This year’s brouhaha courtesy of Pantheacon (or, as I call it: Dianics vs Transies1 2: Electric Boogaloo) reminded me exactly how ignorant a lot of pagans and polytheists are about TS/TG issues, even though we’re E~V~E~Y~W~H~E~R~E!!!! O~o~O~oO~o~h!!!!
No, serious. Trans people? Yeah, we’re pretty much everywhere. Even in the pagan community. Can’t escape us, so do yourself a favour and try to learn something.
Ruadhán, first off: What are all these WORDS? I’m confused by new words! What does it all mean!?!?
Sex: For the purposes of this article, I’m sticking with the biological definition of “sex”, which is simply how one’s reproductive potential is described. There are two primary sexes, male and female, and than there are various Intersex (IS) conditions which often result in the person being reproductively sterile, but the latest science suggests that being IS and being reproductively sterile do not go hand-in-hand 100% of the time.
Gender: For the purposes of this article, “gender” will relate purely to the social concept. Amongst human beings, there are two primary gender categories, “male” (man, boy, sage, guy, gentleman, bro, fag, etc…) and “female” (woman, girl, crone, gal, lady, chick, dyke, etc…), but historically there has been, in some cultures there still is, and in Western culture there emerges a reclaiming of “third sex” gender identities.
Transgender: generally accepted as an umbrella term more than an identity; can encompass transsexuals, “two spirit” or “third sex” identities, lifestyle transvestite or cross-dressers, fem men, butch women, gender-queer identities, and so on, and (though rarely) drag royalty
Transsexual: typically, one who makes medical (often including surgical) and legal steps toward living as a gender “opposite” what they were assigned as birth
Cisgender: the Latin prefix “cis-” means “on the same side of” with trans meaning “on the opposite side o”, such as Cisalpine and Transylvania, and this has been adopted into chemistry. Basically, if you’re a big enough nerd, you already have figured out what this means. If you’re a pagan of the branch and leaf rather than the library and museum, basically cisgender means men who were assigned a male gender at birth, and women who were assigned a female gender at birth. A related term (likely coined by Julia Serrano, author of Whipping Girl) is “cissexual”; cissexual basically means “not transsexual”, and can be useful to transsexual (or non-TS) individuals who may also fall under the “transgender” umbrella for reasons unrelated to a medical gender transition. In practise, “cisgender” and its derivatives is really no more offensive than “heterosexual” when used as a comparative term to “bisexual” or “homosexual”. The reason for “cisgender” in relation to “transgender” is to signify that all are “normal” and “real” variants of human existence.
DFAB / DMAB: acronyms for “designated female at birth” and “designated male at birth”, respectively. Mix-and-match with “women” or “men” as nifty synonyms for “cis-” and “trans-”. [2012-08-19; 03.01: I changed this from AFAB/AMAB/"assigned..." because of the nuanced differenced between "assigned" and "designated". "Billy was assigned homework by his English teacher." "There are eight designated holidays in the wheel of the year." A designation is something indicated by observation; something that is assigned is given out by another. Trans people who lack an IS history are thus typically designated to be female or male.]
AMAB/ AFAB: “assigned…”, similar to DFAB/DMAB, but more specific of many IS personal histories.
Genderqueer: One of the latest and most-used monikers for a “third sex” identity. Mostly used by DFAB persons, in the experience of the author (who is going to leave his personal opinions about this fact out of this article). Third sex identities exist throughout history and even the modern world, though some modern TS individuals believe that a third sex identity was often a concession to the lacking medical technology that could allow one to live more-completely as a woman or man, there are some Roman accounts of DFAB men who seemed to be living as men rather than as an DFAB equivalent to the Gallae. India’s hijra caste is sometimes described as a “third sex” gender identity. In short, genderqueer and any other third sex (or similar) identity may be best described as saying that neither “male” nor “female” genders suit these people adequately.
Bigender, pangender, androgyne, etc…: These terms are often-enough considered distinct from “third gender” in that they’re usually less along the lines of: “Are you a boy or a girl?” and them saying “neither” and more like “Are you a boy or a girl?” and them saying “both (and then some)”. A lot of these words have distinct nuances, though, so it’s best to inform oneself about how these vary; for example: “Androgyne” is a compound word from the ancient Greek for “man” (andros) and “woman” (gynos), and as a gender identity tends to imply a constant blending of masculine and feminine traits; “bigender”, on the other hand, usually implies a fluid, sort of yo-yoing relationship between “man” and “woman” (or perhaps even a non-binary gender).
