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30 October 2019

Transgender Lexicons: Morgan Holleb's The A-Z of Gender and Sexuality

Transgender lexicons:

Virginia Prince
Rose White
Raven Usher
Chris Bartlett
Jack Molay
Raphael Carter
John Money – part 1: gender and transexual

Morgan Lev Edward Holleb. The A-Z of Gender and Sexuality: From Ace to Ze. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019.

Morgan Holleb is an immigrant from Colorado who did degrees at the American International University in London and at the London School of Economics, and currently lives in Glasgow. The Twitter page has the description: “yiddish (((anarchist))), bisexual non-binary trans boy”. No preferred pronoun is given up front, but if you persevere to or happen upon page 135, the entry on Gender Identity, you will find: “I transitioned because I’m drawn to queer boy culture; because after years I still get a thrill being called ‘he’; because my body feels better on testosterone”. So ‘he’ it is.

In his introduction Holleb states:
“This book will only cover English-language terms (with a few exceptions), partly to limit the scope, and mostly because as a white American author with no cultural ties outwith the Anglosphere, I am not qualified to define non-English terms, or to fully understand their contexts. However, I want to stress that other languages and cultures have rich histories and wide spectrums of gender variance and sexuality outside the cisgender heterosexuality that is prized as the ‘default’ in our culture. Many other cultures have a long history of third genders or what we might describe as transgender identities and experiences, from hijra to Two-Spirit to Onnabe. The gender binary as we understand it and its coded gender roles—including strict adherence to heterosexuality under punishment of anti-sodomy laws—were exports of European imperialism. English is a language of the colonizer and this book will implicitly reflect that.”
“I anticipate some resistance from queers who want to keep some of these terms secret. I’m not writing this to let outsiders into our safe spaces (and there will always be undergrounds within undergrounds), but for ‘new’ queers and the people who support them. I appreciate the need for safer spaces and exclusion, but if we are to dismantle straightness and cisness and their inherent oppressions, then we must also expand queerness. But if you’re straight and cis, you need to do the work of undoing your privileges! This book will help illuminate and challenge those privileges.”

Holleb, despite having said in the Introduction: “My approach to language is post-structural and descriptivist (not prescriptivist); words do not have inherent meaning signifiers of meanings and these meanings shift across time” starts the dictionary with ‘A’ as in LGBTQIA by insisting that the A is not for Ally but for Asexual, Aromantic or Agender. Obviously he would not be saying this unless some other persons did use A to mean Ally. How is he not being prescriptivist here?

While the book title says ‘Gender and Sex’, four of the first six items in the dictionary are African-American Vernacular English (with a list of which words White people are allowed to use), Ableism, Accountability and Activism. There were times when I felt that this is a dictionary of Political Correctness (in the good sense of the term).

The book has some interesting appendices.

Legislation and Government Communications

These are arranged by country. The longest entry is for the UK. It starts with the Buggery Act of 1533 and continues to the Alan Turing Act 2017 which pardoned men prosecuted under anti-gay laws, especially those in force before 1967. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 is of course there, as is Tony Blair’s 2004 Civil Partnership Act and David Cameron’s 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. But where is the Gender Recognition Act, also 2004?

Also should not Corbett v Corbett be mentioned given that it banned trans persons from legal gender changes for 35 years?

There is only one entry under Ireland. The Marriage Act of 2015. Where is the Gender Recognition Act of the same year?

How about Argentina? The Same Sex Marriage Act of 2010 is listed, but again no mention of the Ley de Género of 2012.

There is a section for the European Court of Human Rights (incorrectly claimed as an agency of the European Union – it is not, it operates under the auspices of the Council of Europe). However there is mention only of the 1981 ruling on homosexuality which led to decriminalisation in Northern Ireland. No mention at all of the various appeals to the ECHR by trans persons from Britain, France, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Malta etc.

It does seem that Holleb is far more interested in gay rights and marriage than in trans rights.

Events Referenced

A four-page timeline. The only trans items are the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, Stonewall and Trump’s ban on trans in the military. The other items are general history or gay or lesbian.

