Can I be non-binary and transsexual?

I talked in a recent blog post about ditching the term “binary trans person”. I want to talk about another binary in this blog, the TS/TG (transsexual/transgender) binary. This is as a result of an admin of a trans group telling me I shouldn’t comment on a thread because it was for “transsexuals only” and “being TS means you identify with the traditional binary”, that non-binary  people “absolutely cannot be transsexual”.

Obviously, I felt hurt and excluded by these remarks, and wanted to explore them. The subsequent conversation left me feeling unwelcome in the group as a non-binary person, and I left. It’s sad, but there are still many trans spaces that feel unwelcoming to non-binary people.

So here we have yet another binary, but also one created so that non-binary (NB) people can be excluded. We can be trans or transgender, but never transsexual, which smacks of the age-old issue of who gets to be “trans enough” and what it means not to be.

One underlying issue that creates this supposed divide is specific to trans women. A frequent complaint I hear from trans women is about happily-living-as-male crossdressers (CDs) throwing their weight around, as people with a bit of male privilege often do, without understanding the oppression and violence trans women suffer. Because many who might once have been called “crossdressers” have now adopted the term non-binary, this has perhaps created a narrow impression of what non-binary means. Some assume non-binary is synonymous with having less gender dysphoria, desiring less medical intervention, or not needing to socially transition. But none of these things is true.

I will fight forever for a diverse community to be held and protected under one umbrella. But we are not all the same. Non-binary covers a variety of people who don’t fit the prescribed and artificial binary that society currently inflicts on us. It does not mean we don’t transition, or don’t experience gender dysphoria, or have less gender dysphoria, or have less legitimately gendered or sexed bodies after transition.

So can transitioning non-binary people be transsexual? Some folks say that NB people cannot be transsexual because the historically older term was coined at a time when NB was not recognised and we had no civil rights. We are excluded because, well, we always have been.

But what’s the difference between a transitioning trans man or woman and a transitioning NB person? I have what some people call gender dysphoria, both physical and social. I changed my name, live in my identity, underwent medical treatment to change my physical sexual characteristics. Many NB peeps have lower surgery, and I’m not ruling it out. But some insist NB folk can never be transsexual. Our dysphoria is not like trans men or women’s dysphoria. Their gender identity carries some meaning and legitimacy that mine does not. Legally and socially that’s currently true, of course, but it still hurts when the trans community perpetuates this separation, particularly because they are people who have themselves faced a cis society that delegitimises their identities.

But what is dysphoria?

Not everyone likes the term gender dysphoria, because it’s associated with medical diagnosis. The opposite of euphoria, it means the clinically significant distress some trans people feel as a result of being trans. Some argue that in a perfect world, being trans should not cause distress, and a landmark Lancet study agrees that being trans is not, in and of itself, a cause of mental illness, but rather the treatment of trans people in society is.

Looking back at the conversation that sparked this blog, the implication was that having “lower dysphoria”, the desire to change your genitals, is what makes a person TS. But how do we know, when people desire to change their genitals, that it always means the same thing or feels the same way? Or if they don’t, might there also be multiple reasons for this?

Let’s look at how trans guys and AFAB non-binary people feel about their bodies. For a start, dysphoria is not just one thing but many strands of experience. You may feel that having a penis is part of being a man or male, and you will be incomplete/not a man without one. That it is impossible to be a man without a penis. This is an aspect of social dysphoria – a feeling created by the way society sees men and thinks about trans men. If you are surrounded by people who accept trans men fully, whether or not they have a penis, this type of dysphoria is less likely to cause you to need surgery. You may be disabled and fear how you will be treated during personal care, or fear personal care when you are older, if your genitals do not match the way you look. The experience of many trans men with their carers bears this fear out. Again, this would be resolved by feeling confident that carers will always treat you as a man no matter what is in your pants. This, too, is social dysphoria. You may fear being rejected by lovers or partners based on what your genitals look like. Again, that’s social dysphoria, and this may be lessened if you are in validating relationship.

Physical dysphoria is something different. Sometimes likened to “phantom limb syndrome” it’s the feeling that something should be there that isn’t. Or shouldn’t be there but is. This can happen with all kinds of body parts, a wiring glitch where the brain does not accurately map onto the body. So, there are people who, for instance, feel like certain body parts do not belong to them. Brains and bodies are weird and the way people experience their embodiment is diverse. So for instance, there are AFAB peeple who feel agender or woman-identified but have strong physical dysphoria, desiring male-typical anatomy.

For some, physical dysphoria is unendurable and the need for surgery is intense. For others, it can be resolved through the use of prosthetics and surgery is unnecessary. For people like myself who are dissociative or out of touch with their bodies, it may be easy to ignore or we may even be unaware of physical dysphoria, as I describe here.

There is also a third kind of dysphoria some people call internal dysphoria – neither physical nor social, it is about how the person feels inside of themself, outside of a physical or social context. Again, this varies hugely from person to person.

dysphoria diagram

Let’s not forget also that for AFAB trans people reproductive organs are more than just external genitals. Some people, like myself, feel far more physically dysphoric about our internal reproductive systems (owning a womb, having periods, hormone cycles, potential of pregnancy) than we feel about the size of our erections.

