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12 September 2011

Cross-Gender, Transgender, concepts and usages: part 1

Part 1: Introduction: the meanings of Transgender 

Part 1: Introduction: the meanings of Transgender

There have been a variety of disputes about the word ‘transgender’, when it was first used, by whom etc. I have gathered here various quotes and usages from different sources, and arranged them as well as possible by chronology. The first problem is that there is no single usage of the word. I identify five major usages, and there are others (see Ekins and King: The Transgender Phenomenon). A second problem is that while the word ‘transgender’ was often used before 1990, the five concepts that it signifies were being expressed by other terms. So we must track the concepts as well as the word. The third problem is the much repeated misinformation about Virginia Prince and the word.

It is unfortunate that so many writers have repeated the canard that that one person coined the term. Almost nobody who repeats the canard actually cites or quotes what Prince is supposed to have said, and no-one demonstrates any influence before Docter’s 1988 book and the concurrent founding of IFGE. Very few of the quoted usages can be traced to the influence of that one person, and almost none of the claims that she coined the word cite where she is supposed to have done so, and - this is especially bad - none of them consider the usages by earlier writers. There has been a strange alliance, between her followers, lazy academics and the trans separatists who abhor her, to act as if Prince owns the word. If she had followed up her one-off usage of ‘trangenderal’ in 1969, there might be a case for her. But she did not. By 1978, the words ‘transgender’ and ‘transgenderist’ had been used by several people who had no interaction with her or with each other, and certainly were not using it in her sense. It seems very likely that her 1978 usage was copied from Ariadne Kane. Again she used it only three times, each quite minor, and then dropped it again. She never used it in her books.

We will return to this myth in Part 4.

The five meanings of ‘transgender:

There are at least five meanings of ‘transgender’ in common use. Once the concept of gender evolved and the word ‘gender’ returned to the English language, at first with the existentialism of Simone de Beauvoir in the fifties, then in the restricted usage of John Money in the 1960s, and then in the more powerful usage of the Feminist movement, it was probably inevitable that many people quite independently, would coin ‘transgender’, ‘transgendered’, ‘transgenderist’ - but only one person ever used ‘transgenderal’.

As there is no one source for the word, and, unlike French and German, we have no language academy to guide the growth of our language, it is not surprising that ‘transgender’ has several quite distinct meanings.

  1. To change gender full time, but without surgery. Unlike transsexuality which cannot exist without modern technology, there have been non-surgical trans persons for thousands of years. Cis society has tried to contain trans persons either by repression or by containing them into either religious cults (e.g. the galli) or third gender roles (e.g. hijra, kathoey, two-spirit) but there have always been other trans persons, some of whom were outed at death, and others that we know about when they were arrested. These people are referred to in modern books as female husbands, passing women, travesties etc. More often than not they referred to themselves as a man-woman ( or woman-man), androgyne ( which is man-woman in Greek) or some such. The 20th century social constructions were of course not available to them. In the 20th century these people were often referred to as ‘transvestites’ for lack of a better word. Harry Benjamin defined a type IV which he called ‘non-surgical transsexual’. He had probably met many such persons, but the one who stands out is Louise Lawrence. In France at the same time, Marie André Schwidenhammer was an early activist for trans rights. Later examples of non-surgical trans persons are Leslie Feinberg, Max Wolf Valerio, Sylvia Rivera, Jayne County, Charlotte Bach, Vladimir Luxuria. The majority who proceed today without surgery are trans men, because of the higher cost and less satisfactory results of surgery.
  2. As a synonym of transsexual, e.g. in the expression ‘transgender surgery’ (which turns out to be an early usage). Many transsexuals feel that transsexuality is not a sexual orientation; it is not a third option to heterosexuality and homosexuality, that it is more a matter of gender. Kim Stuart and Christine Jorgensen were among the first to use ‘transgender’ in this way.
  3. Rejection of the gender binary has a definite history back to 1969, and was articulated by Gay Lib, the Gazoline movement, Transsexual Menace, etc, and a less articulate history back to at least the Mollies in the 18th century. The term ‘transgender’ was proposed for this aesthetic by Holly Boswell in 1991, and it encompasses the gender queer, the street queens etc. Prominent examples of persons with this attitude are Sylvia Rivera, Angie Xtravaganza, Chloe Dzubilo, Julian Hows. These people were generally rejected both by gays concerned to be gender normative and by such as Virginia Prince and Susan Huxford with their false-consciousness concepts of respectability.
  4. At least as far back as Magnus Hirschfeld there has been a need for an umbrella term for all who do not conform to the expectations of their birth gender, whether permanently or temporarily. Harry Benjamin designed a scale that acts as an umbrella. Other people used terms such as ‘cross-gender’ and ‘TV-TS’. Leslie Feinberg proposed the term ‘transgender’ as an umbrella term in 1992, and it has been generally accepted since.
  5. As a rejection of the medical pathologization implicit in ‘transsexualism’ and ‘gender dysphoria’. As an articulated usage, this is associated with queer theory, but the implicit attitude goes back to the early days of Gay Lib when the philosophy was that it is not the individual was is sick but homophobic/transphobic society that is sick. And of course that was almost the title of a 1971 film by Rosa von Praunheim. Some of the anti-transgender people, especially those who identity with HBS, actually affirm themselves as having a medical condition.
Those who maintain that Prince somehow owns the word ‘transgender’ ignore the fact that in almost all its meanings she cannot be cited, and she almost never used the word in its rich range of meanings. As the word has at least five meanings, and the strongest claim is for a weak form of only one of them, obviously she did not coin it, and does not own it.

Furthermore she insisted that most transgender persons not be permitted in the groups that she organized. Thus she was transgenderphobic. She was explicitly transgenderphobic in meanings 2, 3 and 4, and even in meaning 1 she was transgenderphobic, especially where the person was a trans man or an androphilic trans woman, but also in not identifying with the millennia-old, cross-cultural phenomena of trans person. Phaedra Kelly specifically rejected the Prince-inspired Beaumont Society for the same lack of interest. Vern Bullough, who spent much time with Prince and her ilk, proposed that heterosexual crossdressers are a late 19th century social construction and by implication have little connection with the ancient condition of being transgender.

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