What should I mention as missing? There are so many. The 1870 trial of Stella and Fanny that established that cross-dressing was not illegal in England; the triple whammy 1928/9 of the legal trials of Radclyffe Hall, Victor Barker and Violet Morris; the Pansy Craze 1930-3; the university gender clinics in the late 1960s etc etc.

As expected from the previous Appendix, Corbett v Corbett and its repeal in the Gender Recognition Act 2004 are also not mentioned.

Groups Referenced

Many worthy groups are mentioned: Belfast Gay Liberation Society, Camp Trans, Campaign for Homosexual Equality, Daughters of Bilitis, Gay-Straight Alliance, GLF, Lesbian Avengers, Mattachine, Outrage, Scottish Minorities Group, STAR, Queer Nation. But what about: Queens Liberation Front, Press for Change, SHAFT, Transgender Nation, Tri-Ess, IFGE, Southern Comfort, FACT, l'Association des Transsexuelles du Québec, etc, etc.

Individuals Referenced

42 individuals are listed. The only trans persons are Laverne Cox, Marsha Johnson, Christine Jorgensen, Janet Mock, and Silvia Rivera. All from one country. While Holleb, during his years living in Britain, has learned about British gay notables from Oscar Wilde to Alan Turing to Bob Mellors and even tells us the names of the last two men hanged for sodomy in 1835, he either has not learned anything about British trans notables or chooses to erase them. Even April Ashley and Jan Morris and Juno Dawson are so erased.

Magnus Hirschfeld is not listed here although he is discussed, reasonably, in the Dictionary entry on Sexology. Harry Benjamin is mentioned but in a very peculiar way – only in the entry for Compton’s Cafeteria Riot: “Dr. Harry Benjamin published The Transsexual Phenomenon. He wrote that gender identity was fixed but that the body could be changed, and legitimized the use of hormone replacement therapy and gender reassignment surgery for trans women; several of the queens who frequented Compton’s saw him.”

Selected Dictionary Entries

Obviously I cannot comment on all the dictionary entries. Here are some of the more relevant.

Transracial. “Transracial people are generally adopted children who are raised by parents of a different race. … Transracial does not mean ‘someone born in the wrong race’ or someone who feels ‘dysphoric’ about their racial identity.” Except that other writers are indeed using the second definition (see Wikipedia). Of course the former is valid and more politically correct. But there are two definitions in use.

Transsexual. “A generally out of favor term for someone who is not the gender they were assigned at birth. There is an implication of medical transition (previously, and reductively, referred to as a ‘sex change’). Transgender is now the preferred term, but transsexual is still in use by older trans people who have always used it, and anyone who appreciates the confrontation of the word.”
Transsexualism. “A disease according to the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, (Tenth Revision), published by the World Health Organization.” That is the full entry, not an introductory paragraph.

So if not transsexual and transsexualism, what term does he suggest for those who have completed their journey with surgery? A term in distinction from the non-surgical has been required since it became possible in the 1920s, and continues to be needed. This requirement is emphasised by separatist factions like HBS (not mentioned at all) and Truscum, but is hardly limited to them. Holleb – in the Transsexual entry – merely suggests Transgender instead. He does not mention ‘Transsexuality’ at all – which is taken by many to remove the medical implications. ‘Trans Medical’ is also not mentioned, but has become problematic because of its association with Truscum.

Instead of Transsexualism, Holleb seems to prefer Gender Dysphoria. “Many, but not all, trans people experience physical dysphoria. Dysphoria is not a prerequisite for transness: transness is defined by not feeling unambiguously aligned with the sex you were assigned at birth. Gender dysphoria cannot be relieved through conversion therapy, and attempts to make people not-trans, through coercion or otherwise, are abusive.” However he tells us that “Gender dysphoria is a mental health disorder classified in the DSM-5, replacing gender identity disorder (GID).” He goes on to correctly distinguish Gender Dysphoria from GID, but when you look at the GID entry four pages later, it simply refers you to Gender Dysphoria.

