Either/Or: Discourse of "Trans-"

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Sex and Gender

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Either/Or: Discourse of "Trans-"

Amy Phillips

When thinking about trans issues, it can be really confusing. What does it mean to be trans? Who is considered trans? Does it have to do with sex? With gender? With clothing? With body parts? The questions can keep on going and going. As with all minority issues, it is best to go to those who are a part of this group. As we listen to their views and insights, we can begin to develop our own.

In my own ignorance, I originally posited the position that "transsexuals who conform to their new gender's stereotypical roles working within the discourse, rather than working against it. Even though they do not conform to their biological sex's gender, they do conform to one of the two genders, thus upholding the dichotomy" (My introduction). After delving into Trans Liberation by Leslie Feinberg, I'm beginning to understand that there is much more to the discourse of trans than such a simple picture. To put the question of transsexuality as a matter of either opposition to or cooperation with the status quo denies the reality of transsexuals as people who just want to be how they feel. Yes, transsexuality messes with the status quo by flipping biological sex and gender on its head and it can reinforce gender roles by transsexuals imitating the archetype of "woman" and "man". However, we cannot get so involved in discourse theory forget to let reality inform that theory.

Now I'd like to go back to some of the questions and pose some more to try to figure out how to shape my thinking about trans issues. First of all, I'd like to discuss the words themselves, because discourse is dependant on language. Transgender and transsexual; half of these two words are the same, and we hope that that makes them similar. Unfortunately it is not that simple. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the prefix "trans-" as: "1 : on or to the other side of : across : beyond 2 a : beyond (a specified chemical element) in the periodic table 3 : through 4 : so or such as to change or transfer." I believe that different people use the different definitions of "trans-" to understand the meanings of transsexuals and transgenderists in different ways. One colloquial meaning of "trans-" in transsexual is the fourth definition: "so or such as to change or transfer." In this we see transsexuality merely as a switch from one sex to another. But if we consider the possibility of the other definitions, especially the first "on or to the other side of : across : beyond." Could that mean that transsexuals are beyond sex? Does this place them outside the discourse of sex? And then the question that begs to be asked is can we use these definitions in the same way for transgenderism? Do the largely contested definitions of sex and gender preclude this comparison?

Bornstein defines gender as "categorization. Anything that categorizes people is gender, whether it's appearance or mannerisms, biology or psychology, hormones, roles, genitals, whatever...so where does that leave sex? Sex is fucking" (My Gender Workbook, p 26). Califia argues that Bornstein's approach to biological sex is extreme, as she "dismisses the physiological and genetic realities that really do divide most of the human race into two very different groups of people" (Sex Changes, 247). Califia does not believe that biology holds no relevance as Bornstein does, but rather that biology is not destiny. I myself cannot deny the compelling evidence that demonstrates differences between males and females, but am starting to see biological sex as more of a social construction closer to Bornstein's theory than Califia's. If we set the discourse of gender, why would we not also set the discourse of sex?

So do we use different definitions of "trans-" for "transsexual" and "transgender?" Colloquially, I observe that "transsexual" is more of "transfer" and "transgender" is more "beyond." Do these attached meanings have significance regarding the nature of sex and gender? To the mainstream, both are seen as firm, but in theory, gender is possibly more malleable than sex. Even though we no longer hold biology as destiny, we still see it as more definite. We are either male or female, end of story. Well, obviously it isn't the end of the story otherwise this paper wouldn't exist. Still, we can see biological sex as a certainty, because of only two possible expressions. Obviously this evaluation leaves out intersexuals, but if we allow ourselves to see them as exceptions, we can ignore them (I say this tongue in cheek). It's as if for transsexuals we see them jumping from the male pool to the female pool (or vice versa) without being able to be out of the water. Gender on the other hand has many expressions. There are many ways nowadays to be a man or a woman, and still be within the bounds of masculinity and femininity. Therefore, it would make sense for a person to be able to float around in gender and even get out of the pool without having to jump into another one.

I think that much of the problem of sex versus gender lies in linking the concepts of man to male and woman to female and the values assigned to them. It is beyond the scope of this paper to definitively decide what gender and sex really are, but we need to figure out some sort of definition to move forward with the discussion. To simply say that sex is biological and gender is cultural is to ignore the implications that culture has on biology and that sex has on gender and vice versa, but let us use these definitions with the understanding of their limitations.

