“I’m not trans”

Everyone of course has the right to define themself how they like. All labels are invented, equivocal, imperfect, subjective.

But I’d like to encourage those out there who identify as non-binary and “not trans” to reflect on what this might mean.

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Jack Monroe vs Julia Long, C4 News

It’s a tricky territory to negotiate. There is currently a backlash against non-binary, both inside and outside the trans community. In a month that saw the two most prominent  UK non-binary and trans people, CN Lester and Jack Monroe, being pitted against the worst of trans-antagonistic feminism on the national news, I have been experiencing an equivalent attack from within the community, from a minority of trans men and women.

While “radical” feminists on Twitter told Jack and CN that they looked like girls and that their scarves precluded them from being taken seriously . . .

jack

. . . some trans men and women on Facebook were fighting hard for language that continued to medicalise trans existence, or to base our validity firmly in the realm of appearance and presentation. Fighting for terms like “gender confirmation surgery” with its suggestion that we need to alter ourselves to fully affirm our identity. Fighting for the right to have their gender assumed by strangers after transition, ignoring how much that erases those who don’t or won’t or can’t have medical treatment or ever “pass”.

If I hear one more passing trans guy tell me he needs strangers to assume he’s a man because he’s “worked so hard to get there” I’m going to get really cranky. I understand the pain of being constantly misgendered and can imagine the relief when that ends, but it only ends for a lucky few, and that’s a privilege. To insist on that privilege being reinforced, to the detriment of those who can’t experience it, throws an awful lot of people under the bus – boyish looking lesbians, non-binary people, trans people who can’t access healthcare, trans people who simply don’t pass, and people whose presentation does not match their identity.

Because we are not just what we look like, or what’s in our pants, and the sooner we stop making assumptions about other people’s genders, the better the world will be.

And this is where “not trans” non-binary people feed into this narrative, because often “not trans” is put forward to mean “not having any medical interventions” and in creating those definitions, it medicalises trans identities. It’s fine for people to self-identify however they want, but care is needed not to redefine someone else’s identity inaccurately in the process. There is also, among a small minority of “not trans” non-binary people, an air of being superior in the way they are dealing with their gender incongruence – as if all our experiences are the same and should lead to the same “correct” conclusion.

what's in our pants

 

Being transgender is not a medical condition. Being transgender can come with physical incongruence or dysphoria that even in a socially perfect world would be alleviated by medical treatment, but that’s not how it is for all trans people – many trans people love their bodies.

Being transgender can also come with social incongruence or dysphoria that can be helped with medical treatment in this imperfect world, where so much of our social assignment is related to the configuration of our bodies. Ideally, we will change the world to enable trans people to need less medical treatment, but we will never get rid of the need completely.

To be clear, changing the world means things like not assuming somebody’s gender based on the way they look, not invalidating somebody’s gender based on what they wear, how their voice sounds, what their physical attributes are or what’s in their pants. Yes, this means using gender neutral language until someone tells you their gender.

Because there is absolutely no way of knowing someone’s gender other than asking them or them telling you.

This also means not medicalising gender.  Doing away with terms like “gender confirmation surgery” that give extra validation to those who have had medical treatment. Not waiting until someone “passes” or until they’ve had surgery to start using the right pronouns for them. Not suddenly starting to misgender someone because you find out they haven’t had lower surgery. No more gross “hot dog or bun?” punchlines à la Zoolander 2.

Cumberbatch2

For non-binary people, it means not conflating “trans” with medical treatment, or using the “not-trans” identifier to distance yourself from people who have transitioned in more obvious and visible ways, as if those people are somehow a different species. We are all negotiating the complicated path of gender incongruence, and there is no neat dividing line between us. Transition can take on many forms, and “trans” encompasses many stories. It is an umbrella term, and all people who experience gender incongruence belong under it. If you don’t want the shelter, that’s cool, but if you are shunning this umbrella because you want to distance yourself from the people under it, then we need to talk.

