Monthly Archives: January 2015

Transgender University: Transgender Defined

Published / by rmaddy / 1 Comment on Transgender University: Transgender Defined

No one grabs a dictionary for a good read in the bathtub.   I promised from the outset to carefully define my terms, but I also promised to deliver more in the way of personal perspective and experience than expertise.  If you already have solid grip on transgender vocabulary and courtesies, I genuinely recommend that you skip what follows and rejoin me next post.  Meanwhile, I will  finish defining transgender by hacking it in two.

A transplant is uprooted from one soil and repotted in another. A TransformerTM morphs from one shape to another. A transatlantic flight crosses over to Europe.1  Words are sharp objects, so we must not grasp too literally, but the general sense of trans- is that of crossing, shifting or becoming.

Gender is our internal sense of self as male, female or something else.  I plead ignorance2 about exactly how this sense arises.  Most of the time, sex (our chromosomes and naughty bits) and gender seem to line up rather nicely–so much so that the idea that they are the same thing seems to be a pretty convenient and reliable rule, which most people have never had personal cause to question.  Sometimes it takes a child.

Someone who is transgender has broken that rule; jumped the fence; blurred the borders. Piling on the cheesy metaphors, we are travellers in space, having journeyed from Venus to Mars, or vice versa. We are cheaters in the longest running game of Either This or That in history.  We challenge the third word that was ever said about us–It’s a _______!  We endanger the very fabric of society,3 yet for the moment, you can’t get enough of us.

Transgender is an adjective.  Avoid adding an -ed to the end, which would have the effect of making it a past participle.  In other words, transgender describes me rather than something that happened to me.  I am not transgendered any more than I am talled, smarted, or gorgeoused.  Neither am I a transgender any more than I am an ugly or a funny.  As an adjective, it can stand alone–Sarah is transgender–or be attached to a noun–Tom is a transgender person.  Talking about this at all is still a recent phenomenon.  I offer you the most up-to-date usage, but you might still encounter some variability.

“Transgender” is a big tent.  It describes anyone who does not fit neatly in the to boy or girl box that was assigned to them as a newborn.  Transgender people vary widely in terms of the way they see themselves and how they present themselves to the world.

If a noun is required, transgender person is preferable.  You can shorten this to transperson, but I don’t really hear this very often.  Similarly, transman refers to a female-to-male (FTM) transperson, and transwoman refers to a male-to-female (MTF) transperson (me, for example).  The easiest way to remember which is which is to keep in mind the direct of the person’s gender variance. Hipsters might even say t-guy or t-girl, but most of us are not that cool.  You can probably get away with saying “an FTM” or “an MTF” when clarification is necessary in the context of a specific conversation, but stick with “transgender person” as much as possible.

Or don’t.  Most of the time, we do away with cumbersome words and let pronouns do the heavy lifting for us.  In most situations, the fact that I am transgender is or ought to be irrelevant.  “This is my friend Renae.  She will be joining us for dinner.”   With one little word, the savvy friend dispels confusion and social tension by establishing “rules of engagement.”   Everyone is free to mentally move on to something else.

Respecting pronoun preference is one of the best things you can do to put a transgender person at ease.   Hopefully, the preferences have been clearly stated (mine are she/her), but otherwise, follow the visual cues.  A transman in a suit and tie who introduces himself as “Phil” probably does not want to be referred to as “she.”   If visual cues are not enough, asking “what pronouns do you prefer?” conveys a sincere interest in making that person comfortable.    If you’re speaking of someone not present and you don’t know the preferences, it is ok to use they/their/them.  Your seventh grade English teacher will forgive you just this once.



Transgender University: Gender Defined

Published / by rmaddy / 3 Comments on Transgender University: Gender Defined

Before I explain what it means to be transgender, I need to offer a working definition of gender itself.  The temptation to cut-and-paste from a dictionary  enormous, but I assume that you have not read this far to hear what Merriam, Webster et al1 have to say on the subject.  I remind my esteemed audience that I claim no expertise beyond being the world’s foremost authority on my own story.  For this chapter, I invite you to join me in the ER, where you find me clad in charcoal gray2 scrubs, explaining some tidbit of healthcare to a adult, whose precocious three-year old abruptly interjects:

“Are you a boy or a girl?”

Though this happens several times a year, it still manages to catch me nearly as off guard as the mortified parent, who generally undergoes an interesting color change at this point and issues a shushing that would frighten a cobra.3  Before I can mentally retrieve whatever brilliant answer I thought I had figured out last time, the poor mom or dad almost always beats me to the punch, usually informing my little inquisitor that I am a boy.  Here the curtain falls on our melodrama–within seconds the child has moved on, a shining beacon of contentment in a room befogged by an awkward question.  My response to her inquiry will have to wait.  For now, I would like to spend a few moments considering why the parent was sure, and why the child was not.

The vast majority of adults see sex and gender as synonymous, if anything assuming that gender simply a more polite and/or scientific term.  They have simply never had any personal or social experience to cause them to question whether this is always the case.  Simple answers are time savers, and most people hang on to them until there is a compelling reason to think otherwise.  The Moon goes around the Earth in a circle.  Unless you are tasked with landing a rocket on it, the answer is close enough.  Life is full of uncertainties that clamor for our attention.  At least what makes a man a man is settled business, right?

The child, in contrast, is in a constant state of exploration.  She just gained the capacity of speech within the last couple of years.  Already she is processing information furiously, seeing patterns and developing rules of thumb.  Not all of her guesses are right of course, and big people are constantly setting her straight.  She is used to it, and she values them for it.

