Monday, November 1, 2010

Transgender 101

Long Time No Blog. Not on this one anyway.

I'd been mulling for a couple of weeks now on what the next entry ought to be about. For the last several days I'd been holding out to say something about the new job I was hoping to get but ultimately, if I do get it, it's best to reflect on that after I've been working a week or so.

I'd also given some thought to doing a bit of a primer on transgenderism for those of you who might find yourself reading this from my Facebook contacts who through no fault of your own really don't know much about the subject, but I confess that it intimidates me to try to do justice to the subject. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to at least cover some broad foundational information here, in the hopes that open-minded people of good will can be better informed both for their own peace of mind (as many of my friends are Christians and quite naturally have a hard time reconciling that which they have always been taught to be sinful with the friend they think well of) and so that they might perhaps inform others they come in contact with.

Perhaps the first thing that the uninitiated come into confusion about is the wide variety of terms that are used by various people within the gender-divergent community. This is partly because there are different things going on, but also partly because even we can't come to a consensus on the language and so end up creating unnecessary confusion. My position is that simplicity is better. I'm going to give you the most prevalent terms and discuss them but in my opinion, there's more confusion here than there needs to be.

Transgender is usually considered the broad umbrella term that is inclusive of all the subdivisions. That is, itself, not altogether an accurate usage in my opinion but that's the situation. In broad terms, it covers anything that is either cross-gender in nature, or crossing outside the usual binary gender roles.

Transsexual is the major subgroup of transgender (and is thus often used interchangeably with that word) but is more specific in focus. A transsexual is one who feels that there is a disconnect between their mental, some might say spiritual, gender and their physical bodies. For someone who has no experience with this, it might be assumed this is simply a "mental condition" like the fellow who thinks he is Napoleon or something, but it's much more complex and yet more simple than that. I'll go into the rational behind that claim later.

A male-to-female transsexual (sometimes called a transwoman) should be interacted with, treated as, and regarded as a woman if they are in or post-transition. You should use female pronouns and their chosen name if you wish to be respectful of that persons feelings (I know of course that not everyone so wishes). Likewise, a female-to-male (transman) should be considered, dealt with, and refereed to as "he" unless he tells you differently. It's simply the same sort of civility you show when you use "Mister" or "sir" or "ma'am." Speaking for myself, you can ruin my day if you call me "Mr" or "sir" (except on the phone or in some other situation where you cannot see me and haven't seen me).

Transvestite, or "cross dresser," is the term most people are more familiar with and the common stereotype of the uninformed. A Transvestite is one who gets a thrill, usually sexual gratification, from dressing as the opposite gender. It is much more akin to a person who, for instance, like to skydive for the adrenaline rush, or like bondage during sex, than it is to transsexualism. It is not, in my humble opinion, properly part of the transgender community at all - though it is there and my protestations won't change that. I do not say that to demean or disrespect the transvestite - they have as much right to live their life in peace as anyone else.
A cross dresser has no desire to change their physical gender and they are perfectly comfortable resuming their "usual" gender role as necessary to go about their daily life. A cross dresser does not need to find an employer that will let them cross dress - though some may indulge themselves to the extent that they would like it if they could. It is not a matter of "rights" that a cross dresser not be able to dress for work any more than it's a matter of rights that your lawyer can't appear in court in cut off denim shorts.
The biggest fallacy people make is confusing a transsexual and a transvestite. I do not change my appearance because I get a sexual rush or a thrill from it, and I do not feel at all comfortable when circumstances require a less than fully female presentation.

Let me give you an example - I write a baseball blog, and because it started before I came out in real life, it carried, and still does, a male "persona." This blog is read by and replied to by people who have never seen my real face, either before or after transition. They likely never would. By all reasonable logic, I need not ever go through the hassle of "outing myself" to the guys I interact with there. But I strongly desire to do so. This is an illustration of the difference in transsexual and cross-dresser. No clothing is involved, no appearance is involved, al that is involved is that these people know me for who I am. By contrast, for a cross-dresser, appearance is all.

There is also the category of androgyny. An Androgyne is a person who feels they do not fit into either gender role well. These people usually do not desire any specific physical alterations (save perhaps hair removal) but simply do not wish to be defined as either male or female. I confess, I don't understand this feeling - even as my friends cannot understand mine. But I respect their right to self-determination.