I cannot label someone as trans who does not want to be labelled as such. [eta- Many other cultures have other, better language for what I call trans, and this is not about wanting to impose my label on those cultures, or on anyone who doesn’t want it, such as intersex people who have their own language to describe their experiences]. However, I personally see identifying as trans if you are non-binary in *any* way an act of solidarity, not an act of appropriation.

[eta- In other words, nobody non-binary should feel “not permitted” to claim the label, and I’d prefer those who do not want the label not to redefine trans in order to make the label look like it doesn’t apply to them].

Can we move away from the idea that trans is a tiny, marginalised and fenced off community and see that aspects of trans stories affect many lives? Surely that is a good thing, making gender a less rigid, sure and certain proposition.

 

 

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21 thoughts on ““I’m not trans”

  1. Pax Ahimsa Gethen

    As far as I’m concerned, anyone whose gender identity does not match their birth assignment can use the “trans” label if they want to. I personally think it would be helpful for the community to re-embrace the word “transsexual” to refer specifically to people who have a subconscious sex that is the “opposite” of their birth assignment, whether or not they have access to or desire for hormones or surgery. (I wrote about subconscious sex at http://funcrunch.org/blog/2015/09/26/gendering-and-subconscious-sex/) But the general label “trans” or “transgender” should have no such connotations.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I get what you’re saying, and I really related to your blog post personally, but I struggle with this distinction, and don’t think the sex/gender dichotomy is as clear as we’d like, in fact it’s really, really fuzzy and overlapping. As long as sex is a socially assigned category then it’s a gender as much as it’s a sex and you can’t tease gender and sex fully apart.

      In a world where gender isn’t actually a binary, how “opposite” does someone have to be to be transsexual? A lot of what we think of as “binary” trans people actually have many non-binary and equivocal feelings about their gender and sex. Would there be a scoring system where someone had to be 100% male or female-identified? Would I be a transsexual, because I am taking male hormones, will be perceived as a man, have undergone social transition, or would I be not a “true transsexual” because I don’t particularly want surgery, and see myself as a non-binary man, with definite femme and female aspects to myself? The issue for me is always where we draw the lines and generally they are never as easy to clearly draw as we like to think.

      I also struggle with the idea of identifying transition to male and female as a different class of identity to transitioning to non-binary. Would my friend who has been through a complex medical and social transition to live as purely androgynous not count as transsexual? I’d be genuinely interested in your thoughts on this. I really rate Serano, but this is the one point she and I disagree on, as she seems to be advocating for there to be two different classes of trans people and I struggle with that. I think rather that there are lots and lots and lots of differences and trying to find clear categories is futile. I also think we need as many words for sex and gender as the Sami people have for Reindeer (1000s). Which is why I would prefer to go for a term that is broad and inclusive and reject a second, more special and narrower category.

      Reply
      1. Pax Ahimsa Gethen

        I definitely agree with you that sex is not any more binary than gender is. Cary Gabriel Costello, an intersex trans male professor, talks about this a lot in his blog (http://trans-fusion.blogspot.com/). I agree that non-binary people should also be able to claim the word transsexual, even if they aren’t transitioning to a traditional binary sex. Some neutrois people, for example, refer to themselves as FTN or MTN (fe/male to neuter). And I identify as both agender and transssexual, as I pointed out in that blog entry, but I realize that is unusual.

        I guess my main point was that the word transsexual has really fallen out of favor and I would like to see it revived for people who do desire hormones or surgery, to maybe stop the constant harassment by transmedicalists (“truscum”) who insist that you have to desire hormones and/or surgery to be trans. Although they probably would still not be satisfied 🙂

    2. Angelica

      I agree.. it’s just not necessary to label and categorise us. There are about 20 well recognized independent characteristics that are statitically gender specific and if ANY of those are crossed in an individual, then I consider said person “transgender” regardless if ze has gender dysphoria or wants GRS.

