Transgender Studies: Basics

Okay, oh gosh. How can I possibly sum up in a blog post my second day of transgender studies. It was a brisk Tuesday morning and ten minutes into lecture my hand was black with ink and starting to cramp. My neighboring partner was communicating to me with words but it was sort of like when you have a conversation for the first time in a new language. I could hear them. I could hear what they were saying. But I could not do a damn thing other than nod and smile to confirm I comprehended. 

That’s what I wrote on my ‘what challenges will you have?’ pamphlet. Struggles turning written thought into vocalized opinion at a pace that is acceptable for in-class dialogue. In reality, a photo of me looking really panicked would have been more accurate.

Here are the basics from my notes, presented as straight forward as I could manage – questions welcome, corrections or personal experience definitely welcome.

Whats the deal with transgender and transsexual?

The line is a little wiggly. Someone who is transgender may focus more on the identity aspect – things like behavior and expression. Things that make gender categorizable in the first place. Transsexual has more of an air of the anatomical to it, and might emphasize that someone is going forth into surgery or hormones.

It is problematic because it kind of asserts that there might be a hierarchy. Depending on who you talk to, that hierarchy might look different. For some, those who use hormones are more transgressive because they are using what is available to be how they already feel they’ve been the whole time. For others, those who don’t use hormones are more transgressive, because they are saying this is how it is, don’t cram me in your binary. Experiences vary, and with a quickly changing language around trans issues, what is considered transgressive is also subject to change.

Transgender or transgendered?

You’ll want to say ‘transgender’ because transgendered implies that someone has been changed or influenced or ‘verbed’ into something new. The idea is that you are transgender. It’s not something you’ve become.

A great example of language brought up:

Not as good: I was female at birth but now I identify as a man.

Better: I was misidentified as female at birth, I am a man.

There is a lot of difficult language here like ‘queering’ or ‘gendering’ and so it becomes easy to think that transgendered might fall into acceptable language. An alternative was ‘transing/transed’ a more active language that I haven’t heard before.

Some people didn’t like the language of trans at all and wanted, simply, to identify as either a man or a woman, not a trans man or trans woman. Which leads pretty well into the next point.

Trans is not one thing – trans is a spectrum! 

Like everything else in gender and sexuality, no two experiences are the same. Trans does not mean one thing. It’s a range of experiences on a spectrum, with different intersectionalities of privilege.

For instance someone could be transfeminine, assigned male at birth (or misassigned, as it were) but dress themselves in a way that is more masculine. If it all seems very confusing it’s a good time to stop and reflect on why we try so hard to make sense of it in the first place. There’s no easy way to cram the complexities of human experience into two simple boxes of boys do this and girls do that. We already know that its impossibly wrong, even if we aren’t thinking specifically about transgender studies.

I hope I presented some of those ideas in ways that were easy to understand and I hope they soaked up the spirit of the discussion I was a part of.

As a final note, one thing thats important to remember when someone (like myself, for instance) is writing about something they have no experience with is privilege. To be aware of how your language sounds and to know where you’re coming from. An example of that would be not saying things like “well I know a bunch of people who are trans and all those people _____ so I think I know a little something because ____.” Thats why I feel like I can only offer so much of what I learn. A lot of its just not mine to share.


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