar to a lot of you. They used “coming out” to share a transgender identity, but in one of two specific ways that were very different from those reported for gay men and lesbians. Those who hadn’t transitioned to their target gender used “coming out” to mean a declaration (in Zimman’s terms) of their desire or plans to transition to a different gender. Those who had transitioned used “coming out” to mean a disclosure of their history of gender transition.

This is the right way to do research on an unrepresentative sample. Ask relatively open-ended questions and listen to the answers. Note common threads among the answers. Use the stories to make existential arguments – ones that highlight the existence of something that may not have been acknowledged by the academic community. This is particularly valuable to show exceptions to generalizations that others have made. In this case, Zimman identifies exceptions to the generalizations that Liang and Wood made about coming out narratives.

Even though I think Zimman’s research is exemplary here, I want to note that I have a verbal hygiene argument with what he found. I don’t like these uses of the term “coming out,” and I think they’re bad for both the trans community and the wider LGBT community. But that’s a topic for another post. In the meantime, keep studying trans communities!