      Reply
  2. feministactivist

    This is a great piece Sam! I’ve definitely used the term “gender confirmation surgery” before because I thought I was being more respectful and “sex re-assignment” sounds so cold and impersonal. What term would still be respectful of someone who chooses to or desires to have surgery, while not alienating someone who doesn’t? On a slightly related note, if you have any tips for a ciswoman who really, really hates the gender binary on ways to help deconstruct it from my place of privilege, or if you can point me to any particular blogs or articles I’d be most appreciative. Thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Hiya, I’m glad you liked the blog 🙂 there is more of a trend nowadays to just name the surgery someone is having, using technical words if appropriate (e.g. phalloplasty), or more colloquially, upper surgery, lower surgery, or just “surgery”. Generally as a community we’re also trying to move conversations away from a fixation on what we are doing/not doing to our bodies.

      http://nonbinary.org/ and http://beyondthebinary.co.uk/ are probably the best sites to go to for nonbinary material. CN Lester’s blog is good too. There’s a blog on my professional website by me that I think is a good starting point for unravelling all this https://hopecounsellingandtraining.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/nature-and-nurture-and-why-its-a-bogus-debate/ and that site also has quite a useful resources section for you to delve into – hope this helps 🙂

      Reply
      1. ettinacat

        That’s also useful because there are so many distinct surgeries that trans people might seek out. To call them all by one name is confusing.

      2. Sam Hope Post author

        Eek, to call people different identity-words depending on what surgery they have seems overly medicalising to me . . . I don’t think surgery changes somebody’s identity, personally.

  3. genderneutral

    I have been formulating in my head a blog post about my experience as trans and non-binary gender queer. I embrace being trans, trans-masculine even but cannot go as far as trans-man as that feels un-genuine. I am trans, in my mind given my departure form my AFAB conditioned self, as I move from that to my gender queer identity. Surgery or not, I agree, it isn’t a medical thing and should be separated from that notion.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I can so relate to that! Although I have some “man” traits the only word I can ever be truly certain of is trans. Let’s celebrate our transness 🙂

      Reply
  4. trolldejardin

    And feel like it would be “”usurping”” the identity, history and suffering of “”true”” trans people.

    I reacted like that for months. Like “I’m much less oppressed than trans men or women” (which is not necessarily true btw) “so it would be disrespectful to appropriate their identity”.

    Especially as I haven’t medically and socially transitioned (I’d like to), and don’t want medical transition.

    It was a trans man who made me realize that defining as trans is solidarity, not appropriation.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I always think it’s interesting, who gets labelled “usurper” and who gets to be seen as “true” when often both sets of people have been around the same length of time and face intersecting oppressions. NB folk have been there forever, “true” often correlates with “more explainable to cis people” or “more neatly categorised”.

      Reply
  5. Ashley

    As a transsexual I have to politely disagree. Trans is a term that creates confusion and erases identities. Please don’t use it. There is no trans identity or community. There’s non-binary and transsexual. Two different lives identities and ways of life. Two different communities. Why do non-binary folk want to erase transsexuals? Because we support the binary? We don’t have a choice..gender dysphoria is real!!!!

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      So, Ashley, I politely need to challenge you on your lack of understanding of what non-binary means. I have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. I have medically and socially transitioned. I have been assaulted on the street due to my identity and I have been discriminated at work because of my identity. The only difference between myself and what you call a transsexual, is that my gender, as real and important as yours, is not recognised in law and I have fewer civil rights than you, and yet you appear to believe that my experience is less important and less real. With respect, that indicates a lack of empathy on your part. I urge you to learn more about other people’s experiences before you dismiss them so readily.

      Reply
  6. Divergent Polymath

    I’m not sure of my position on this topic… I think that overall, not everyone fits in the “cis” or “trans” boxes. Sure, etimologically, cis is the opposite of trans. And cis is defined as “being your assigned gender”, while trans (in the most inclusive definitions) is defined as “NOT being your assigned gender (or not entirely / only / always)”, so put this way, if you’re not cis, you’re trans, and vice-versa.

    However, definitions are one thing, but don’t necessarily match everyone’s lived reality. Queer as Cat puts it in a better way than me.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Thanks for your comment – I think I agree with you and honestly my position has changed a bit since I wrote this. There are a lot of people – intersex people, butch lesbians, two spirit people, as just three examples who had language to describe their experience that predates “trans” as a label and who are we to impose our shiny new labels on them?

