That Word “Transgender”

Yesterday I spotted a couple of young trans women scratching their heads on social media over a rant one of them had found complaining that the horrible “transgenders” were oppressing real trans people. This made no sense to them. I can understand why, but if you have been around long enough you know that all terminology changes. Here’s a bit of history.

A small caveat here in that over the period in question I lived in three different countries, and terminology can change between countries as well as over time. I may well have got a very confused view of things. Then again, I may have seen a lot more than someone who only lived in one country.

Anyway, “transgender”. Originally there were just “transsexuals”. They were people like Michael Dillon and April Ashley who underwent gender surgery and lived their lives as fairly typical members of their preferred gender.

The term “transgender” was first popularized by an American called Virigina Prince. She used it to distinguish people who underwent surgery and those who simply cross-dressed full time and had no truck with doctors or psychologists. The latter, including herself, she termed transgender.

According to Prince’s Wikipedia entry (which obviously isn’t by any means definitive) she preferred female pronouns but identified as a heterosexual male cross-dresser. That would make her exactly the sort of person that bathroom panic is all about. It is unsurprising that she’s not too popular with some transsexuals.

Meanwhile the idea of being transgender rather than transsexual gained traction with non-binary people, because it didn’t involve surgery and allowed people to find their own path rather than being forced into a stereotypical role of one gender or another by doctors. For a long time I understood it as meaning “non-binary”.

Around the same time it acquired a political meaning in that being transgender rather than transsexual meant that you were only changing your social role (gender) rather than your “real” sex. This was popular with some feminists. I remember being invited along to a transgender support group being set up by feminists in Melbourne. When we got there we were all asked to sign an affidavit stating that we were only living as women, and were still “really” men.

There were also some radical transgenderists who insisted that all trans people were non-binary and that any trans person who claimed to be a “man” or “woman” rather than transgender was a traitor to the cause, a dupe of the patriarchy and so on. This too was popular with some feminists.

However, all of these meanings eventually got steamrollered by the fact that “transgender” is a much better word to use in PR than “transsexual”, because it doesn’t include that troublesome word, “sex”. So trans political activists quickly adopted “transgender” as an umbrella term for all gender-variant people, eventually shortening it to “trans”, probably in part to get away from some of the historical negative connotations of transgender.

I like to think that these days we have mostly got away from that sort of squabble and allow everyone to find their own path, but there are still people out there who regard themselves as “true” transsexuals and everyone else as perverts. There are also people who will remember that days of transsexual v transgender wars. Every so often they re-surface.

I have probably only scratched the surface of the terminology wars here, and haven’t gone anywhere near the troublesome *, but hopefully that has given you some inkling as to why people still occasionally get hot under the collar about such things.