Some Clarifications on Trans Language
A Very Incomplete Glossary
Identity comes up regularly in trans politics,
but refers to two very
different concepts —
and without distinction.
Our of identifying with a gender or sexuality — male, female, non-binary, fluid, straight, bi, gay, cis, trans,
non-conforming,or otherwise. We all have
multiple conscious identities,that interact and change over time.
Those identities are curated, public, and often fluid. I’m still learning to identify as a woman, trans, and lesbian — even while the realities are more complex, queer, and fluctuating. I also identify as an author, a web developer, bi/pansexual, genderqueer, and polyamorous.
None of this is unique to the trans experience.
Our vague and
often-elusivesense of innate gender — something most people seem to have, but trans people spend more time dealing with. Subconscious sex is really a better term for understanding trans identities. This is not a conscious or curated self-labeling, but more like the sensation of being angry
because you are hungry— a feeling that can be
difficult to pin down. For some it is simply male or female, and becomes obvious early on — but for most of us it is more complex, and takes years to dig through
the rubble ofassumptions, fears, and prejudices around
Cis people also have subconscious gender identities, though it’s more easy to assume that your sex is completely constructed or flows seamlessly from your genitalia when it has never been
called into question.
Many people distinguish "gender identity"
(between the ears)
from "biological sex"
(between the legs) —
as though one is natural and static,
while the other is invented or fluid.
That’s a vast oversimplification of the science,
a dangerous false dichotomy.
Our identities don’t exist outside of
outside our identities.
These two ideas are inseparable.
When a doctor assigns our gender
they base the assignment
on our genitalia alone.
For the many people born with "ambiguous" genitalia,
it’s common practice for doctors to perform surgery —
assigning their "biological sex" by force.
There were never two discrete categories to begin with.
When we try to
talk about sex
as a reproductive distinction,
we’re really talking about internal gonads
producing eggs or sperm:
testis and ovary.
Reproductive gonads often align with genitals,
but not always,
and not in any simple binary.
Some people are infertile,
some past menopause,
or other common reproductive changes —
making it clear that gonads
don’t directly correlate with
what we call "biological"
When we’re in public
no one knows what genitals or gonads
exist between our legs,
but they feel comfortable assigning our
sex anyway —
based on the assumptions between their own ears.
Social gendering relies mainly
(especially masculine-associated facial hair etc)
and gender presentation.
the way we are perceived and treated by others —
has nothing to do
with genitals or gonads.
Organizations like the International Olympic Committee
have gone further,
attempting to find a definable "biological sex"
in chromosomes and hormone levels.
The results are the same wherever you look:
is a complicated mix of
that interact with our
in complex ways over time.
Biology is fluid,
identity is biological,
and the male/female binary is
more social than scientific.
Some trans people
decide to change
how we present to the world.
We transition our public personas,
hoping to bring our social lives and/or bodies
more in line with our subconscious sex.
That means different things for different people,
but "transition" is not a surgery,
transgender is not a medical term,
all trans people transition,
and we’re not all simply men or women
in the wrong body
moving from one binary to another.
Transition is a million little things,
for a million different reasons.
Some of us change our pronouns, or our names —
or through legal channels.
Some take hormones and/or hormone-blockers,
a few get "top"
to augment or remove breast tissue,
and even fewer opt for genital surgery,
and cosmetic interventions.
(which has no real start or finish)
are the same person that we were before.
With or without surgery,
our genders are just as real.
Transition does not complete us
or make us "real" men and women.
My body was already female, because I was.
How and when and why we transition
is more personal and complex
assimilation into cis society.
In October 2015,
I decided to start a more intentional transition —
first socially, and then medically.
I don’t believe in a "true" self
that was hidden before,
vague concepts of authenticity,
or finally becoming whole.
I wasn’t born male,
I was never a woman
trapped in a man's body,
I’m not finally complete,
I was never broken,
and I will never be fixed.
People regularly assume that my transition
has or will soon involve
Maybe. Maybe not.
But transition was never about my genitals.
Women are not vaginas,
and men are not penises.
I won’t finally be a woman if I have surgery,
or let a man
I’m not a new or different person,
and there really was no chasm to cross over.
My gender and orientation have not changed —
only my social presentation
and hormone levels.
I am not finally a woman, but you are finally aware of my womanhood.
strangers correctly identify me as a woman,
people say that I am "passing" as a woman. They’re wrong.
The language of passing is borrowed from racial politics
(people of color passing as white)
and later gay/lesbian politics
or butch gays passing as straight),
where "passing" means your marginalized identity is not seen.
Passing is a complicated privilege — making it possible for marginalized people to avoid harassment and violence, at the cost of rejecting or hiding our marginal identities.
It’s also complicated because passing
is done to us.
In a single moment,
different people will come to different conclusions about me,
leaving me in a state of Schroedinger’s gender.
My "passing" is based on
other people’s assumptions about my history.
But passing language is particularly strange for trans people,
who are said to be "passing" when we are identified correctly,
in our appropriate genders.
This plays into the popular notion that
our gender is a costume we put on,
is the entire point of transition —
the only way to be trans.