      Reply
  7. Divergent Polymath

    Indeed.
    Myself, I’m intersex with an hormonal condition. I just discovered it (as in, diagnosis) because my body seems “normal” (except for underdeveloped musculature and other subtle signs).
    And on one hand, I’m a man and I was assigned male. So I should be “cis”, right, according to current queer and feminist theories ? On the other hand, starting from my teenage years (and still today), I felt an important difference between the “other” boys (ie. the cis boys) and me. Part of this is explained by neurodivergence (dyssynchronia, autism and personality disorders), but there was ALSO the fact that, simply, my sexual hormone levels are different from cis men (of my age). And that had a subtle impact on secundary sexual characteristics (which still led to stigma, bullying, discrimination… including explicitly sexist insults sometimes), as well as an important impact on behavior, especially about competition, energy/fatigue, stress, mood, competition, status-seeking…

    (I know that socialization is central in gendered behaviors, but sexual hormones play a role in SOME specific behaviors, their role being intertwined with socialization and brain development, especially during the “critical” periods of childhood and puberty, and all these factors impacting each other in a complex way ; also, it’s not just that socialization influences behavior ; it’s also that the very gendered norms of behavior, in themselves, are patterned on cis dyadic people with normal hormonal levels, who tend to have similar patterns (linked to their hormones) and so by design, those behavioral norms exclude people with “abnormal” hormones from cisgender-ness).

    So long story short, I was always marginalized, and I always felt different and abnormal (in the domain of gender), and people around me felt it too… Because I was intersex. I learnt recently the intersex diagnosis, but even before knowing that, my identity was shaped by that : I’m a man, but I’m also not like cis / regular men (this difference is so important that at times, I believed that I might be genderqueer), and BOTH parts of my identity are important. Intellectually, I saw it as a paradox (how can I feel like a man and yet different from men on gendered identity), until I learnt of my condition. Both parts of my identity can trigger dysphoria (if I’m not acknowledged as man, or don’t feel masculine enough even if I know it’s silly, on one hand / if I’m just lumped with cis men like there’s no difference at all, on the other hand).

    So I’m not cis, nor trans. I’m not even “non-binary”, as my identity is still male.

    And indeed, I read many intersex people (with various intersex conditions, and various lives) who had somehow similar feelings (“I’m not a man or woman, but non-binary doesn’t describe me either, I’m just intersex”, “I’m an intersex woman, but even if I’m afab, I’m not cis and don’t have a cis life”, etc).

    Then, there are indeed the various gender identities or categorizations across the world, that Westerners improperly name “third gender” or “third sex”. Those identities can be the equivalent of trans woman, trans man or enby, but also of transvestite / crossdresser, gay, lesbian, effeminate man, butch woman, man who failed rite of passage of manhood and therefore is excluded… And often, this is overlap (for example, some cultures will use the same category for people that WE would name trans, or cis gay/lesbian). Because they follow their own cultural logic.

    Butch women and effeminate men (at least when it’s “pronounced”), while they can define as cis and be technically cis, I don’t think they necessarily have cis privilege indeed, or not fully at least. It’s a grey area.

    There are also cis people who, without necessarily having a butch or effeminate gender expression (clothes, body language, etc), get routinely misgendered, or mistaken as trans, because of their body characteristics (for example I had read the story of a cis woman who was constantly misgendered, harrassed in the street and in public bathroom, who had people who DEMANDED to see her ID to “prove” she was a woman, etc etc, because people think she’s trans, as she’s really tall and have a slightly deep voice). Those people may (or may not; it can be merely genetics) have intersex or “sex variants” hormonal conditions (that can manifest subtly).

    Transvestites (even cis ones) definitely don’t have cis privilege, as they run the risk of being physically and sexually assaulted, bullied, discriminated from jobs, rejected by family… And are often lumped in with trans people.

