“I’ve never heard the term transsexual before” This came as a surprise to me when answered by a young trans man who attended the most recent support group meeting. I asked him and the other Millennials in attendance what they thought of themselves as; transsexual or transgender. Let’s back up a bit.
When I first came out four years ago I was introduced to the concept of the ‘transgender umbrella’. Beneath the term ‘transgender’ was anyone considered to be gender variant: transsexuals, cross-dressers, genderqueers, drag kings and queens, two-spirit, and every other variation of non-traditional gender identification and expression. Intersex people had already removed themselves from this umbrella (understandably), but the rest remained comfortably sheltered. I liked the concept and have long since incorporated into my Trans 101 seminar. It looks like I need to make some updates.
“Transgender” was first coined back in the 60’s and was originally conceived as an umbrella term from the get-go. By the mid-80’s, it was already firmly established, though not without some contention as to whom, specifically, the term applied. This was a wonderful evolution from the Stonewall days when anyone not hetero-cis normative was simply labeled ‘queer’. So what’s happening now?
I’ll be honest, I’ve never particularly liked the word “transsexual”. It sounds too… well, sexual. That and it conjures up images of Dr. Frank-n-furter from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’. It may be a cinematic masterpiece, but I don’t need anyone picturing me in a leather bustier and fishnets. That isn’t good for anyone. Granted the ‘sex’ is intended to refer to physical genitalia, but unless speaking to informed clinicians, the point is lost. As a result, I and many of my Generation X irreverent generation, took to co-opting the term to mean us. It seems the media, for the most part, has jumped on the bandwagon bringing us to today where the next generation isn’t even aware of the creepy old description.
Given that transsexual and transgender have now been conflated to the point where the two terms are virtually interchangeable with the former bordering on complete extinction, I think it’s time we folded up the old Transgender Umbrella. Due to these recent changes, mainly on the part of the media, the other gender variant folks are not particularly excited to be included anymore for the most part. Cross-dressers (less those who are not yet admitting things to themselves) have no desire to undergo gender transitions. The drag performers are just that; performers comfortable with their birth gender, appearances aside. With genderqueer folks it depends who you ask, but many don’t appear particularly fond of labels anyway.
It makes sense. Decades ago when differentiation was finally being made between sexuality and gender identity, it was advantageous for the gender variant people to remain cohesive, if only for the numbers. We pretty much all look the same (at least on the feminine side of things), thus making us virtually indistinguishable from one to another with the general public. In today’s reality, however, we have very different agendas. Put us in a room together and the disparate conversations are readily apparent. One group is talking hormone coverage by insurance while another is recounting tales of near misses in being recognized. A third has strategies for making Lady Gaga look like a plain-Jane, and the forth is explaining third gender pronouns. It doesn’t mean we can’t all remain friends, hang out, and enjoy each other; just that the need to huddle under one cover from the elements no longer has urgency.
Now if only we could set some of the terminology set in stone, at least for a few weeks at a time.