Other Histories

Who Do You Think You Are?

In the late 70s and early 80s, all the trans women I knew classified themselves as either being transsexuals or transvestites. Both terms were coined by sexologists and medical professionals earlier in the twentieth century. It seems absurd now that the range of trans experiences could be distilled into two categories, and even more absurd that we should so easily adopt these categories without questioning them but the terminology we used to describe ourselves reflected the time in which we lived.

What transsexual and transvestite really meant was ‘having surgery and living invisibly as a cis woman in a cisgender, heteronormative world” and ‘everyone else’. There was another term that we used at the time, but it was not common because it described someone who lived as their true selves without surgery or the aid of hormones (although some may have obtained them illegally). These people were transgender, but they were rare birds indeed. “Passing” was pretty well a necessity and if you weren’t doing it, you weren’t making a living. Not in a “respectable” fashion, in any case. Transgender as an umbrella term to define the entire community was not yet common, although it was gradually coming into use.

Many transsexuals resisted the word transgender. It was important when they presented themselves to the gatekeepers who determined whether or not they had surgery that they fell under the strict medical definition of transsexual and that they were not “everyone else”. In the 80s, some transsexual folks used the term as a form of empowerment in which they perceived themselves as being superior to those not sufficiently “authentic”.

“Transvestite” is now largely reviled among trans folks, and though in the 1970s it was generally assumed to mean ‘crossdresser’ its original definition was similar to what we’d now call ‘transgender’. It was coined by German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) who wished to distinguish trans people from gays and lesbians, and to de-emphasize the pathological manner in which trans folks had until then been characterized. Hirschfeld believed that trans people lived on a spectrum and though the word in its etymology clearly refers to clothing, he emphasized that “clothing does not appear here ‘as a dead thing,’ that the kind of clothing a person wears is no arbitrary expression of a capricious whim but a form of expressing one’s inner personality, a sign of one’s disposition.”

Harry Benjamin (left) and Magnus Hirschfeld

The term ‘transsexual’ is now generally attributed to endocrinologist and sexologist Harry Benjamin (1885-1986), whose 1966 book The Transsexual Phenomenon was immensely important in outlining a care treatment for transsexual individuals. However Hirschfeld first used the term to describe those on one end of the transvestite spectrum who sought the help of medical professionals to live the life they wanted. Hirschfeld also shone a light on “female transvestites”, or what we’d call trans men, whose existence was of course widely denied for many years by people with an axe to grind. Hirschfeld’s pioneering book Die Transvestiten was – somewhat surprisingly – not translated into English until 1991.

Trans people were not initially in control of the terms that were used to describe them, and yet they had to take the good with the bad. We needed to be defined in order to advance our cause politically or move our lives forward personally.

We define ourselves now with an almost limitless number of terms. On the one hand, this is right and proper as people – trans and cis – express gender in a limitless number of ways. In another way, it’s also a little absurd.

Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin conducted one of the largest surveys of US trans folks, which they published in a book called The Lives of Transgender People. Their problem was that people used different terminology, but were often describing the same identities. Or they were using the same terminology but were describing different identities. How do you make sense of this? Some of the survey participants even refer to themselves as “tranny”. Tranny is now regarded as a derogatory term for trans folks, although somehow I can’t get too worked up about it. It’s fine when we use it among ourselves, I suppose, and less so when others do. Other people are wary of the word transsexual because it presumes that all trans people seek surgery or that medical treatment defines what it means to be trans. This is ridiculous, but I sometimes feel like I’m walking on eggshells, worried that what I call you may somehow offend.

I’m not sure whether all this is useful anymore. In the book The Trans Generation, one of the youths described themselves as “a demi-polyromantic, polysexual, gender-queer individual”. It’s nice that you know yourself so well, but there’s a good possibility that next week you’ll be someone else. We are too contradictory to be static beings.

After a while, our quest to define ourselves precisely starts to sound like navel gazing, or a game we’re playing while we wait for the important stuff that matters in our lives to get resolved. Cis men and women express their gender in many different ways, but they still consider themselves men and women. Maybe it’s enough just to be trans. As an adjective or noun, it covers the experience without unnecessarily restricting your self expression.