Intersex: Basically, this is the currently accepted medical and sociological term for people, though for centuries in English “hermaphrodite” was considered perfectly acceptable. There are over a dozen different IS conditions that I can think of off the top of my head. Throughout the 20th Century, it was common practise to surgically “correct” infants with apparent IS conditions, including the vague non-condition of “ambiguous genitalia”, which doesn’t always accompany an established syndrome, and may simply be a result of the external genitalia not completely forming in utero. Because it was a simpler procedure, an overwhelming majority of IS children were “corrected” into a female appearance, even if the child’s chromosomes were more-typical of males, and often children would not find out that these procedures were performed on them until they were adults and attempted to conceive children, if they were ever told at all. A common IS condition for those with a physiology typical of females is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which typically is not apparent until failure to menstruate is apparent, and you would likely never guess that a woman with AIS has it. The most-common IS condition is Kleinfelter’s syndrome, commonly known as “XXY males”, persons with Kleinfelter’s have a typically “male” physiology at birth, and like AIS women, tend to develop normally until puberty; like with AIS women, you’d probably never guess a person with Kleinfelter’s had it, to look at them. Some IS persons transition to the gender opposite what they were assigned at birth, while many are relatively content with their assigned genders; some IS persons also identify with a Third Sex gender, but it’s presumptuous and inaccurate to assume that all do.
Other good phrases to know:
Gender roles: these are roles, sometimes historical, sometimes modern, that are considered to be largely only appropriate for one gender or another —like women as home-makers and men as soldiers. Gender roles can change with time, and what is and is not considered “appropriate” for one gender or another may vary between culture and class; most societies maintain an “ideal” for men and (especially) for women that is placed firmly in that society’s middle class.
Gender expression: Historically, this has been in accordance to one’s gendered role, but in modern Western societies, how one expresses one’s gender through clothes, hair cut and style, make-up, mannerisms, and so forth, is becoming more and more independent of one’s gender role. Expression is often described with the terms “fem” or “effeminate”, “butch” or “masculine”, and “androgynous”, but other terms may exist or be better suited for one person or another.
Sexual orientation: These are words like “heterosexual”, “bisexual”, “pansexual”, “homosexual” and “asexual”. In layman’s terms, think of sexual orientation as the clinical side of sexual attraction and what kinds of people set off one’s neural bits to makes one’s naughty bits all a-tingly. “Pansexual” is a term similar to bisexual, but which denotes that one is openly attracted to persons both in and outside traditional gender binaries. Other terms like “androphillia” and “gynaephillia”, “phallophillia” and “kolpophillia” are apparently more-recent and may denote one who is attracted to men or women, regardless of genitals, or one who is primarily sexually interested in a person’s particular apparent genitals ragardless of gender, respectively.
Sexual identity: Sexual identity is how one chooses to identify their sex life, regardless of whether or not they may technically count as (as is often the case) “heterosexual”, or to describe a certain nuance or preference to their sexual orientation. A lot of gay men and Sapphic women may technically have bisexual orientation, but may choose to identify with terms that imply homosexuality for various reasons, including a strong preference toward their own gender or simply finding it easier to get along in a society that often denies bisexuality exists. Please Note: The sexual identity of “straight” is a homophobic term borrowed from early 20th Century drug and criminal sub-cultures that easily permeated queer society, as such was a time when homosexuality was typically criminalised in Western society. For decades before it earned its seemingly now-ubiquitous implications of “heterosexual”, “going straight” meant to give up a self-destructive lifestyle of drugs/alcohol addiction or petty crime. Some of evidence of this crime-and-drug culture usage still exists, such as “scared straight” programs (where the goal is not to convince inner-city youth to be heterosexual) and the “straight edge” punk subculture (which is not celebrated amongst its adherents as offering kids a queer-free alternative to enjoying concerts). During some points of the 20th Century, and in some places still, the term “bent” was common slang for “gay”, as it’s “the opposite of straight”, and in the 1997 Belgian film, Ma vie en Rose, a TG child and their family are tormented by neighbours with the term “bent”, and at one point, the child’s father demonstrates (through anger and frustration) the homophobia of “bent” as opposed to “straight” by breaking a ruler and shouting “THAT’s bent“. To identify one’s sexuality as “straight” is to basically say “my sexuality is normal, yours is criminal”, and it is an act of homophobia.
A note on potentially offensive terms:
Shemale: The term was coined in the 19th century as a word for any-one who crossed gender lines, including butch lesbians and fem gays. In the 1920s, “she-male” was common slang for feminists and other non-conforming women. For some reason, though, when an apparent “industry” for trans women in porn became apparent in the early 1980s, possibly even earlier, the word “shemale” caught on with that industry, and transphobe extraordinaire, Janice Raymond, used “She-Male” in the title of her thesis (advised by Mary Daly), later published as a book, The Transexual Empire: The making of the She-Male. Due largely to its associations with the porn industry and other sex work, and in no small part helped by its use by Raymond, trans women overwhelmingly hate this word.