Because with or without intervention, AFAB people get erections! We have our very own erectile tissue. And when we take T, it generally grows (a bit, don’t get *too* excited). And for many of us, this growth is sufficient for our needs. Or we might be much more focused on chest reconstruction. Or just hysterectomy. And if we do decide we need more length, or want to stand to pee, there are a range of options from the very simple clitoral release, the more difficult metoidioplasty to the very complex surgery of phalloplasty. And of course, many disabled people and people without access to funded healthcare find lower surgery unavailable to them, however dysphoric they feel.

Am I defined by my gender or my sex?

I’ve written about how gender and sex are far more interconnected entities than we would like to believe. The reason transgender as a term has gained traction over transsexual is, I think, an acknowledgement of how much trans lives are affected by social gender (including birth assignment) rather than simply the shape of our genitals/size of our gametes. It’s the social consequence of our body shapes that affects us more than our bodies themselves. We are trapped in people’s perceptions of our bodies, as the saying goes.

The other reason the term transgender has gained traction is because more trans people now consider their gender to be something pre-existing a desire to transition – transition does not create us, it helps us be more comfortable. So I, for instance, feel I was trans as far back as I can remember – that my experience of gender, and the way I was treated, is not the same as the experiences of women who are my contemporaries. In other words, transition doesn’t make me trans, I just am.

But the term transsexual persists, usually meaning a trans person who alters their sexual characteristics medically. Let’s take it down to brass tacks – sexually, what am I now, with a male hormonal profile and secondary sexual characteristics, but XX chromosomes? If I can’t be described as transsexual, then how can that term carry any meaning at all?

I have so many questions about how this TG/TS distinction could possibly work in practice, and even more about why it is needed. Of course the reality is, it’s just some people preferring one term and some the other, and the terms thoroughly overlap each other.

Divide and conquer?

We know TERFs want the TS/TG distinction because they are trying to convince trans women that a special exception will be made for them if they have had all the available treatment, that they will be allowed civil rights and be partially treated as women as long as they hold the line against the rest of us gaining any rights. A classic divide and conquer tactic which alas seems to work all too well, playing into a widespread fear that non-binary rights are just going too far. But trans women already have civil rights, and these were never TERF’s to bestow. Whether or not they have surgery, they can have their gender recognised. The Equality Act 2010 defines “transsexual” as “proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.” Transitioning non-binary people are understood to be covered by this wording.

So in law, I am transsexual. In my gender doctor’s notes, I am transsexual. It’s not my favourite word, and I tend to prefer my trans umbrella to be wider rather than narrower, but if TS is to endure as a term, can we at least make it mean something that isn’t NB erasing? Because saying my transition is so fundamentally different from a trans man or woman’s transition that it needs a separate word is unbelievably othering.

What is the underlying fantasy in all this? That there are clear lines dividing transsexual from transgender, non-binary from trans men and women, and that we can pin everyone down clearly, with no bodies straying over the lines? But many “crossdressers” are “true transsexuals” waiting for the right moment to take the plunge. Many NB people have more medical intervention than people who identify as trans men or women.

Ultimately (trust me on this) when you drill down into people’s experiences, the words they claim to describe themselves are often used in unique and idiosyncratic ways, and we are all still floundering around for the right universal language. So there are people who identify as non-binary transsexuals, some others who see the word transsexual as old hat, and some who think it signifies a binary, because it was coined by people who hadn’t imagined anything more than a binary.

Who gets to decide? That’s always an interesting question. Who are the gatekeepers of any community, the holders of the keys, who get to set the terms? Personally, I believe “transsexual” will remain with us as a term. Some people like it, some loathe it, but as long as it’s alive, and used by some people to self-identify, it’s valid, and we shouldn’t be denigrating its use. Is using it a valid way of creating spaces and discussions that explicitly exclude non-binary people? No, that would be really oppressive.

Do non-binary and other trans people need to reflect whether they have relative male privilege, or whether they are comfortable enough in their assigned sex they will never need to socially or medically transition, and so are exempt from particular aspects of trans experience? Sure. I know I’ve had moments of anger when someone happily living and working as a man has taken a place on a podium speaking as a trans woman.

But we need to remember if we were to exclude those with assumed “male privilege” we might also exclude the most vulnerable of trans women and NB people. I know many trans people who are unable to access trans medical treatment because of other, pre-existing physical or mental health conditions. If you’re homeless, access to healthcare, to clothes, to shaving equipment and all the other means to present in your gender may be inaccessible, not to mention how unsafe it can be to present as trans or gender non-conforming while homeless. Other trans people are awaiting the result of asylum applications before embarking on transition because they would not be safe in their country of origin. Some are not safe to transition for economic reasons (they would lose their income, home, or other security), others are waiting for elderly parents to die, for whom they are sole carers, or for children to grow up. Or perhaps they are children themselves, with unsupportive parents. Still others are in abusive family situations where it would not be safe to come out. Some of us had to work through complex mental health issues before coming to terms with our gender.