So how do we know if someone is transsexual or transgender? The three feminist foremothers that I'm drawing from all have different views on what they are. Feinberg states right off in her book that "I'm not at odds with the fact that I was born female-bodied. Nor do I identify as an intermediate sex" (Trans Liberation, p 1). Ze (yes, ze prefers gender-neutral pronouns) goes on to explain that ze identifies as a masculine female, but also acknowledges that while this is "incendiary" it is not complex enough to fit hir (9). Bornstein says she is "what's called a transsexual person" but goes on to explain that she lives her life as something other than a man or woman (Gender Workbook, 9). Califia had at one point considered transitional surgery, but decided to embrace as much as possible her female body while at the same time as expressing a masculine gender and does not consider herself transsexual (Sex Changes, 5-6).

How do these people fit into our definitions of transsexual? If I were to have guessed, I would not have come up with the answers that they have provided for me. The point of this is that really, it is every individual's understanding of what these terms mean and how she/he/ze/etc do or do not apply to her/him/hir/etc. If we leave it up to the individual, it is scary for the rest of us, because we often have this compulsion to make sense of a person's sex and gender in a quick and simple manner. Feinberg is often asked to clarify what hir sex and gender is. Ze posits that "it seems as though everyone who questions the totality of who we are whether they despise us or admire us thinks that an answer to the question 'Are you a man or a woman?' will illuminate our identities" (Trans Liberation, 69). However, ze finds the answer more complex than just one word. The question is all about the asker, rather than the asked. It is uncomfortable for us to not know, but I think that we need to get used to the unsettling feeling of not knowing, because trans people have to deal with the discomfort of our uncertainty all the time.

Now that we (sort of) have an idea of what sex, gender, trans-, transsexual and transgender mean, let's figure out how they work within the discourse of queer studies. I had originally posited as stated above that transsexuals actually work within the discourse of gender and therefore hold up the dichotomy of man and woman. I realize now that this statement is full of value judgments. Feinberg states that ze's "heard the academic argument that transgender is a revolutionary tactic in the struggle against the patriarch, but that transsexual men and women uphold the oppressive either-or categories of man and woman" (Trans Liberation, 117). When I read this passage my own words echoed in my head and my cheeks stung with embarrassment for doing just what Feinberg says is not cool. Ze questions the validity of this argument also in that while transgenderists challenge the woman/man binary, transsexuals challenge birth sex assignments (117). By saying that transgenderists are more valuable than transsexuals in deconstructing the discourse, we place a greater value on the fluidity of gender than sex. Feinberg goes on to argue that this is not true and being transsexual or transgender "is not a tactic; these are our lives we are fighting for" (117). In this we really need to separate the effect people have on discourse from the people themselves. Transsexuals and transgenderists are shaped by the discourse (and would not exist in the same way without it) and they alter the discourse, but they themselves are not necessarily setting out to do so. Activists like Feinberg, Califia and Bornstein are working to alter the discourse on sex and gender, but they are just three people in a diverse group, many of whom are just living their lives. Their existence alters the discourse and we should not criticize their gender expression based on politics. Feinberg argues that transsexuals have a right to live as men or women just as non-transsexuals do.

Where does this all leave us in our understanding of trans? To be honest, I don't know. Though the personal is political, we can't forget about the person. Transsexuality and transgenderism is still complicated, and will be, but this is because the discourse of sex and gender is complicated. When we talk about sex and gender and try to establish what that means, it's confusing enough, but when we try to go past the established boundaries in the land of "trans-," we find ourselves on very shaky ground. Trans originates from the established discourse of sex and gender, but it goes above and beyond that, true to its name. Feinberg strives in hir book to expand the discourse to include trans on the inside rather than its outside status. Bornstein wants to do away with the discourse of gender all together. Califia wants to work within the discourse to disassociate sex from gender. I think all these goals are admirable, if not all practical, but perhaps we should look to the Chinese proverb that Feinberg quotes: "The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it" (Trans Liberation, 61). I personally prefer Feinberg's inclusion of trans into the discourse. We can create a space within the discourse for more possibilities than just male or female and woman or man and thereby allow more people to live their lives as they see fit.


Bornstein, Kate. my gender workbook. Routledge: New York, 1998.

Califia, Pat. Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism. Cleis Press: San Francisco, 1997.

Feinberg, Les. Trans Liberation: beyond pink or blue. Beacon Press: Boston, 1998.

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