Tranny (or “Transie”, I guess): Again, this seems to be one disliked due to its proliferation in the porn industry. Also, on websites like Awful Plastic Surgery, it’s used as a slur against ostensibly cisgender women to imply that they look like “fake women” or even “like men”, so the connotation when used regarding trans women seems to carry the same notes.
“MtFs” and “FtMs”, as if that’s a gender: To many trans women and trans men, respectively, this is othering, meaning we are “notwomen” and “notmen”. Though there are contextually appropriate usages of “FtM” or “MtF” —such as talk of spectra that includes transsexual and A(M/F)AB-Third Sex folk who express themselves similarly, or when speaking of medical procedures, including surgeries— it’s generally considered ungendering to refer to a person’s gender by these acronyms.
Hermaphrodite: In general, this is no longer widely used in reference to people. It should be noted, though, that the author of this article has personally met some IS and 3rdS individuals who have reclaimed the “hermaphrodite” identity as a sacred archetype of polytheistic/pagan religion. This generally seems to be a more-acceptable word in the pagan community, where it’s acknowledged as a word derived from the god Hermaphroditos, and not necessarily a pejorative term for IS persons.
“Women-born women”: This is a term coined by second-wave feminists as a sneaky way of basically telling trans women that their entire lived experience is not that of a woman, no matter how much a trans woman has internalised every single societal message designed “for women”, and ho matter how much empirical scientific evidence can be produced in a trans woman’s favour. The statement of this term is “I was born a woman, you only know a cheap imitation of what womanhood is really like.” As with the sexual identity of “straight”, I’m sure there are many people who use this term and intend no malice with it simply because it never occurs to them that it’s a malicious term —that says more about the inherent transphobia of the society than it says about well-meaning people who just don’t know any better. That said, now that I’ve explained it, I hope you stop saying it (if you ever did).
“Genetic women/men” and “biological women/men”: This is considered “offensive” by many TS/TG and especially IS people for the simple fact that the latest science suggests that biological sex is actually a complex series of traits and what biologists thought was understood about it is revealed to be more and more complex, the more studies are done. As stated above, “biological sex” is simply one’s reproductive potential; while this is often assumed mere seconds after a child is born, there are plenty of conditions that don’t become apparent until later in life, and that’s assuming a person gains knowledge of that condition at all. There are people with Kleinfelter’s syndrome who are biological fathers (I’ve personally met one such person) and a small number of women with Turner’s syndrome have managed to conceive, in spite of the fact that by chromosomal analysis alone, such people may be categorised for purely clinical purposes as neither “male” nor “female” in the strictest definitions devised over a century ago. The current science now agrees that there are variances in chromosomes, physiology, and other factors that have no adverse effect on a person’s reproductive potential. The latest science also suggests that in spite of apparent genetics, TS people do, in fact, have a brain more-typical of the genders we say we do (please note: article is not without language that might seem problematic to some-one unfamiliar with scientific jargon); again, to say that this is even the ultimate defining factor in a person’s gender (though it is probably the most persuasive one) is essentialist and problematic, but it’s still empirical evidence that TS women and men are, on some concrete biological level, women and men, and if our genes didn’t do this, then what did?
Several of the above “potentially offensive” terms are things I’ve seen on rare occasion “reclaimed” or simply used as identities for individuals. If an individual person tells you to call them “shemale” or “FTM”, that’s generally OK, as long as you keep it to that individual. As a rule, though, when they’re not in the room and you’re relaying a story or something to people who do not or may not know this person, it’s best to anonymise the story and refer to them by the general terms.
A note on drag royalty:
Drag Kings and Drag Queens are generally not TS/TG toward the genders they portray, though some may be “widest-net TG” in day-to-day life, meaning they live as effete men and butch women and probably don’t consider themselves TG. While there has been a handful of trans women throughout the 20th Century and early 21st who performed as drag queens prior to transitioning, some who may still do so (like Sonique Love, from season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race), this is not the standard. I guarantee you, at least 99/100 drag queens do not live in women’s clothes, nor do 99/100 drag kings identify as men. Think of drag as “character acting” or “performance art”, if that makes it easier for you to grasp; even that one drag queen in a hundred who you later learn is a trans woman has a different “on stage” persona from her off-stage life.
A note on tranny-chasers:
I can never get a straight story on exactly how this term came about, but long story short, it gained popularity in the trans women’s community as a warning to others that some-one, usually a cis man, was a creeper who was only interested in “women with penises”, didn’t care about their partner’s needs and stability, and was probably emotionally abusive, to boot. Trans men are using this term more and more to refer to women who typically self-identify as lesbians, but are simply gaga for us “vag boys”, maybe will even humour us with male pronouns and gender descriptive, but ultimately want to parade us around as some “New and Improved Butch+ 3000″ trophy partner, and not give a damn about actual identity. The tranny chaser tends to get off on transphobic tropes, is obsessed with how a trans person dresses, and so on. In other words, you really don’t want to be a tranny chaser.
