The queer community is known for its open-mindedness and positivity. It is among the first to share sex-positive articles and body-positive memes, and to loudly shout from the rooftops that sex work is real work. Yet, this community still has its taboos—one of the most serious being questioning a person’s identity. While this violation can be made in myriad ways, the most egregious offences relate to gender. To avoid this taboo and its corresponding charges of transphobia, community members have grown indolent and complacent in conversations on gender, which is counterproductive to the interests of trans people seeking broader acceptance and understanding in society.
Trans is not a dirty word, but even in the queer community, it is certainly sticky. It has gone through plenty of changes and interpretations over the years. When watching the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), for example, viewers today still scream along with “I’m just a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania,” even though few would utter the word transsexual in any other context. This aversion is because the term is now considered transphobic, having been supplanted by transgender, which is, at least for now, deemed the proper term to describe someone who identifies with a gender different from the one associated with their biological sex.
But, what the hell is gender?
In order to properly unravel this taboo, we must first untangle the knotted threads of reproductive sex and gender. More often than not, these two disparate qualities are conflated. In some circles, this practice manifests in assertions that there are only two genders, while in others, we see it in definitions of sexual orientation that are (incorrectly) defined by gender identity. In both cases (and countless others), the term gender is misused in place of reproductive sex. This conflation serves to further blur the line separating the two concepts by suggesting they are interchangeable when, in fact, they are not. Reproductive sex is the scientific categorization of human beings (and many other animals) determined by primary and secondary sexual characteristics, whereas gender is a social construct determined by a set of highly malleable criteria that are culturally specific and constantly shifting.
Ironically, the blurring of this distinction has contributed to the perception of reproductive sex and gender as oppositional to each other in queer spaces because it is wrongly assumed that the former undermines the authenticity of the latter. Acknowledging that trans men, for example, are not biologically male is seen as threatening because it is presumed, since sex and gender are not properly differentiated, that such an admission denies their identity as men. The same presumption applies to trans women. Trans women and trans men do not experience the same bodily physicalities as reproductive females and males, respectively, just as reproductive females and males do not know the unique physical feelings of trans women and trans men. But to speak openly about these differences is anathema in the queer community because these facts are widely believed to pose a threat to the authenticity of transgender identities.
Another consequence of this tendency to avoid thinking critically or asking questions about gender has been the expansion of the word trans to envelop two very different experiences. The first is tied to gender dysphoria and encompasses two common categories used to describe trans people: male to female (MTF) and female to male (FTM). The second experience pertains to feelings of being outside or dismissive of social gender norms, which is associated with the now-ubiquitous third category: nonbinary. When someone says they are trans, they are typically referring to one of these three categories, though many perceive gender identity as a spectrum with endless possibilities. Regardless, most believe that anyone who does not identify with their assigned sex at birth is trans.
Gender dysphoria typically (though not always) occurs when a person feels incorrectly matched with their sex at birth, which is categorized as a psychological condition. Some people with gender dysphoria describe feeling like they were born in the wrong body, while others say their discontentment is with their physical body not matching how they perceive themselves, and still others explain it as feeling foreign to their own genitals. Those with gender dysphoria frequently undergo psychotherapy, which sometimes involves treatment to adapt to the body they were born in, and other times being guided through some form of transition to rectify the feelings of mismatch that often come with gender dysphoria.
Those individuals who opt to resolve their conflict with sex-reassignment surgery and hormones seek to fully transform both in presentation and anatomy. This group is most likely to claim the transsexual label, as it reflects the desire to change anatomical sex with surgery. When studying transsexualism, Ray Blanchard discovered that most people fell into one of two categories: “homosexual transsexuals” and “non-homosexual transsexuals” (who are almost always autogynephilic). Members of the latter group are sexually stimulated by the idea of themselves as a woman, which sets autogynephiles apart due to the erotic nature of their motivation. Not surprisingly, these phenomena are often left out of conversations about the trans experience because, once again, they are thought to undermine the authenticity of a person’s gender identity based on oversimplified (mis)interpretations of reproductive sex and gender.
In contrast to those with gender dysphoria, nonbinary people are more likely to feel a strong sense of themselves as outside any kind of cultural norm surrounding gender. I have always been quite androgynous myself, so this fluidity in gender expression is something I have long been partial to. I tend to laugh when I hear assertions that certain trends are specifically masculine or feminine. Blue, for example, was previously gender-coded for girls. At various points in history, men have worn wigs, donned kilts/skirts (is there actually a difference?), sported crop tops and clopped around in high heels. To put it bluntly: gender norms are bullshit! Everyone should be allowed to dress however they want and pursue whatever their passions and interests are so long as they are not harming anyone.
The trouble with these experiences being folded into each other is that they represent contradictory approaches to gender, which raises the question of whether both should be housed under the trans umbrella. If nonbinary folks are pushing to do away with the concept of binary gender altogether, where does that leave those individuals who, as the term implies, are transitioning from one side of the binary to the other? If masculine and feminine no longer apply to any one category of person, then what metaphorical boxes does one have to check in order to be a woman or man?
These questions do not have easy answers. But if asking them continues to be seen as taboo within the queer community, then we have little hope of reconciliation. One of the main goals of trans activism is to make the public more cognizant of trans issues and experiences, which can be most effectively done by embracing rather than turning away from science. We should strive for a more nuanced and rigorous understanding of reproductive sex and gender, and recognize that asking questions about them and their relationship to identity is not tantamount to challenging a person’s right to be who they are. The transphobic label (and all others like it) should be reserved for those whose actions cause real harm to the trans community, rather than someone asking nuanced questions or attempting to use science as a means of deepening understanding and moving the conversation forward.