People regularly try to help out
by giving us unsolicited advice
on our looks, voices, or movements —
assuming that’s what we mean by transition.
history to that idea,
enforced by the medical community since the 60’s
when hormone replacement therapy
started to become a medically-accepted treatment.
Doctors established themselves as gender gatekeepers,
determining who could transition medically —
in part by
enforcing strict binary stereotypes.
medical transition was only available
if doctors thought you could "pass" well,
and you promised to live
straight and stealth
The goal of "passing" was forced on us,
trans communities invisible.
It might be more accurate to say
that I "pass" as cis-gender at times,
or that I previously learned
to "pass" (
well enough) as man.
Trans people face a real and constant threat of violence,
so blending in as cis can save our lives.
It’s hard to constantly have your gender
called into question,
or made the center of conversation.
is not a goal we otherwise share.
In the last few years,
everyone is talking about trans visibility.
Chaz Bono danced with the stars,
Lavern Cox is everywhere,
Caitlin Jenner made transition
a reality TV experience,
and now you’re reading my blog.
New media comes out every year
highlighting trans characters —
but most of them are written, directed, and acted
by straight white men,
reinforcing stereotypes more than
When a new show or movie comes out,
we’re often more scared than excited.
These stories tend to focus on
"men who think they are women"
and love doing their makeup more than anything else.
After transition they are either
beautiful straight women who get the boy
(making them finally "real" women),
or pathetic creatures
who need more help passing
to be "successfully" trans.
are limited to rich and beautiful women
who fit easily into our existing binary categories:
men and women,
just like you.
Those stories are important,
but they aren’t the whole picture.
That’s not how we all do trans.
Where are the gender outlaws,
the fluid identities,
the femme boys and butch women
who have always faced the brunt of harassment?
Where are the trans people who are complex and confused,
or happy to mix up our notions of gender?
argue for bathroom rights
based only on
our ability to conform,
our own community under the bus.
This narrow visibility has been a mixed bag for the trans community. More of us are coming out, and we’re doing it more publicly. For a minority that’s been forced into "stealth" invisibility, it’s wonderful to see (some of) us moving into the light. There’s power in numbers.
But the backlash has been swift and deadly —
faster than our cultural gains.
(and especially women of color)
were already being killed at unprecedented rates —
and those numbers are higher than ever.
We’ve been using bathrooms
since the invention of the toilet,
but suddenly states
are passing laws to mandate our bowel movements,
or protect housing and job discrimination
(a more basic concern for many trans people)
I was much more visibly
queer a year ago.
In some ways my transition has made me safer,
by making me one more white woman on the street.
All my femme interests or traits that used to make me
now make me invisible.
It’s easy for me to disappear into
this over-simplified binary trans identity
that doesn’t really reflect my experience.
I want to be a proud gender-bending
but that’s often used as
proof that I’m
really a man,
not trans enough,
or in need of
Just because some of us are in the
doesn’t mean we’re all being seen.
Just Like (Not) You
Across the board, marginalized groups face a complex problem often referred to as respectability politics. The quickest way into the mainstream is conformity — but what are the costs, and who is left behind? Many rights-movements have devolved into "just like you" or "born this way" rhetoric, allowing those of us who "pass" in the mainstream to go about our lives as long as we’re willing to blend in.
For a few of us,
that’s great —
at least good enough —
but it’s not the whole story,
and it’s not the end of our movement.
I don’t want to get married,
and use gendered toilets
like any "normal" cis straight person —
I actually want these
systems to break down,
and conform better to us.
No matter how well my looks or identity
fit the popular trans mythology,
I want to
fight for something more fluid and open,
that helps the whole world be more
I am a
and I am not just like all cis
I will continue to fight both sides of that argument,
until all my friends
right to live all our identities
in the ways we see fit:
monogamous or polyamorous;
straight or bi, pan or gay;
sluts, and prudes;
gender-fluid, butch and femme;
black, brown, immigrant, Muslim, and interracial;
closeted, and queer.
We can’t keep accepting identities
based on their ability to assimilate
with established (straight white cis) norms.
We have to
rebuild these systems
more fluid and queer assumptions.
There are some questions that come up again and again if you are trans. A few of those questions are terrible, but most of them are well-intentioned. I’m lucky to have a supportive community around me, so I thought I’d write down my most common answers to help ease your stress about getting it right, and ease my stress about answering the same questions over and over.
There’s a lot of language that gets thrown around, but much of it comes loaded with over-simplified baggage and misconceptions. Here are a few that have been on my mind – from gender identity to biological sex, transition, passing, and visibility.
My friend Maureen Maloney asked to document my reaction to the 2016 election, as part of the America Heard film series…
I wasn’t born in the wrong body. I was born, a body. Without my body, I don’t exist.
Mother finds me at her wardrobe, in her pumps and pearls. What are you doing? Being a mommy. Are you, then? She clips on the earrings (they pinch!), reaches for her lipstick.—Allison Washington
I’ve seen myself in the mirror. I find me… disorienting. What do they see that I don’t? Why aren’t they laughing at me?—Miriam Suzanne
Reflections on the instictive act of gendering, how it can go terribly wrong, and what happens next.
I don’t have many guy friends, but my guitarist is one. Parting, I lean in for the cheek-kiss but he plants a good one right on my lips.—Allison Washington