    And honestly I’m uneasy with trans people who loudly insist that “We are NOT transvestites, for them it’s just a game, while being trans is a fixed characteristic that we didn’t choose, and they have cis privilege anyway”. I understand it (those people don’t want THEIR trans identity to be seen as frivolous and it’s a legitimate concern), but (1) it often translates into rejection and unnecessary aggressivity towards transvestites (who are victims of oppression too and are NOT the enemies there), (2) no they don’t always have cis privilege, and even if they have it it’s conditional (the second their family or coworkers or boss learn they are transvestites in their private time, their privilege is revoked…), so can we really call it a privilege if it’s contingent on remaining hidden, (3) for some people (even cis ones), being a transvestite, while not being a gender identity, is still an important part of their overall identity and life, and more than just a frivolous game, (4) not all are cis, some are trans or questioning but can only express their identity (or explore and try things) this way.
    (Of course I’m not talking about people who crossdress for Halloween or a bachelor party, but about actual transvestites).

    And too often, people try to force labels on those people (“You’re just gay”, “So if you’re not cis, you are trans”, “You are a woman”, “You are this or that”), who don’t fit into the cis man / cis woman and cis / trans binaries. And also assume their level of privileges.

    It happened to me, too, when I was identifying as genderqueer. People pushed me to be trans (with similar arguments as this article). While the arguments in themselves are valid, what was problematic was the insistence (“If you don’t define as trans, you say that enbies are not trans, and you are trying to distance yourself from “those people”).

    So, I ended up identifying as trans for a time. Out of solidarity for the community and for “other” trans people. Except this label felt wrong to me (but at the time I ignored it, thinking it was just internalized transphobia).

    Because while there are all sorts of trans people (including people who can’t or don’t want to transition), for me, the very concept of “transititioning” didn’t even make sense. Transitioning from what, to what ? If I did an aesthetic transition, how was I supposed to look at the end, since there is no “genderqueer look” or “NB visual passing”, no gender expression linked to my identity ? And more importantly, whatever I did, I would still be perceived by people as a “man-freak” (ie. an amab person so technically gendered as male, but not actually perceived and treated as a man either because people knew I was really different, without consciously knowing why exactly, they picked on all the little signs) like I was already, or maybe a woman (which I’m not), or at best (but VERY unlikely) people would question themselves “Is this person man or woman” (and want to know), which is still not NB passing.
    And so, I would still be just as dysphoric and misgendered as before (or worse).

    And not only the concept of “transition” didn’t make any sense in my life, but my feelings and life were very different from trans people I knew or heard of (including non-binary, non-conforming and non-transitioning ones). So, it really felt wrong to me to define myself as trans, while I didn’t really recognize myself in it, it didn’t “resonate” with me.

    Then, when I started to finally identifying as a male, I had the inverse problem : the word “cis” felt wrong to me, but I assumed it was just unease with “my cis privilege”… Except no. I have read other intersex people, who discovered it late, and struggled with this very problem (that they were neither “trans” nor “cis”).

    BTW, I know there are intersex people who identify as cis (which is legitimate too), but most of the times, either they identify as cis “by default” because it’s simpler (they never reflected on it, they don’t want to explain everything to people around them), or because they lack the vocabulary, or because of internalized oppression, or because their intersex condition hadn’t affected their life, body and gendered socialization enough to set them apart from cis people of their gender.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Oh, all of this, I know there are so many problems for intersex people positioning themselves as either cis or not cis – the whole cis/trans binary breaks down. Yeah, like with everything, it’s way more complicated. I used to want it not to be, now I just say “trans and gender diverse” and acknowledge it’s never going to be straightforward.

      FWIW, though, I don’t believe a person has to transition to be trans

      Reply
      1. Divergent Polymath

        No, me neither, I don’t think people HAVE to transition (or to want/wish to transition even if they can’t in practice) to be trans (nor they “have” to be dysphoric, or to be feminine or masculine or androgynous, or do follow or break gender roles, or to do this or that).

        Also, I like the “trans and gender diverse” label.

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