Friday, May 25, 2012

A Few Notes on the Semantics of Transgenderism

Not so long ago Natalie Reed put up a bunch of links that included the "transgender umbrella", a diagram illustrating the relationship between various transgender sub-groups. My initial reaction was that there was something not-quite-right, at least from a theoretical standpoint, about placing all those disparate groups under the umbrella term (pardon the pun) "transgender" as some of them seemed to be constructed using mutually-incompatible theories of gender/gender identity1. It looked more like a marriage of convenience, but it was impossible to pursue that idea further without good definitions of each of the terms. Conveniently, Natalie published a transgender manual of style shortly thereafter, which provided definitions of a lot of the terms depicted in the umbrella and provided me with the opportunity to do a little more thinking on the subject. I should note at this point that what follows is far afield from what I normally write about and, as such, its entirely possible (indeed, likely even) that I'm missing some nuances, so please feel free to mentally insert "tentatively" wherever it seems necessary.

Natalie's statements to the contrary notwithstanding, wading through the definitions she provided in her style guide can be confusing. It's not clear what definitions are fundamental or where one should start in wrapping eir head around the transgender ecosystem. So, I made myself a picture showing the dependencies between key concepts2:

I love myself some pictures; they make the important bits jump out and scream at you.

Everything ultimately depends on the term "gender" which, interestingly enough, isn't defined in the style guide. It doesn't appear to be the case that "gender" should be read as synonymous with either "gender identity" or "gender expression"; the definition of "transgender" treats all three terms as conceptually distinct. In normal circumstances I wouldn't care about this omission; "gender" is a common term. But since this is specifically a discussion of gender issues its important to define the term and there are some other items in the style guide (which I'll get to in time) which make me think that the definition of "gender" at use is non-standard3.

A search through her archives via google shows that she's provided definitions of "gender" on a number of occasions:

All of which is consistent with "gender" representing poles (and perhaps intermediate positions) in the traditional male/female gender binary. But then consider the definition of "gender identity":

The inner conceptual sense of self as “man”, “woman” or other, as divorced from issues like gender expression, sexual orientation, or physiological sex. It is a subtle and abstract, but extremely powerful, sense of who you are, in terms of gender, independent of how you dress, behave, what your interests are, who you’re attracted to, etc.

This definition is what actually prompted me to venture down this particular rabbit hole. "gender identity" is explicitly dependent on the separate concept "gender", which makes sense if we assume that "gender" corresponds to the typical understanding of man/women (plus the less-traditional "other"). But... these understandings of "man", "woman", and "other" must be meaningful when "divorced from issues like gender expression, sexual orientation, or physiological sex".

And that requirement, boys and girls, is leading to a great deal of pondering on my part. What distinguishes "man" from "woman" when outward expression, physiological sex, and sexual orientation are eliminated from the mix? What would cue me, as an individual that wants to label my gender, to choose one vs. the other (or even "other")? From a purely linguistic standpoint the words "man" and "woman" must have some referent(s) (i.e. must "point" to something), but all the referents which I can think of which would non-trivially separate the two concepts fall into one of the three forbidden categories. This may be a failure of imagination on my part, or it may point to a problem with the definition; I've no assurance one way or the other at this point. My final thought is that the answer to this particular issue is tied up with the concepts of "female", "male", "man", "woman", and "other", none of which are defined in the style guide either.

Moving up the ladder of abstraction one level from gender identity brings us to the words "transsexual" and "transgender". One thing which immediately popped out at me is that, while both terms rely on a lot of the same core concepts, neither is defined in terms of the other. Which, on first glance at least, suggests that either the definitions or the umbrella diagram need changing. Anyhow, here's Natalie's definition of "transgender":

An umbrella term referring to any identity that deviates from the assumed cultural norms of gender, gender identity or gender expression.

What I find interesting about the above is that it's a negative definition; it defines transgender individuals by what they are not (they are not in conformance with cultural norms) rather than through any set of positive attributes. Two thoughts occur:

  • "Deviation" can be viewed as a boolean or as a spectrum; you can meaningfully ask both whether something deviates (a yes/no condition) and by how much (a continuous measurement). This would seem to suggest that transgender identity can be viewed in a similar light.
  • Cultural norms change with place and time, which suggests that transgender identity can as well.4

I don't know that the first point is particularly important, but the second point seems to have a lot of implications. To give a trivial example: I'm a man who has, at various points in my life, worn long hair and nail polish. In some parts of the country where I've lived (the Midwest) that would be a severe transgression of cultural norms regarding gender expression, whereas in other parts (liberal bastions on the West Coast) people don't give it a second thought. Questions: Am I a transgendered individual

  1. Period, end of sentence?
  2. While living in the Midwest?
  3. While living in the Midwest if I cut my hair an apply some nail polish remover?
  4. While living on the West Coast?


  1. I've never self-identified as a transgendered individual, and think it would do violence to the concept if I were to do so. But in order to answer the question per Natalie's definition I'd need to know how to identify the cultural norm against which I should measure myself.
  2. Wearing long hair and nail polish would be enough for people to treat me markedly differently, a sign that I was in notable non-conformance with expected gender expression. Yes, per Natalie's definition.
  3. There's no deviation in terms of gender expression, therefor no.
  4. Probably not. Long hair is certainly within the expected range of gender expression for men. Nail polish is a little more unusual and so might be considered non-conformant in a business setting, but probably wouldn't mean much in a casual setting (or if I worked at a start-up).

I don't know that the above results are meaningful on their own, but it would be interesting to compare them with the lived experience of individuals who self-identify as transgendered. Does moving from a conservative to a liberal environment (or back again) alter their self-perception/self-identification in a material fashion?