How might my young inquisitor define gender?  She almost certainly wouldn’t use the word at all, but if she did, her definition would read almost exactly like her question, something along the lines of, “it’s if you are a boy or a girl.”  Until I walked into the room, she thought she was really good at placing people on one side or the other of that division.  Now, for the first time that she can recall, she meets someone for whom her rules of thumb do not work.  The primary difference between the parent and the child is that one has solidified their4 rules and the other is still testing them.

My forthcoming explanations of transgender identity depend on the idea that sex and gender are not interchangeable terms.  Whether or not you accept this is up to you.  When I refer to sex, I mean one’s biological form, in terms of  genitalia, genetics or both.  When I refer to gender, I mean one’s sense of self as male, female (or something else), regardless of what it is precisely that causes this sense to arise.  

I admit from the outset that I don’t know what that is, although that won’t prevent me from trying on the old Theorizing Hat next post when I pick up with what it means to be transgender.

1 Irony

2 Uff da

3 Or not.  Cobras are sensitive to ground vibrations, but they do not hear ambient noise.

4 Apparent grammatical error intentional.  More on pronouns later.

Transgender University: Introduction

Published / by rmaddy / 1 Comment on Transgender University: Introduction

I am undeniably hot.

Not, perhaps, in the sense of raw individual animal magnetism1, but rather as a member of America’s most explosively trending social phenomenon.    Cover of Time Magazine?  Done.  Ancient history by comparison, Chaz Bono didn’t just come of the closet, he leapt, and  landed on his feet.   Supermodel Andreja Pejic successfully crowd-funded an upcoming independent film autobiography after corporate interests insisted she alter her story to make it more “commercially viable”2.  Jeffrey Tambour brought down the house this week at the Golden Globes by thanking the transgender community for the privilege of being “part of change.”

Orange is the New Black?  Pshaw…transgender is the new lesbian.  Yes, in 2015, we are that cool.

That’s one side of the story.  On the other side, 99.9999% of transgender folks are not successful supermodels or blockbuster actors.  Last month, teen Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a truck because her parents refused to accept her as transgender and sent her to “reparative therapy”.  Her mom continues to mourn her as “an amazing boy”.  41% of transgender people in a 2011 survey reported having attempted suicide.  Trans people are substantially more likely to live in poverty, face divorce and experience expulsion from families and/or houses of worship3.  It is legal to fire people for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) in 29 states.  Legislation to correct this uniformly offers exemptions for religious institutions, which remain at the forefront of opposition to 14th Amendment4 protection for LGBT citizens.  Trans people are assaulted and murdered worldwide at astounding rates.  In the US, this is particularly true for transwomen of color.  One of my trans friends recently shared with me that she will be moving away from her home city after having been assaulted for the seventh time.

It is clearly too early to light the candles on the cake.  Laverne Cox, in the Time Magazine feature mentioned above, vividly remarked that society is at a tipping point regarding transgender rights.  There is much to inspire hope for the trans community, but the nature of tipping points is that shifts in either direction are still possible.  I would take Laverne one step farther–we are balancing on the edge of a knife, the business end of which, for the moment, is still pressed menacingly between our shoulder blades.

With today’s entry, I begin a series of posts intended to serve as a primer for understanding transgender people.  I am not a trained writer, but I embark cognizant of the imperative to know one’s audience, whom I will assume to consist of my friends and family, many if not most of whom are tolerant of the LGBT community, supportive of me in particular and open to learning about transgender issues and experience.  I also presume that those who have read this far do so out of at least a degree of interest.

I am plunging headlong into an arena where I have more to offer in terms of perspective than expertise.  Even there, I recognize my limitations.  “If you know one transgender person, you know one transgender person.”5  I am the metaphorical teacher who frantically reads one chapter ahead of the class.  Many others have written this story earlier and with greater clarity.  I do not recommend that you see what follows as any sort of a one-stop shop for all things transgender.6  I hope to refer you to some of the better memoirs, movies and resources as we progress.  I acknowledge the hubris in the second word of my title, which was chosen for effect, not out of delusion.

I will try to resist the temptation to lapse into jargon, will attempt to define my terms carefully, and will provide, if necessary, a glossary of terms.  I welcome your feedback on this matter.  Further, I generally invite in general your constructive criticism and non-rhetorical questions.

EDIT:  A reader (hurrah!) has already asked me to clarify  this.  I am open to genuine requests for information.  Perhaps you won’t need to ask, since it is my intent in the following posts to anticipate and answer your questions, but if I don’t cover your interest, fire away.  I only request that you refrain from inquiries that are merely veiled attempts to make a point.  Example, “Have you lost your mind?”  Yes, by the way…RMG

Finally, I realize that I am now committing the sum of my creative energies to a topic which has already captured the bulk of them, whether in my prose or poetry.  To those that wish, kindly or unkindly, that I would “just shut up about it”, I offer both genuine sympathy and validation.  I wish I could just shut up about it.  For the time, however, I cannot, and I choose not to make further attempts to hold back the tide with a spoon.  Gender dysphoria7 for me is the hiss an old-time radio–a sound which can be ignored with some effort in order to hear the broadcast, but cannot be extinguished without pulling the plug.  It has always been there, long before I understood what was making the noise.

Let me tell you about it…


1  Although if you are of this opinion, I will not forcefully argue the point.

2  Can you say, “Bad financial decision?”  Pejic also recently disclosed that she has had gender-confirmation surgery (GCS–formerly known as “sex change surgery”), after having spent years dominating both men’s and women’s fashion runways simultaneously.  My understanding is that her transition will be a major focus of the upcoming film, which I predict will launch stratospherically.

3  Fuck you, Bridgewood Church.

4  Which declares, among other things, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws (emphasis added).”

5  Generally attributed to They, of “They say” fame.

6  Particularly fetishwear.  I am way too boring for that stuff.

7  Explanation forthcoming–please bear with me.