That said, sometimes people are simply oriented toward certain genital configurations on an attractive person, or just doesn’t care if their partner is trans. At that point, it’s all about how you carry that, which is harder to describe, and is in my best interest (as a man of TS history) not to describe, as it could make it easier for chasers to mimic. Basically, if you’re clearly interested in the person, and not fetishising the genitals, that will become evident.
Things it is generally OK to assume:
* Knowledge of this person’s TS/TG history and/or status does not put you at liberty to tell others.
* If some-one tells you they are a trans woman, then female pronouns are best; if some-one tells you they are a trans men, then male pronouns are best; is some-one tells you they are of a GQ/3rdS identity, ask what pronouns they prefer, because in spite of the fact that English already had “A / au” as gender-neutral pronouns, and “singular they” has been acceptable since Shakespeare, there are maybe half a dozen gender-neutral pronoun combinations duking it out.
* If some one tells you they are a trans woman and same-sex oriented, they are interested in other women (likely both cis and trans); if some-one tells you they are a trans man and same-sex oriented, they are interested in other men (likely both cis and trans).
* Saying you’re a “tranny chaser” is creepy. No, really, most trans people don’t care who does it, it’s creepy.
* Being cisgender is a state of privilege; being transgender is a state of being marginalised.
Things you probably shouldn’t assume, because they’re rarely true:
“Trans men know what it’s like to be an oppressed wombynne, firsthand! They are kinder, gentler, feminist men who don’t say busted and sexist things!”
—er, no. I’m brain-farting on his name, but there’s even a case of a trans man who’s a rapist (though, if memory serves me, he fled the United $tates to avoid trial, and it was thrown out of court shortly after). The reason a lot of trans men turn out to be sexist pigs, or just plain ignorant of the societal messages women typically internalise is because we don’t process anything about “what women are supposed to do / think / say / etc…” as messages for us, and instead we internalise some variation of what society expects of men, and how men are supposed to think, act, play, etc….
“Trans women experience male privilege.”
—if she assimilates into society as a woman well, then people tend to assume she’s a woman, and so have no reason to extend her male privilege; if her gender is still often read as “old man in dress and wig”, she’s going to be treated like a freak, ostracised, and systematically denied the privileges afforded to those accepted by the society as gender-conforming males. Similar to how trans men typically don’t internalise social programming intended “for women”, yadda yadda yadda, trans women tend to internalise some form of what society expects of women, and generally ignore what society expects of men as something for other people, even from a very young age. Also, in all seriousness, if you find yourself in a convo with a trans woman asserting herself, ask yourself: “if she were cis, would I think she’s simply being ‘cool and B.I.T.C.H.2-y’, or would I accuse her of ‘acting on male entitlement’?” Because, really, it’s overwhelmingly common for cis women to applaud the same kind of pointed assertive B.I.T.C.H.-iness in cis women that will get trans women accused of “displaying clear male privilege”.
Things you should never ask a transsexual (if you want to remain in kind regard):
“What’s your old / birth / real name?” — especially that last one. As many pagans know, do to either path, teaching, or just something they read along the way, words, especially names, have power. If a TS person voluntarily offers to let you know, thank them, but DO NOT, under ANY circumstances assume it is okie-kosher to tell other people. If you were told, explicitly in confidence or not, then you are probably assumed to be trustworthy. DO NOT assume that because you know that others know, then this means so-and-so trans person doesn’t care who knows what their name used to be.
“Have you had ‘the surgery’?” — Contextually, this might be appropriate if you and said trans person are moments away from jumping into bed for naked fun times, if that’s the case, then it seems fair as you may just want to know what you’ll be dealing with “down there”, but chances are good that if you’re in that position to begin with, then you probably knew before then. On the other hand, if you just learned this person is TS (as is often the case when this question gets asked), what makes you think it’s any of your business what their genitals look like? If you are a man and the trans person is a woman, you may be assumed to be a tranny chaser. In every other case, you’ll probably be thought of as obnoxious.
1: Normally, I would not use this or similar, but a) for the sake of brevity, when compared to the extra syllable and pause of “trans women”, and b) for the reference hilarity. If you go back up to where you left off to read this footnote, you’ll eventually stumble upon an explanation on WHY such words as this are typically inappropriate.
2: B.I.T.C.H. = Babe In Total Control of Herself; Thank you, Latrice Royale.
Last edited on 6 March 2012 @13.10 (added: “Other Good Phrases to Know” and “Offensive terminology > women-born women”) —I will continue to edit and add stuff as either it occurs to me, or people suggest it.