When Claiming an Identity as Transgender
Some thoughts for folks with questions
Ariel Howland | 6/30/2015, 11:34 a.m.
Often when I talk to people who are questioning their gender or are confused where they fit in the gender universe, they'll express very similar concerns. Some examples are wondering if they have a right to use the word transgender to describe themselves, wondering if the word applies to them, wondering if they are trans enough, etc. So here are some things that I tell people when they are pondering this stuff and some other information everyone should know.
The modern meaning of the word transgender is an umbrella term for anyone that doesn’t fit into the gender norms of society based on their gender identity and/or gender expression who wants to claim the term. This meaning was popularized by activists as a way to build bridges between transsexuals, genderqueers (people who have a non-binary gender, no gender, a combo of male and female gender, who have a fluid gender, etc.), cross dressers, and everyone else that is gender variant in some way so that they could fight gender based oppression. Many people incorrectly assume the term is just a synonym for transsexual. Most transgender activists still use it as an umbrella term.
It is really powerful for gender-variant people to claim an identity as transgender, genderqueer, transsexual, etc. It makes other trans people feel less alone and it educates cisgender people (those who feel comfortable identifying as the gender they were assigned at birth) about what it means to be trans. It disrupts the assumption that everyone is cisgender.
There are real differences in levels of privilege in transgender communities that shouldn't be ignored. How much transphobia someone experiences or how much privilege they have doesn't determine if they are trans, only how they feel about themselves. It also doesn't matter if they want to take hormones and get surgery. Many trans people don't want to take hormones or get surgery. There isn’t one correct way to be trans. It’s also not appropriate to respond by policing people’s gender identities.
For many transgender people having their gender identity invalidated is a frequent experience. The most common way this happens is that other people assume their gender based on appearance and then use incorrect gender pronouns or gendered language. For example saying “Have a nice day miss” to a trans man invalidates his gender identity as a man. Another example is saying “She went to the store” to refer to a genderqueer person who uses “they” as a personal pronoun.
When people misgender trans people or assume what their gender is, that is a type of transphobia. A good way to avoid this is to ask “What pronouns do you prefer?” which is much preferred to asking “Are you a boy or a girl?”
For various reasons many people have an urge to engage in “gender policing.” This is when someone decides to bother, harass, or attack people because their gender expression stepped outside the expected norm. This happens to everyone but it especially impacts trans folks.
Here are some examples. When a little girl is told she can’t play soccer because it’s not ladylike. When a trans woman is told she’s in the wrong bathroom no matter what public bathroom she uses. Gender policing is a way to reject the validity of trans people’s genders and maintain the gender status quo.