Non-binary people have the additional hurdles of trying to live within genders not legally or socially recognised, which restricts our choices and means there is no clear transition pathway for us. Many non-binary people have publicly transitioned and are living in their gender as much as they are able yet their identity is perpetually erased and defaulted back to their birth assignment, and this is certainly not a privilege. So “living as” is not the same as “identifies as” is not the same as “perceived to be”.

Not forgetting that NHS waits are 2 years now, and everyone deals with that wait differently.

There is a variety of privilege, and a range of experience within this community. But is there a TS/TG binary? A TS/CD binary? Is there a clear dividing line between non-binary and trans man or woman? The hell there is. Life is just not that simple. We all exist on a continuum. We are who we are, all our self-identities are valid, but gross generalisations need not apply.

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12 thoughts on “Can I be non-binary and transsexual?

  1. Pax Ahimsa Gethen

    I am both agender and transsexual. Transsexual because I have physical dysphoria with my female-assigned genitals and reproductive system, and agender because I don’t link my desire to have cistypical male genitals and hormone levels with any particular clothing, mannerisms, hobbies, beliefs, or other typically gendered attributes. People often misunderstand, mock, or object to my identity, but those labels are the most accurate I’ve found to describe and define myself.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I can relate to this identification and know many others who can! I was outraged when this mod told me flat out over and over that I simply could not be NB and trans – I know so many people who earnestly identify that way.

      Reply
  2. dumbledore_dreamwalker

    This is such a difficult post to read; the fragmentation of minorities into mutually exclusive, antagonistic and discrete clans is so sad, and more likely to threaten those few rights that have been hard won. I am too old for all of this. When I was struggling with my identity, the labels that were available included only transvestite (hateful word), transsexual and gay. It was always apparent to me that human identity was more like a massive multi-dimensional spectrum than any kind of scheme resting on discrete and impermeable boxes.The re-emergence of such boxes in new guises seems to be to be wholly regressive. I am happy with non-binary, but the rest of it is both too horribly complex and, ironically, too restrictive to ring true to me. Frankly, I can’t follow all the nuances implied by the plethora of terms, and it makes me both sad and irritated. All this in-fighting can have only negative results; at the least it distracts from the essential project which, as far as I am concerned, is about people finding a space within which they may live settled and fruitful lives free from fear.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      I agree – if anything I would allow an even wider umbrella with an understanding we are together in our differences rather than in sameness. Oh for the day we can just be human.

      Reply
  3. Lesboi

    Excellent post! Personally, I don’t listen to anything TERFs have to say on this matter and I just wish we would stop bashing each other over the head with all these terms that can be interpreted in multitudes of ways.

    Reply
  4. Eleanor

    Hi Sam,
    I don’t understand all the nuances of the various terms but as always, you write with compassion and openness and I learn a little more about the world every time I read your blog. Keep writing, keep educating. Love and hugs, Eleanor xxx

    Reply
  5. rosemarylilac

    You write that the notion that NB people can’t be TS “smacks of the age-old issue of who gets to be “trans enough” and what it means not to be”. I’m with you with that criticism. I’m in favour of a variety of labels if, by using them wisely, we can distinguish between different sets of desires or experiences, and the people who have them. However, I dislike the attitude “people who have never had [specified set of experiences] are not trans enough and thus deserve disrespect”. So why do you write “A frequent complaint I hear from trans women is about happily-living-as-male crossdressers (CDs) throwing their weight around, as people with a bit of male privilege often do, without understanding the oppression and violence trans women suffer”? They’re doing what anyone may do, so why is it denounced as “throwing their weight around” when TVs/CDs do it? Why invoke “male privilege” when what defines this set of people is that they like presenting as female? Your words strike me as disrespect for TVs/CDs.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Hi, I can totally see how it comes across like that but I was thinking more intersectionally than that. This is not about being “trans enough” but we are a diverse community with diverse experience. As a non-binary person, I experience a specific set of erasures that other trans people don’t, but that doesn’t make me “more trans”. I also don’t experience the violence of transmisogyny, but that doesn’t make me “less trans”.

      And male privilege is on a continuum – I have some, despite not being a man, and people who are happy and non-dysphoric living as men also have some. And some “crossdressers” identify as cis men. I think it’s important for all trans people to realistically reflect on the amount of male privilege they do and don’t have although it’s quite a complex issue for all trans people and male privilege is so very conditional. You’ll note in the blog I went on to say how we cannot assume male privilege, though, because the situation for many non-transitioning people is far more complex and disprivileged. So for me, transition is one set of circumstances and experiences that can be both disempowering on some levels and empowering on others, and equally not transitioning is likewise easier for some and harder for others.

      In the end, it’s up to each of us to come to terms with our own complex set of interweaving experiences of both power and oppression. Which is exactly why we can’t make any judgements about who is “trans enough” based on “who has it hardest”. But we can acknowledge our differences and the individual challenges that come with each unique experience. That’s particularly true for the non-transitioning/yet to transition trans women who are having to lead a double life, for whatever reason. The psychological pressure of that in an unsupportive and erasing society is immense.

      Reply

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