While he writes that Transsexualism is a disease and Gender Dysphoria a mental health disorder, he releases his inner rebel in the entry on Gender Identity where he complains that “Trans people are expected to justify their gender not only with academic texts on feminism, on queer theory, on sexuality and patriarchy and performance and power, but also with psycho-medical material on hormones, surgery, depression, trauma, autism, childhood anxiety, and a catalogue of every single violence we have suffered which has “made us” trans. Fuck that. … Gender identity is personal and should not need to be explained; it’s an issue of bodily autonomy and social respect.”

The entry on Gender is good, combining ideas about social construction and as a system of oppression, and as performance and how gender signalling can fail. Yet in the middle he writes “In addition to performance, gender is an interior sense of self, aligning with or against cultural norms of gender”. And in Gender Identity he writes that it “could also be called ‘gender’. As I have written elsewhere a transgender person is one who changes aer gender to align it with aer gender identity. Otherwise ae would not be transgender. Many today conflate gender and gender identity, and this usually leads to confusion.

There is an entry for Gender Recognition, but it says nothing about the various Gender Recognition Acts – as expected from the erasure of such acts from the Legislation appendix.

In his Transgender entry, Holleb reminds us that “non-binary people feel that they aren’t trans even though they aren’t cis either”. He closes the entry with: “There is no wrong way to be trans. Some trans people have body dysphoria, some don’t; some see transness as mental illness or disability, many don’t. Medicalization is a path to legitimacy but we shouldn’t need that. While some of the language to describe ourselves is new, transgender people have always existed.”

Tranny. No mention of the ‘Transy’ variant. He sees ‘tranny’ as part of the “conflation between gender and sexuality”, not as an umbrella word for transsexual, transvestite and drag as is usually said. The honourable history of ‘tranny’ as a self-designation is erased, and most of the entry is a condemnation of non-trannys who dare to use the word. (More on Tranny)

Trans, Trans*. Holleb sees ‘Trans’ as short for ‘Transgender’ or maybe ‘Transsexual’. ‘Trans*’ he admits can ‘sometimes’ include cross-dressers and drag performers. He erases the common usage that both words are replacements that mean exactly what ‘Tranny’ used to mean.

Transvestite. Holleb says: “There is a great deal of historical overlap between cross-dressers, drag performers, LGBQ+ people, and trans people.” And then refers us to Cross-Dresser. There is no entry for Transvestism or Tranvestity.

For Holleb, cross-dressers are not transgender – cross-dressing is a gender expression, not a gender identity. He does a small bit of cross-dressing history – mainly about sex workers in the California gold rush. On the other hand the mainstream of US cross-dressing – Virginia Prince, Transvestia, FPE, Tri-Ess, IFGE etc – is totally not mentioned. As is all British cross-dressing – so no word of Charlotte Bach or the Beaumont Society or of Havelock Ellis’ Eonism.

Gender movements totally missing

There is no mention in this book of Cross-Dreaming, as explicated by Jack Molay or otherwise. I have quoted Holleb in that “non-binary people feel that they aren’t trans even though they aren’t cis either”. This is also true of Cross-Dreamers.

Other movements totally not mentioned: HBS, Tri-Ess, Transkids and other self-designated HSTS, self-designated Autogynephiles.


In the entry on Transgender, Holleb says:
“Transness is often reduced to either an illusion of choice, or the ‘born this way,’ ‘trapped in the wrong body’ narrative. Both are overly simplistic and neither is right.”

That I totally endorse.

I suspect that part of our different approaches is generational. This is a book by a Millennial, for his own generation. However that is not an excuse for leaving out chunks of our history. If you are an older person, reading this book may be useful to understand what Millennial trans persons are thinking. If you are a Millennial you may identify with the book and consider me an old fogey. However our history is what it is, and to cut out chunks of it will damage us all.

Another good book for the Millennial outlook is Juno Dawson’s The Gender Games: The Problem With Men and Women, From Someone Who Has Been Both.

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