Finally, there is that which is being refereed to as "genderqueer." I'll be perfectly frank with you - this is, in my opinion, an unnecessary component of the transgender demographic. That about it which is real - the feeling of being at odds with the standard binary gender roles - is already covered by more specific terms. That which doesn't fit any of the above listed terms seems to me to be more social protest that condition of being. It seems to me to be more akin to other forms of "deviant" (in the statistical sense) forms of social behavior. To me being "genderqueer" is little different than being "goth" and so I don't tend to recognize that claim as part of the transgender discussion. I know some of my brothers and sisters would be unhappy with me for that description but still, it over-complicates an already complex situation.

One other word you need to know - "cisgender." This is a word coined to describe the non-transsexual population in an easy manner. "cis-" is the Latin prefix which is opposite to "trans-". It simply means those who are comfortable in the gender their bodies were born with.

Once thought of as highly rare - a flawed study in 1968 put the incidence at 1:30,000 for male-to-female (M2F) transsexuals and three time than for female-to-males (F2M) - the actual incidence of transsexualism is much more common than that. Credible estimates (which are obviously very difficult when so many repress their feelings) range from 1:500 to 1:2,500 for M2F transsexuals. For an anecdotal sample, there are not quite 6,000 males in my zip code, according to the Census Bureau. One might expect that there would then be 2-12 M2F transsexuals in that population (laying aside the local culture and migration patterns and so forth). I am aware of, besides myself, at least 4 others in this zip code. In conversations with others I think that the estimates here are credible. That is roughly the same incidence in the population as cerebral palsy. there is some disagreement over whether F2M is in fact more rare, or simply a function of fewer fully identifying themselves as transsexual because it is easier for a woman to be "manish" in our culture than the reverse.

Let me return to the discussion of how transsexuality is not a "mental condition" in the sense of a person who thinks they are Napoleon or some other delusion. First, there's the surface evidence: the vast majority of transsexuals realize their gender incongruity before puberty. Often in preschool. It is almost impossible to imagine the other sorts of delusions one might compare us to tracing back to early childhood. Further, it is difficult to dismiss this condition as a result of environmental factors such as abuse, or porn, or other such factors when there has been no common pattern discovered which is significantly more prominent in transgender people than in cisgendered people.

So if it's not a mental delusion or a product of environmental factors, where does it come from? Obviously science is never conclusive on any subject, but there is a very solid and logical working hypothesis that has held up well to examination, both experimental and logical.

We know that there are a number of "intersex" conditions (that which was once called hermaphrodite among them) in which the body is at odds with itself physically in terms of gender - that quite apart from the mental gender. At the end of this blog I'll give you a link where you can read more about these conditions if you like, and of course, Google is your friend. These various conditions are caused, we think, by the interplay of hormones in the mother's womb during pregnancy. there is a "normal" schedule of hormone interplay which if happens as it should produces a "normal" male or female. and just as many factors can go awry which produce many different sorts of birth defects, so things can and do go awry which produce intersex conditions where the child is divergent from the "normal" gender binary.

This is not theoretical - these children ARE born - physical living proof that not everyone is born a complete physical male or a complete physical female. if you've ever heard, or made, the argument "God doesn't make mistakes" then you need to reconcile that belief with the fact that children ARE born with birth defects and sometimes those defects relate to their gender.

Now, given that this is undeniable FACT, the obvious question is this - if in fact children can be born with physical inconsistencies in their gender, and if in fact the human brain is a physical organ, and if in fact we know that children can be born with mental "issues" in their brain just as they can be born with physical "defects" (autism, for instance) then by what rational can we NOT arrive at the obvious conclusion that a person can be born with a physical incongruity between their "brain gender" and their "body gender"?

That is not to say that transsexualism is not, in some sense, a mental condition - but it is a mental condition just as autism is, or any other condition of the brain present from birth.

That being the case, it is as irrational to judge, scorn, or hate a transsexual as it is to judge a child with a cleft palate or spina bifida. I just erased several more paragraphs I'd written on that thought (concerning judging) because it was overkill. Those of you with the ability to think rationally already see that it is love, and not judgment, that is called for here. Those who do not already see this will not be convinced by more words from me here tonight.

If you wish to read more about these things - and there is a GREAT deal more than what I could practically include here, follow the following link:

That article in turn links to other resources and if anyone has any questions or curiosities they still haven't found an answer to let me know and I'll get you some more resources. In fact, one day in the future I think I'll just do a link list of recommended reading.


  1. Hi Tammy,

    I have the Southpaw bookmarked, and and read it regularly. Thus, when I came across this in McSweeney's, I though of your announcement from last week. I haven't read them all, but I suspect that you might find them interesting, and hopefully they can give you some insights as to how to be comfortable in your own skin, so to speak.