Defining "transgender" in terms of deviation seems to have some interesting knock-on effects, but it also looks like it is in at least partial conflict with things that Natalie has written elsewhere. Specifically, in The “Gender Atheist” vs. The Transgender Atheist she writes

The nature of Cathy’s attack was to go after my identification as atheist. According to Cathy, who rather pretentiously self-identifies as a “gender atheist”, it was ideologically impossible for me to be atheist at the same time as believing in the validity of a gender identity that’s independent of outward biology or socialization. She linked this rather silly, misinformed and ignorant article (which leads with the laughable claim that “we have no more evidence for gender identity than we do for God”…actually, we have PLENTY of evidence for gender identity, and it’s growing all the time), and made some weird pithy remarks like “sex is science, gender is fashion” that I suppose ring profound within her mind (a place I don’t wish to conceive). Apparently, to Brennan, ignorant, misinformed and ludicrously biased as she is, there is no POSSIBLE explanation for the existence of a non-genitally-or-socially-determined gender identity other than metaphysical claims.

It looks to me like Natalie is arguing that, in some cases at least, transgenderism has an organic root which is totally independent of cultural norms. This is an important consideration, because it could lead to a definition for "transgender" with positive attributes. And that, in turn, would fix a lot of the funny knock-on effects that I pointed out above.

Turning now to the definition of "transsexual":

Someone whose gender identity is in conflict with their assigned, physiological sex and pursues transition, on an intended permanent basis, in order to feel a greater sense of harmony and congruence with their body, presentation and social/interpersonal role. May be at any point in the process of transition.

Note that there's no explicit correlation between the criteria for transsexuality and the criteria for transgenderism; the former is contingent on a conflict between physiological sex and gender identity while the latter involves a deviation from cultural norms with respect to gender identity. Does conflict between gender identity and physiological sex necessarily imply a deviation from cultural norms with respect to gender identity? That would depend on the norm, the content of which is not immediately obvious. If it is something simple like "men should feel like men, women should feel like women", then the mental state of conflict between physiological sex and gender identity would be a deviation therefrom. However, if the norm is more complex it would not necessarily be the case that conflict, by itself, would be insufficient to constitute deviation from the norm.

Incidentally, is there a specific term for someone who experiences this sort of conflict and declines to transition? Or are they simply "transgendered"?

So is there a point to all of this, or is it merely an exercise in definitional nit-picking? One thought which has occurred to me in the past, and that has been reinforced both by reading Natalie's posts and the exercise above, is that trans* identity is very slippery. Quoth Natalie:

As a general rule, go with pronouns consistent with someone’s presented gender. Remember that presented gender has fuck all to do with passing. If they are presenting as female, regardless of whether or not you think they look like a “real” woman, you use “she” and “her”. If they are presenting as male, you use “he”, “him” and “his”.

The trans community (and their non-trans supporters) have, in a laudable effort to be as inclusive as possible, defined membership in that community very broadly. It seems that very often the only criteria for membership is self-identification; a person is trans if they say they are. As a result, some fraction of the instances of non-acceptance of transgendered individuals is attributable not to transphobia5, but rather to disagreements revolving around the meanings of labels.

Consider, for example, the "cotton ceiling" or, more generally, non-acceptance of trans women in groups that have traditionally been composed of physiologic women. For the record, here's the definition of "trans woman":

The preferred noun for a male-to-female transsexual person, regardless of the point at which she is in her transition, or what decisions she made about the precise nature of her transition.

What does the label "trans woman" tell us about any particular individual? Not an awful lot. We know that they experience some sort of a conflict between their (male) physiological sex and gender identity and that they have taken on (or intend to take on) some of the physical/behavioral/social traits traditionally associated with being a "woman". If I'm physiologic woman, and I'm a member of one of these aforementioned groups, this label tells me much less (possibly nothing substantive at all) about a person's values, experiences, beliefs, concerns, etc. in comparison to a cisgendered woman. I need more information in order for me to decide whether such a person is appropriate for inclusion into a particular group based on congruence between that person's goals/concerns/etc. and the group's goals/concerns/etc. This, in turn, leads to a desire to impose gradations on "womanhood"6 and dickering about who counts as a "real" woman. None of which is driven by an irrational, emotional response to transgenderism but rather by a (legitimate, IMHO) desire to vet intimate associations.

1 Which I'm not actually going to get around to analyzing in this post. Instead I'll just note my observation briefly: Many of the categories of transgender individuals are constructed on top of a male/female gender binary. However, some of the categories listed on the umbrella diagram, such as "genderqueer" or anyone with a gender identity of "other", seem to be fundamentally incompatible with a male/female binary. The general group "transgender" may be theoretically incoherent because it contains mutually-incompatible groups, hence my comment about the umbrella representing a "marriage of convenience".
2 A couple of assumptions vis-a-vis terminology which went into constructing the diagram: "sex" = "physiological sex" and "presentation" = "gender presentation". 3 Not wrong, but different than any of the definitions you might find at
4 I was originally going to title this post "The perfect world will have no transgender individuals" but decided that it would be a bit too inflammatory. The root observation remains: As society becomes more liberal the scope of behavior that is "within the norm" widens. In a perfectly accepting world we'd be happy for people to be people and there wouldn't be much in the way of norms for people to transgress, ergo no more transgender individuals.
5 As a side note I think that Natalie's definition of "transphobia" needs refinement. "Ridicule" is a broad term that can include rational criticism, presumably not a "phobic" reaction. For example, I may ridicule a religious institution without being driven by fear and/or bigotry.
6 Which, though the trans community seems to be loath to consider it, may actually be appropriate. Gender is a spectrum and, per the discussion above, transgender identity may be as well, in which case talking about degrees of "womanhood" falls naturally out of the definitions which Natalie has provided.


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